Forget all those blubbery salutes to the ”golden age” of radio; filmmaker Ken Burns, the man who gave us The Civil War, has come up with a history of American radio that’s crisp, hard-headed, and even, it must be said,a little dull. For Burns, the men who made radio in this century’s first two decades were: Lee de Forest, who invented the radio tube but didn’t know what to do with it; Edwin Howard Armstrong, who used de Forest’s tube to develop the radio circuitry that transmitted sounds; and David Sarnoff, who brought these inventions to the marketplace as the head of RCA. Each man is given a full biographical sketch, and that’s the main problem with Empire of the Air — these life stories aren’t all that interesting, and their details keep dovetailing, circling around each other, until the documentary becomes confusing and a bit aimless.
As he did in The Civil War, Burns offers firsthand reminiscences from experts ranging from pioneer radio writer-producer Norman Corwin to the great sports-caster Red Barber; visuals are provided by vintage photographs and film footage of radio’s earliest era. Burns’ underlying theme is a great one: He wants to explore the ways that brilliant men like Sarnoff, de Forest, and Armstrong could be denied the full credit they were due as inventors because their creations were almost immediately co-opted by big corporations. Whether you’ll stick around through Empire of the Air to watch Burns develop that theme is another story. B