In 1921, after just two years on the job with recently formed Radio Corp. of America, a hard-driving, 30-year-old executive named David Sarnoff came up with an idea to sell more radios. Why not look beyond local markets and send out news, entertainment, and sports -- what today's media moguls would call "content" -- to a national audience? That July, RCA broadcast a prize fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier from Jersey City, and it was heard by listeners as far away as western Pennsylvania. The response from the audience to that fight was enthusiastic, and radio sales took off as broadcasts' reach grew. Sarnoff became RCA's president nine years later and its chairman in 1949.
The first to envision electronic mass media, Sarnoff created national networks -- in radio and then in television -- that he believed served a higher purpose. They connected citizens across the vast country through nationwide broadcasts of political conventions, opera performances, and new comedy stars such as Jack Benny, George Burns, and Gracie Allen. The notion of exploiting new technologies to deliver programs to an aggregated audience and selling advertising against it has been a pillar of the media business ever since. First with RCA's National Broadcasting Co. and then with others, the networks' influence on culture and public opinion has been profound.
Sarnoff was neither a technologist nor a marketing whiz. He got his training in management mostly on the job. But through remarkable vision, he "industrialized electronic innovation, made sure that it worked and that there was a standard for it," says Alexander B. Magoun, executive director of the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton, N.J.
By 1930, Sarnoff and a team of RCA researchers began developing electronic video to marry with broadcast sound using an experimental TV station. Through the early years of TV, Sarnoff squared off against CBS magnate William Paley (both networks began regular TV broadcasts in 1939), and the intense rivalry led to all kinds of innovations in programming and in TV sets themselves. Under Sarnoff's leadership at RCA, the company began selling its first color TVs in the spring of 1954.
The world might never have known The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, or Seinfeld if the onetime rabbinical student had stayed in his native village of Uzlian, near the western provincial capital, Minsk, in czarist Russia. His family emigrated to New York, and the 9-year-old Sarnoff sold newspapers to help out. He eventually landed a job as an office boy at Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Co. of America. Sarnoff was one of the first operators to confirm the Apr. 14, 1912, sinking of the Titanic a day after it went down. Seven years later, General Electric Co. (GE
) bought the U.S. arm of Marconi, and it became RCA. So began Sarnoff's ascendancy.
"The General," as he liked to be called in the years after rising to brigadier general during World War II, could indeed be dictatorial. Ruling from his 53rd-floor office in the RCA building in Rockefeller Center, Sarnoff worked nearly until his death in 1971. Today, a Sarnoff-like rollout of technology, through digital cable, personal video recorders, and wireless devices is fragmenting the very mass media the General helped to create. By Tom Lowry