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Erik Barnouw, 93, Columbia Professor and Legendary Media Historian

Erik Barnouw, a former Columbia University professor and radio and television pioneer, died on July 19th at the age of 93. While making significant contributions to the broadcasting industry, Barnouw gained a reputation as a scholarly crtic of his profession.

He came to Columbia in 1946, following a successful pre-war career in radio, working for CBS and NBC. During his tenure at Columbia he organized the Film Division in the School of the Arts and served as department chair until 1968. He also served as editor for the Columbia Center for Mass Communication, and remained a faculty member until 1973.

While at Columbia Barnouw continued his work in the field of broadcasting. In 1944 he won the Peabody Award for a documentary radio series entitled "Words At War." He was elected chairman of the Writers' Guild of America in 1957 and also served on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Barnouw also established himself as a preeminent historian of broadcasting. His most famous academic work was a three volume history of broadcasting in America. He won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for the last volume, "The Image Empire," in 1971.

According to the L.A. Times, despite his professional involvements, Barnouw maintained an academic integrity that allowed him to offer serious critique and insight into the broadcasting industry. He criticized advertisers for exerting too much influence on broadcast programming in his book "The Sponser: Notes on a Modern Potentate."

The L.A. Times also noted that, in 1970, Barnouw shook the industry with his documentary "Hiroshima/Nagasaki, August 1945," which portrayed the human devastation, not the typical physical destruction of cities, in the wake of the atomic bomb. The images, taken from Japanese newsreels which had been kept under seal by the U.S. Army until the 1960s, shocked American audiences. For the most part the public had not yet viewed scenes of Japanese doctors treating the victims of burns radiation diesease.

Barnouw's career was marked by creativity, integrity, insight, and a love of broadcasting. The New York Times, quoting his former editor Sheldon Mayer, wrote, "....He loved it (broadcasting) in a way. But he had an eye for the scoundrels, and the fakes, and the dangerous people." His genius reached generations of Americans across the radio airwaves,on the television screen and in the classroom.

Published: Jul 25, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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