David Sarnoff, known in his later years as General Sarnoff, was for nearly five decades the leader of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Although Sarnoff did not found these companies, his role in them, as much as any single individual’s could, shaped the development of the technology and the form of broadcasting, first in radio and then in television. He foresaw the development of radio broadcasting, helped create and then ran the first national radio broadcasting company, and pushed for the development of television, which in the last half of the 20th century was the dominant form of media.
The son of impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants, Sarnoff began his career in the new field of electronic communication almost by accident. His rise from messenger and office boy to head of a major equipment manufacturer and the first national broadcast corporation and later one of the most dominant companies in the industry by the time he was 40 took the form of a stereotypical Horatio Alger story in which a poor boy by a combination of intelligence, pluck, and cultivating the right people succeeds beyond his wildest dreams (overcoming ethnic prejudice along the way). Sarnoff often embellished his legend with some artful embroidery, but its outlines are true.
Wireless telegraphy was just about as old as David Sarnoff. Guglielmo Marconi filed the first patents for his apparatus to transmit signals wirelessly in 1896 in Britain and established the Marconi Company to market its products and services; Marconi was just 21. By 1901, Marconi had succeeded in sending signals across the Atlantic and wireless became a technological sensation, with others entering the field and trying to beat Marconi in technical improvements and new applications. At the age of 15, David Sarnoff, who had been selling newspapers on the streets of New York City to help support his impoverished immigrant family, was hired by the American branch of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company as an office boy. He rose in the organization, in his own estimation, by combining dedication, initiative, and efficiency; he also had a way of charming people in power, such as Marconi himself and Marconi’s American deputies. By the age of 19, Sarnoff was overseeing the company’s transmission operations; by his early twenties, he was commercial manager. After World War I, when the Marconi Company was taken over by General Electric in a government-backed move to monopolize wireless technology under the control of an American company, Sarnoff moved into the newly formed RCA, which GE created.
In the turbulent decade that followed, radio broadcasting emerged as the dominant use for wireless communication, replacing the point-to-point telegraphy that Marconi had pioneered, and Sarnoff, as general manager of RCA, became the key person in the organization overseeing its development. As early as 1915, Sarnoff may have recommended to his employers that “radio music boxes,” devices that the general public could purchase for their homes to receive broadcasts of music, drama, and important public events, would be the wave of the future (historians have questioned whether Sarnoff had made this proposal as early as 1915; recent research seems to support his claim). By the early 1920s, others had been pursuing the same idea and, in fact, beat RCA to market. However, given the complex technology covered by various patents controlled by RCA, the company was able to co-opt would-be competitors (like American Telephone and Telegraph and Westinghouse) into joining them as partners. Sarnoff was in charge of negotiating these agreements and gained a reputation for hard bargaining and an abrasive manner; some both inside and outside RCA bridled at dealing with him, and he suspected that they did not like the fact that he was Jewish. When RCA’s fortunes almost foundered when AT&T, the phone monopoly, attempted to monopolize commercial broadcasting, which it pioneered, and compete in building receiving equipment, and when simultaneously the government began to respond to complaints that RCA was engaged in illegal monopolistic practices, Sarnoff engineered a settlement that reorganized the company, eliminated AT&T as a threat, fended off the government suit, and led to the formation of the NBC as the broadcast arm of RCA. Soon after, again with Sarnoff in the lead, RCA acquired the Victor Talking Machine Company and formed RCA Victor, manufacturing phonographs and producing records with their distinctive logo of Nipper the dog listening to “His Master’s Voice” over a loudspeaker.
By 1930, just short of his 40th birthday, Sarnoff was made president of the joint RCA/NBC. He oversaw the move of the company into the new Rockefeller Center (also known as Radio City, with the RCA name as the only corporate logo emblazoned on its main building). In the face of another threat of government antitrust action, he negotiated a restructuring of RCA that left the company independent of its founding partners. During all this, as the company grew to dominate broadcasting (it had a rival in the upstart Columbia Broadcasting System [CBS] but its two national networks, the Red and the Blue, and its programs led by the popular Amos ‘n’ Andy gave it an unmatched reach), Sarnoff focused his energies as well on the development of television, which he believed was the natural extension of radio and its natural successor (he forecast its development as early as 1923). He hired Vladimir Zworykin and put him in charge of developments and supported him in his protracted struggle with Philo Farnsworth for patent priority (Farnsworth eventually won and his was the only patent that RCA was forced to pay royalties for; see entry on Farnsworth). Zworykin thought that a budget of $100,000 and one or two years would be enough to perfect his system of transmitting images, but it took many more years and much more money ($50 million) before Sarnoff launched NBC Television with a demonstration at the fabled New York World’s Fair of 1939.
Sarnoff’s efforts were not restricted to doling out money and acquiring technology. He was a keen fighter in the political arena, fending off rivals and maneuvering to achieve dominance for RCA’s TV system in the new environment of government regulation ushered in by the formation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934, replacing the Federal Radio Commission. He struggled with Edwin Armstrong over the development of FM broadcasting until television was nearly ready to be launched (FM and television use the same part of the spectrum for transmission). The legal fallout from this 15-year dispute destroyed what was once a close friendship (see entry on Armstrong). He prevailed in the struggle to define the standards for television broadcasting (the NTSC standard of 525 lines at 30 frames a second adopted by the FCC was closest to RCA’s system). Equally intense and long running was the battle over the development of a system of color transmission (even before major broadcasting began in black and white) with NBC’s archrival CBS. Focused on bringing black-and-white TV to market, RCA lagged in developing a color system, and CBS’s system, using what Sarnoff considered a technically outmoded mechanical scanning technology that was incompatible with black-and-white transmission, gained initial favor with the FCC. After an all-out effort harnessing of RCA’s research arm to develop a compatible system that could supplant CBS’s and a parallel intense lobbying effort on RCA’s part, the FCC eventually chose RCA’s system as the standard for the industry, but the battle over standards for color transmission delayed the widespread penetration of color TV sets until well into the 1960s. According to historian Eric Barnouw, RCA/NBC (i.e., Sarnoff) generally prevailed at the FCC, although it did suffer occasional setbacks, such as when the commission forced the company to divest itself of one of its networks in the early 1940s or when the commission twice delayed its decision on TV broadcasting standards, thus blocking the expansion of TV broadcasting in the early and late 1940s. Coincidentally, or not, as Barnouw notes, many FCC commissioners and staff members responsible for the decisions in favor of RCA joined the company after they left the commission.
In his maturity, Sarnoff was a formidable figure, according to Kenneth Bilby, Sarnoff’s biographer who worked for RCA for many years. Standing perhaps 5’8” and portly, Sarnoff demanded absolute dedication, commitment, and loyalty to the company from his employees. He himself was the role model, working tirelessly on all aspects of the company’s business, eschewing vacations and leisure activities; while he lived an affluent lifestyle, his was modest in comparison to many of his media peers (while his income was large by the standards of his day, he was not among the superwealthy). He married early, remained married to the same woman for the rest of his life, and raised three sons. (There were rumors that like his mentor Marconi he had a penchant for discrete romantic liaisons.) According to Bilby, he was a mixture of self-deprecation and inflated ego. His humble beginnings were often a source of embarrassment to him as well as a source of pride, but he also had a penchant for embroidering his life story, most famously his role in spreading the news about the Titanic disaster in 1912 when he was a telegraph clerk. He claimed to be the first shore-bound wireless operator to hear the news of the Titanic’s sinking from signals picked up from a Marconi operator on a ship 58 miles away from the doomed vessel and that he single-handedly sat at his telegraph station on the roof of a downtown New York department store for the next three days relaying as much information as he could glean, while other operators were ordered to shut down their transmitters by President Taft to prevent interference. Recent historians reviewing contemporary accounts have cast considerable doubt on Sarnoff’s narrative. During World War II, he was awarded the rank of brigadier general in the Signal Corps for his service establishing a major communication system to support the D-Day operation; he subsequently spent several years fruitlessly attempting to obtain a promotion to major general (he suspected that his rejection was the result of anti-Semitism). From then on, he let it be known that he preferred to be called General and he bridled when newspapers referred to him as “Mr. Sarnoff.”
In the postwar period, Sarnoff remained RCA/NBC’s key player even as others, including his son, Robert, nominally took over the day-to-day management. The company’s fortunes were mixed. Although the company was successful in beating CBS in the color TV war, the smaller rival outplayed it in the entertainment sector, luring away many of NBC’s big stars with lucrative financial packages. Sarnoff himself had less interest in the content side of broadcasting than in its technology, according to Bilby; he once jokingly told his mother that he was in the plumbing business, although his greatest achievement as a broadcaster in his own estimation was his providing a broadcast home for the distinguished conductor Arturo Toscanini. (Sarnoff initially was antipathetic to commercial broadcasting and remained uncomfortable about it for the rest of his career; he would have preferred something closer to the public broadcasting model adopted in Great Britain.) CBS bested RCA in the development of long playing records although RCA had experimented with the 331/3 rpm format in the 1930s; the company found a niche for its 45 rpm format. RCA’s research arm—the David Sarnoff Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey—was innovative, perfecting older technologies as well as developing new ones including computer hardware, but developments in silicon technologies and rising competition from Japanese manufacturers would eventually end RCA’s technical hegemony. In the conglomerate boom of the 1960s and 1970s, a series of acquisitions of companies in nonrelated fields (book publishing, washing machine manufacturing, food processing, car rentals) left the company vulnerable. The company was set back by frequent changes in management. Sarnoff died in 1971 after a three-year illness triggered by an attack of shingles. The empire he dominated unraveled after his death. In 1986, although recovering from business setbacks and regaining some dominance in TV ratings, the company, in a back-to-the-future event, was acquired by General Electric, its originator, for $6.3 billion. GE sold off parts of the company (RCA manufacturing was sold to a French company), but it kept NBC, and the RCA Building was rechristened the GE Building. In the recent past, NBC, for many years the ratings leader in TV prime time, but now a lagging player in the field, merged with Vivendi Universal and branched into cable TV, and in late 2009, GE sold a majority stake in NBC Universal to the cable giant Comcast.
Barnouw, Eric. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2nd Revised Ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Bilby, Kenneth. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry. New York, Cambridge, and London: Harper & Row, 1986.
Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting 1899–1922. Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Lewis, Tom. Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.
“Sarnoff, David: U.S. Media Executive.” Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=sarnoffdavi .