This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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by Jim Cox © 2007
(From Radio Recall, February 2007)
Powerbrokers William S. Paley and David Sarnoff and the Competing Broadcast Empires They Fashioned
(Part one of a two part series)
They were two men with profuse similarities in their compositions who in many ways appeared evenly matched for the offices they held. At times they were linked by credible goals for their industry, bent on accomplishing the same ends. At the very same time they could be ruthless corporate rivals who were unsatisfied short of trouncing the other in the campaigns they waged.
One was RCA’s David Sarnoff, the prevailing mogul with sweeping authority over an enveloping ancillary unit, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) with its Red and Blue networks. The other was the entrepreneurial tycoon William S. Paley, chairman and a major stockholder in the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).
The pair fought tenaciously, sometimes bitterly and invariably relentlessly to win everything from small skirmishes to overt crusades. For decades theirs was a game of one-upmanship as each dug his heels in deep, committing himself and the resources at his disposal to a never-ending battle of outwitting the other. Did each man merely have increasing the goodwill and commercial interests of the forces he fronted in mind? Or was there something more to their strategically and skillfully applied skullduggery?
Both were brilliant commanders whose drive and determination far exceeded that of many of their contemporaries. The webs they fostered stimulated the lives of legions of American citizens born in multiple generations. As products of the same epoch with comparable yet contrasting goals, their chronicle is often scrutinized individually. In this treatise we assess the pair together, examining the opportunities that were theirs and what they did with them.
David Sarnoff is the classic rags-to-riches tale of a Russian emigrant Jew who, said one of his biographers, “probably affected the patterns of the daily lives of more Americans than anyone since Thomas Edison.” Sarnoff surfaced during a technological metamorphosis in the early twentieth century. Born on February 27, 1891 at Uzlian in the Russian province of Minsk, at nine he migrated to New York with his family. Arriving on July 2, 1900, the clan resided in squalor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Yet out of humble beginnings emerged an inquisitive, imaginative, incredibly bright youth possessing unbridled ambition.
Telegraphy, wireless communication and transmission of the human voice came into vogue early in his life. Perfecting them became a consuming passion with an adolescent Sarnoff. He possessed a surplus of uninhibited zeal and an insatiable desire for personal recognition. The youth accredited himself as the lone individual remaining on the air after President William H. Taft instructed wireless telegraph operators to go silent as faint distress signals from the sinking Titanic wafted across the Atlantic on April 14, 1912. Another bogus claim was that as early as 1915 he forecast the “Radio Music Box” would become a home appliance for entertainment. In reality his prediction occurred in 1920 while other visionaries offered similar prophecies. The projections proved true a short time afterward.
Sarnoff was employed throughout that era by the American Marconi Company. When General Electric arranged the purchase of American Marconi, turning it into the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Sarnoff accepted a post as commercial manager of the firm launched on December 1, 1919. Getting in on the ground floor at 28, he stood on the first rung of the ladder he ascended to the top in an organization he was to mold for the rest of his working life. Impressing superiors and peers, Sarnoff seized his opportunities. In May 1921—just 17 months after the firm’s founding—he was named RCA’s $15,000-a-year general manager. Two years later American Magazine proclaimed “David Sarnoff is conceded to have a greater all around knowledge of radio development and management than any other living man.” On January 3, 1930 at age 39 he was installed as RCA’s president. His star had reached celestial heights.
Sarnoff became something of an icon upon the formation of the National Broadcasting Company in September 1926. The watershed occasion was marked by a four-hour NBC inaugural broadcast from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Monday, November 15. A reviewer allowed: “Everyone in the great hall, everyone in the radio field, knew that the National Broadcasting Company was largely the product of his [Sarnoff’s] foresight, his planning, his obstinate advocacy of the idea…. David Sarnoff recognized the inevitability years earlier than anyone else and years before it was technically possible…. He had staked his reputation and the capital of his corporation to make nationwide broadcasting a reality.”
The characteristics shared by Sarnoff and his formidable archrival, William S. Paley, were uncanny. While the latter wasn’t born in Russia as was his opposite number, Paley’s Jewish parents were. Both were from the Ukraine. In the late 1880s while still in their teens they immigrated to the United States with their natural families. Their tribes settled in Chicago, another mega metropolis producing future leaders. The two kids wed and to their union was born Bill, their first child, on September 28, 1901. By then, incidentally, Sarnoff was already 10. While the Paleys appeared to be better off than the Sarnoffs, it would be a stretch to say they enjoyed very many of the world’s goods at that time.
Recalling those days in a memoir more than three-quarters of a century later, Paley—who often embellished personal circumstances—was loathe to disclose his early brush with hardships. His dad, at 21, was “probably a millionaire” when he opened the cigar manufacturing firm Samuel Paley & Company in 1896, Bill reported. The hovel they lived in on Chicago’s Ogden Avenue also doubled as his father’s workplace. Thus, in their childhoods, both Sarnoff and Paley knew the sting of impoverishment. Although the Paleys would join the middle class and eventually become true millionaires, it would be some years before fortune smiled on those Windy City denizens.
Earning notoriety as a playboy, early in his career a flashy Paley—eager to please his dad—was a salesman beginning in 1922 for his father’s expanding cigar concern, then profitably operating in Philadelphia. Before long the younger man was named vice-president of advertising. But he was restless, determined to secure another commercial line of work that was lucrative, glamorous and, possibly most of all, respectable. By then well-heeled, his father rescued his son.
In 1928 the senior Paley bought into the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System. It was a shaky enterprise competing—without being much of a threat—with NBC’s dual chains. A year earlier the Columbia Phonograph Company had bought a fledgling United Independent network when major rival the Victor Company merged with RCA, appreciably upping Columbia’s panic level. Columbia Phonograph lost $100,000 in its first month in radio and immediately looked for a buyer. Sam Paley and a few more investors bought Columbia out. Bill Paley was designated to run the operation. In one sweeping motion he was set for life, at 27 presiding over a corporation that was destined to become a major player in network broadcasting. The chain’s name stuck; the upstart was soon known as the Columbia network and eventually as CBS.
While there were many traits Paley shared with Sarnoff, there were several that became trademarks. Among them: (a) Paley exuded flamboyancy, put on airs and took delight in displaying his wealth and his women. He had a voracious appetite for both. While Sarnoff was also a philanderer, his affairs were private by contrast and he remained wedded to one woman throughout his life. Paley married twice, divorcing the first wife after breaking up her home with Jack Hearst, an heir to journalist magnate William Randolph Hearst’s billion-dollar fortune. Paley had numerous liaisons throughout their years together. (b) Unlike Sarnoff, who was prepared in Russian boyhood to become a rabbi, Paley usually hid his Jewishness under a bushel except on some rare occasions when he viewed its acknowledgement as potentially advancing his own purposes. (c) Paley was outwardly coarse and could be vulgar among associates and confidantes, unlike his competitor who habitually exhibited an air of refinement, or at least so publicly. Both men, however, could be evenly matched with ill tempers, ruthlessness and despotism. While Sarnoff’s fiery manner could be observed for sustained periods, Paley held his in check much of the time, cunningly awaiting a moment to strike an unsuspecting prey. While he could be as volatile as Sarnoff, he tended to give his quarry plenty of room as he awaited fateful encounters after which he lapsed into reticent solitude again.
Thus in the late 1920s two fairly young men were suddenly thrust into the role of broadcasting giants. They were the original powerbrokers in a trade that had not long existed, one relying on cutting edge technology. Taking the helm of opposing ethereal empires, those individuals’ decisions would pervasively impact American life and thought from that time forward. It was an auspicious and heady prospect. And it was soon obvious that both relished the chance to occupy the catbird seat in their respective establishments.
“In the beginning there were few in the NBC offices who took his [Paley’s] Columbia Broadcasting System seriously—proof that they had not yet taken the measure of the youthful millionaire’s business talents,” noted one observer. Yet, by the close of the Second World War, organized opposition was mounting to RCA’s intent to be at the forefront of television engineering and production. The same source affirmed: “The assault was spearheaded by the Columbia Broadcasting System, with Zenith covering the flanks; which spelled command respectively by William S. Paley and Commander Eugene McDonald, two of the shrewdest and boldest strategists in the radio business. Sarnoff had a healthy respect for their abilities.” In the span of a few years NBC considered CBS a worthy opponent, highly competitive and potentially threatening to the possibilities it saw for itself as the dominant player in a budding mass medium.
For a couple of decades it had been visibly clear to the professionals in the trade that one of the most markedly distinguishing factors separating the two mavericks rested in Sarnoff’s zealous plans from NBC’s inception to enter television. He was convinced as early as 1923 that video would be the next great step in mass communication. By 1928 he established a trial TV station and—after 11 years of experiments— displayed the embryonic medium to curious onlookers during the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Two years beyond he was on the air in Gotham with WNBT, one of the nation’s first commercial TV stations. The war temporarily halted expansion but permitted time to work out some kinks and refine RCA’s business plan.
For his contributions, including commitment of large sums of RCA money without any recompense since 1928, the Television Broadcasters Association cited Sarnoff in 1944 as the “Father of American Television.” It was a title he wore proudly. He had earned another during the war that he liked even more. He was a communications consultant to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower then. Ike bestowed Sarnoff with the status of brigadier general. Henceforth Sarnoff resolutely was greeted with the salutation “General” by staffers in the RCA building.
One of Paley’s many coincidences with Sarnoff was that he, too, was on Eisenhower’s staff during the war. He was deputy chief of the psychological warfare branch, a rather difficult-to-define task. But there was no mistaking one defining attribute: of the two broadcasting giants, Paley was unequivocally considered the radio man. He wasn’t demonstrably anxious to exploit the wealth of a healthy aural web to finance the costly prospects of newer technology, clinging to his passion past mid century. Both men returned from World War II to pursue opposing obsessions, in fact. Paley intended to master his chain’s fate by controlling radio programming; after years of imagination and experimentation, Sarnoff planned to turn TV into widespread reality.
Continued in our next issue - click here for Part Two.
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