Sydney W. Head (1913-1991): Remembering the Founder of Modern Broadcasting Studies

By Sterling, Christopher H.; Bertrand, Claude-Jean et al. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Sydney W. Head (1913-1991): Remembering the Founder of Modern Broadcasting Studies


Sterling, Christopher H., Bertrand, Claude-Jean, Boyd, Douglas, Browne, Donald R., Eastman, Susan Tyler, Harwood, Kenneth, Hayden, Rebecca, Kittross, John Michael, Schofield, Lemuel B., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


More than any other single individual, Sydney W. Head created the modern academic field of electronic media teaching and research. Although many others wrote earlier textbooks or undertook important research, Head's (1956) Broadcasting in America provided a broader and lasting scholarly basis for the analysis of radio and television's development and impact. It appeared in the midst of his 1955 to 1957 term as the first president of the new Association for Professional Broadcasting Education (APBE), predecessor of today's Broadcast Education Association (BEA). His landmark book, which went through nine editions over 4 decades, was later joined by Head's other pathbreaking books in broadcast programming and international broadcasting.

An Active Life

Sydney Warren Head, the elder of two sons of Albert and Catherine Riley Head, was born in London on October 9, 1913. The family emigrated to the United States in 1920, and Head grew up and attended schools in Springville (outside of Sacramento) and then Palo Alto, California, where he graduated from high school. For 2 years he attended what is now San Jose State University. For a time during the depression of the 1930s, Head worked (first on a road crew and then as a fire lookout) in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal agency providing outdoor employment for young men.

A family friend financed his further education, and Head took both his undergraduate (1936) and master's (1937) degrees in theater at Stanford University. He began his long fascination with acting with the newly founded Palo Alto Community Theatre in 1933 and became lifelong friends with the director and his musician and choreographer wife. His M.A. thesis offered a textual history of Shakespeare's Henry IV (comparing the Quarto of 1600 with the Folio of 1623). After serving as technical director of the University of Colorado's theater in 1937-1938, Head took up duties teaching English, speech, and drama at the University of Miami in 1938, where he soon developed the school's first courses in radio broadcasting. Deciding to pursue an academic career, he began working toward a Ph.D. in theater and broadcasting at the University of Iowa in 1941-1942, but further study was interrupted by the coming of war.

Beginning in the fall of 1942, Head was trained as an Army enlisted signals intelligence specialist, based in Washington, DC. As he already understood German, he studied Serbo-Croatian and Japanese, eventually doing top-secret traffic analysis of enemy radio communications. In April 1945 he shipped out from Seattle to Honolulu on a ghastly troopship voyage (his vivid description of this trip survives). Later that year Head returned to his theatrical experience, serving as a director and actor with the Maurice Evans "soldier show" unit into early 1946, when he left the Army as a staff sergeant.

Head returned to the University of Miami to found one of the country's first freestanding departments of broadcasting in 1946, serving as well as director of broadcasting and film services for the university. He managed to find time to continue with some acting on the side. His teaching duties helped to focus his doctoral work and in 1952 he was granted his Ph.D. in mass communications at New York University, with a dissertation (under the supervision of Professor Charles A. Siepmann) on "Television and Social Norms: An Analysis of the Social Content of a Sample of Television Dramas." An article drawn from it--his first broadcasting-related publication--appeared in The Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television (Head, 1954).

Head continued his administrative and teaching duties at the University of Miami until 1960 when he was named to head a National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) three-man team studying the role and potential of educational radio services in the Sudan from 1961 to 1963, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Under a series of different grants and agencies (including a Fulbright award), Head remained in Africa for the rest of the decade, spending most of his time in Ethiopia, with some periods in Somalia, the Sudan, and Ghana. …

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