Tech fans of a certain age will remember the letters RCA and how dominant the company once was.
RCA, originally known as the Radio Corp. of America, was the firm that 100 years ago helped give birth to radio, and later paved the way for television, broadcasting, and recorded music. Back in the day it also popularized VCRs.
And while today RCA is a shell of its former self, alive only as a trademark that’s available for licensing, it’s good to remember that “the technology invented back then still exists today,” says Tim Sarnoff. He’s the grandson of the founder, David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant who came to America in 1900 and changed our communication methods forever.
RCA TV (Photo: RCA)
“My grandfather looked into the future and made it happen,” says Tim Sarnoff, the deputy CEO of Technicolor, the Hollywood company that owns the RCA trademark. “All the fundamentals were created by RCA.”
David Sarnoff worked at the Marconi Wireless firm, an early pioneer in telegrams. RCA bought the company, and Sarnoff moved with it, encouraging RCA to explore the new technology of radio. This led to the creation of radio stations, then the red and blue TV networks, which became NBC and ABC. RCA also owned Hertz Rent-a-Car, Banquet frozen foods and the Random House publishing company.
Today we live in a different world from David Sarnoff’s era where television is all about on-demand programming, via streaming or time-shifted viewing.
Tom Sarnoff, David’s 92 year-old son, says David would “be impressed,” with the changes, “How the world is now all together was his dream. He wanted to connect everyone, particularly on the news and information side.”
Tom tells of how news was delivered during David’s childhood. Either by newspapers, or by walking to the nearby town to spread the word. “So by the time you got there, the news was a day old.” Radio, he adds, “brought the world to everyone’s living room.”
RCA was originally owned by General Electric, which divested the company in the 1930s, and then re-acquired it in 1986 for $6.2 billion.
GE went on to sell off the various divisions, including RCA Records, which had been home to Elvis Presley, David Bowie and the Jefferson Airplane, as well as TV and radio manufacturing.
RCA Records today is currently owned by Sony, and features such artists as Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys. NBC is today owned by the Comcast Corporation, home to the largest cable TV operation, Universal Studios and the theme park.
Unlike the internet millionaires of today, the Sarnoff family “lived comfortably, but we weren’t billionaires,” says Tim Sarnoff. “We didn’t lack for anything.”
According to a 1971 New York Times obit, David Sarnoff was paid a $200,000 a year salary during his reign, and was a large stockholder., He apparently didn’t have enough stock to endow his heirs with internet like multi millions.
Today, many people don’t realize how important RCA was to the music we listen to, TV shows we watch and radio stations we call into.
“It’s kind of depressing,” admits Tom. “When I was growing up, RCA dominated TV and radio. Everybody knew what RCA was. Today you’d find very few people who knew what RCA was.”
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