|| A Business Forum Book Review:
A Life in Sound,
early four decades will pass before The New York Times’ comments that “the success of the new Tokyo concert halls can be seen as a vindication for Dr. Leo L. Beranek, who received years of negative publicity after the 1962 opening of New York's Philharmonic Hall.” A redemption more than a vindication, perhaps, but I'll take it anyway.
“Why begin my memoir with a tale of colossal failure? Certainly, because it stands out in my memory. But, more important, because I learned much from this failure — in particular, it gave me a chance to pause, to reflect, to sort things out, to regain confidence, and to acquire new perspectives.”
Presented in the Prologue, this startlingly candid confession of failure defines Leo Beranek. His noteworthy careers with Bolt, Beranek & Newman (BBN, Inc.), the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the reincarnation of Channel 5 (WCVB-TV) in Boston have made Leo Beranek an American legend. This discerning memoir is the faithful record of failures as well as extraordinary successes. Significantly, it is a sensitive portrayal of his family's strong impact upon his prolific career.
The true scientist encounters failure much more often than success. Failure is not defeat. The essence of scientific discovery is continually learning through failure. [The writer’s assured undergraduate aphorism “We learn by doing” was corrected by a colleague of Dr. Beranek’s, “We learn by thinking about what we are doing.” This is the rich story of many failures invariably offering opportunities to re-state and/or re-examine the question or problem. Of course, this was demonstrated abundantly in his primary scientific field of electro-acoustics, but it equally characterizes his parallel careers in music/philanthropy (Boston Symphony Orchestra) and business (Channel 5 [WCVB-TV] in Boston).
A farm boy born in 1914 in Solon, Iowa, Beranek became a Renaissance man — scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, musician, television executive, philanthropist, and author. His seventy-year career has led him to scientific and cultural achievements through the most tumultuous and transformative years of the last century. As an always-inquisitive teenager in the late 1920s and ’30s, he developed outstanding skills as a radio and communications technician (self-educated). Prior to completing his senior year at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, a chance encounter Friday evening, August 16, 1935, totally re-directed his life. “I was strolling along Main Street [in Mount Vernon] when I came across a Cadillac with Massachusetts plates standing at the curb with a flat tire. Beside it was a well-dressed man looking glum. When I asked him if I could help he jumped at the offer. As I worked away with the jack and lug nuts, we engaged in a friendly exchange. I told him that I was between my junior and senior years at nearby Cornell College and how I wanted to go to graduate school, but could not afford to unless I were to obtain a scholarship. He asked me about my majors and my grades. I cheerfully answered and said that I was planning to submit scholarship requests to the University of Iowa and to the universities in the states surrounding Iowa.
“At the mention of my work as a radio repairman, he perked right up. ‘Radio is my business,’ he said. He asked for my name, and after responding, I asked for his. ‘You are Glenn Browning?’ I blurted out. ‘I just read one of your papers on the Browning Tuner in Radio News this morning in the library.’ Suddenly I had a new friend. He wanted to know if I had considered going to Harvard University. ‘No,’ I said, and then — before I could catch myself — ‘that’s a rich man’s school.’ Smiling, he informed me that Harvard had more scholarship money to offer than any of the schools I had named.” Glenn Browning's persuasive letters of recommendation led to his being subsequently awarded a coveted Gordon McKay Scholarship for study in the Graduate School of Engineering at Harvard University during the academic year 1936 — 37. The rest is history.
This illuminating memoir describes Beranek’s pioneering work in electro-acoustics at Harvard (Director of the Electro-Acoustic Laboratory), and subsequently as professor and Technical Director of the Acoustics Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He had extensive research contracts with the military during World War II; some of this work later produced the world’s largest muffler to quiet jet engine noise. A little-known adventure was his invention of the Hush-A-Phone — a telephone accessory that began the chain of regulatory challenges and lawsuits that contributed ultimately to the breakup of the Bell Telephone monopoly in the 1980s.
Beranek joined forces with Richard Bolt (physicist) and Robert Newman (architect) at MIT to form Bolt Beranek & Newman (BBN, Inc.) — an internationally respected acoustics consulting and research organization. Beranek eventually resigned his tenured faculty position at MIT in 1958 to work full-time with BBN; an interesting link is his teaching responsibilities were then assumed by his colleague and good friend, Amar Bose, — founder of the Bose Corporation and developer of the popular “wave systems” and related advances in listening technology. BBN’s research and development work ranged far beyond acoustics; e.g., as the firm's president, he assembled the software group under a DOD contract that invented both the ARPANET (the forerunner of the Internet) and email.
The acoustical design of concert halls all over the world is the center of his work. The beloved Koussevitzky Music Shed at the Tanglewood Music Center (Boston Symphony Orchestra) was an early (1959) and challenging achievement now renowned for its perfect acoustics both within the Shed and on the popular Lawn. More recently (1990s), the extensive New National Theater (NNT) project in Tokyo encompassing the Opera House, Concert Hall, and Drama Theater can be called the pinnacle of his distinguished professional career. Concert Halls and Opera Houses: Music, Acoustics, and Architecture (Springer-New York Verlag, 2003) is the definitive summation of his “varied experiences working on concert halls and opera houses over the years.”
Another noteworthy career has been Beranek’s selfless service with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Beginning with his appointment to the Board of Overseers in 1968, he eventually was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees (1983-1986), and spearheaded the Orchestra's very successful BSO-100 Fund and Centennial Celebration. Subsequently, he also served five years as the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Similarly, a critical part of this demanding job was restoring the Academy to sound financial health.
Not surprisingly, Beranek may be best known to many people because of the almost-interminable acquisition of Channel 5 (WCVB-TV) in Boston, a task undertaken primarily to revolutionize the quality of network television in New England. This ten-year (1962-1972) gut-wrenching saga to acquire the broadcast license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was the longest administrative law case in history with eventual resolution being at the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. A well-deserved accolade appeared in a full-page 1981 article in the New York Times under the headline “Some Say This Is America’s Best TV Station.” Many might smile that this was a long way from Harvard’s Electro-Acoustic Laboratory. (Channel 5 was sold in 1982 to Metromedia for the highest price ever paid up to that time for a broadcast station.)
In conclusion, Leo Beranek observes, “One central lesson I’ve learned is the value of risk-taking and of moving on when risks turn into busts or odds look better elsewhere.”
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