Michael Socolow

Year of Graduation: 
Michael Socolow, Exeter class of 1987

"The opportunity to take classes with people who really are passionate about their work was transformative.”

Media and the Nazi Olympics

Michael J. Socolow's new book marries three of his life’s greatest passions: history, media and rowing.

Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics recounts the underdog tale of the University of Washington crew team, which upset every Ivy League crew to qualify for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, and then rallied from behind to capture gold against strong German (bronze) and Italian (silver) crews in the eights.

The emergence of new radio technologies allowed a global audience to experience that dramatic event in real time on CBS, forever transforming the media landscape and the way people receive and consume information.

“It was really the world’s first great global broadcasting event,” says Socolow ’87, a professor at the University of Maine and a media historian whose research focuses on America’s original radio networks during the 1920s and 1930s. “There had never been 300 million people listening to the same broadcast, live at the same time, before the Berlin Olympics. It created this kind of new, electric, ephemeral celebrity that we see often now.”

While Jesse Owens and the Huskies crew became what Socolow calls “insta-Olympic stars,” advances in microphone technology, new types of network circuitry and new types of shortwave transmitters provided the perfect vehicle for Adolf Hitler to export his vision of Nazi Germany to the world.

“The Olympics were the greatest advertisement for what was called ‘The New Germany’ that was ever put together,” Socolow says. “What the Nazi propagandists understood, which the American radio networks did not, was the effectiveness of the technology of propaganda, more so than the actual content. By building this incredible radio plan for the Olympics, they insured their message got out no matter what happened.”

Socolow sees contemporary parallels.

“Propagandists today spreading ‘fake news’ understand the new technology of distribution and how to exploit it — in some ways better than American media executives,” he says.

Socolow rowed for two years at Exeter before embarking on a School Year Abroad program, and he picked up the sport again at Columbia University. One day, while doing research for his doctorate in history at Georgetown, he came across the story of the Washington rowers at the Library of Congress.

“It is such a dramatic gold medal,” says Socolow, lapsing into the present tense, which makes the race feel all the more palpable. “It is like the 1980 Miracle On Ice. It is like Mary Lou Retton’s gold. It’s the classic come-from-behind story, but this one is different in that it actually happens 6,000 miles from home in front of 100,000 Germans and swastikas and Hitler, all rooting for the other team.”

Socolow is a former broadcast journalist who has worked as an assignment editor for CNN and as a freelance information manager for the host broadcast organizations at the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Olympics.

His scholarship on media history has appeared in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, The Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media and Technology and Culture. His articles have appeared in Slate, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

He traces his love of writing to his Exeter days.

“The Exeter English and History departments when I was a student were incredible,” he says. “I was inspired by so many outstanding writer/teachers with whom I got to interact. … The opportunity to take classes with people who really are passionate about their work was transformative.”

So was this book, which Socolow labels a true labor of love. “It was rewarding and cathartic to be able to write about three things I really love studying,” he says.

– Craig Morgan '84

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the winter 2017 edition of The Exeter Bulletin.