Sidney Harman, 1918–2011

The hi-fi guru who saved Newsweek

Sidney Harman made his name in the 1950s as the inventor of the first integrated hi-fi system, but his ambitions always transcended sound engineering. A prodigiously well-read man who could recite Shakespearean soliloquies by heart, Harman made his mark in industry and politics before taking on an unexpected and quixotic role as the owner of Newsweek.

Born in Montreal in 1918, Harman grew up in New York City as the son of a hearing-aid salesman and earned a physics degree at City College of New York. While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he developed a “sonic-deception” broadcasting machine deployed to confuse the enemy at the Battle of the Bulge and in the Pacific.

After returning from the war, Harman teamed up with fellow engineer Bernard Kardon to develop a high-fidelity sound system for the home, said The Wall Street Journal. With $10,000 in capital, the pair designed a prototype in a wood-paneled case that set it apart from the “jumble of electronics that audio hobbyists had previously relied on.” Retailers were hooked by both the machine’s design and its astonishing sound. “We knocked the hell out of them; they were trembling with Shostakovich’s Fifth,” Harman once recalled. “Nobody had heard anything like that in his living room.”

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Having made “high-fidelity sound part of American life,” said the London Guardian, Harman set about turning his fledgling company into an “influential conglomerate” in the world of audio technology. Harman International Industries made everything from speakers, amplifiers, and home-theater systems to voice-activated telephones, GPS systems, and climate controls.

Harman launched a groundbreaking employee-benefits program known as the Bolivar Experiment, named after a small plant in Bolivar, Tenn., which aimed to improve the lives of working-class employees, said the Los Angeles Times. Workers could “earn idle time by producing their quotas faster and go home earlier.” Harman set up an on-site school and a day-care center, and allowed the mostly African-American workers to publish their own uncensored newspaper. The policy is still taught in business schools as a case study for employer-worker relations.

Harman’s commitment to labor relations caught the eye of President Jimmy Carter, who appointed him deputy commerce secretary in 1977, said the Chicago Tribune. It was while working at the White House that Harman met Jane Lakes, then a Carter administration staffer. The two married in 1980, and Jane Harman went on to become a nine-term congresswoman for California. After his own stint in government, Harman returned to his former company, building it into a multibillion-dollar business before finally retiring, in 2008.

But he wasn’t through. Two days before his 92nd birthday, in August 2010, Harman made a “late-in-life splash,” said The New York Times, by purchasing Newsweek despite having “virtually no media experience.” Harman bought the troubled weekly from The Washington Post Co. for the token sum of $1, assuming around $47 million in liabilities, and quickly attempted to reinvent it through a merger with Tina Brown’s “sassy” news website Critics labeled the move “noble but impractical,” and the loss-making magazine has struggled to maintain readers and advertisers.

Nevertheless, Harman’s family has pledged to retain his 50 percent stake in the joint venture. The nonagenarian remained active on the magazine’s board right up until his death. “He’s a man who needs a project,” said his daughter, Barbara, soon after he bought Newsweek. “He will die working—if he does die—and he’ll love every minute of it.”

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