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Prestige Has Its Prizes: The George Foster Peabody and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards

By Ron Sutton

There is no question that winning an Academy Award in either of the two documentary categories--or even being nominated--is one of the most significant kudos a documentarian can receive. But there are two other awards that are coveted as well: the George Foster Peabody Award ( and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award ( These prestigious awards have a few things in common: a rich history, a unique selection process and a relationship with a prominent university.

Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award

In 1942 Jessie B. duPont created this award "as a tribute to the journalistic integrity and public-mindedness of her late husband, Alfred I. duPont." Since 1968 the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University has administered the awards, which the school considers "the most prestigious award in television and radio news, the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes [which are also administered at the Graduate School of Journalism]."

The stated purpose of the award is "to bring the best in television and radio journalism to professional and public attention and to honor those who produce it." The award recognizes the contributions made to local communities and the nation as a whole by news organizations.

The late Louis I. Kahn designed the silver batons that are awarded to annual winners. Each baton is inscribed with Edward R. Murrow's famous 1958 comment to the Radio & Television News Directors Association: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

"The Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards have always welcomed long-form nonfiction reporting," says Jonnet Abeles, director of the awards competition. While there is a focus on news programs that have aired in the US, Abeles points out that "the award program also tries to recognize independent work each year."

The duPont Award process of review is two-tiered. There is a Board of Screeners, comprised of 80 members who screen approximately 10 entries or 10 hours of programming. The board generates reports on the work and rates each entry on an excellent/good/fair/poor rating scale. The best entries go to one of the nine jurors on the final panel. The jurors serve for three years and the terms are renewable up to nine years, thus providing continuity to the process. Each juror might look at 20 to 30 entries, and can recommend longer works such as Eyes on the Prize or The Civil War that would require special arrangements for screening and review. The final panel then meets for three full days together to watch the "best of the best," talk together and arrive at consensus decisions as to the winners.

From 1978-2004 the organization offered a taped program of the duPont Awards Ceremony at Columbia to PBS and its member stations. In 2004 Columbia developed a new way of presenting the winners and their work: an hour-long documentary format presenting six of the 12 winners in programmatic form using excerpts of the work and excerpts of the awards ceremony. Martin Smith, a producer from the award-winning PBS series FRONTLINE, produced the 2006 program. Titled Telling the Truth: The Best in Broadcast Journalism, it aired on PBS stations in January.

George Foster Peabody Award

In 1938 the National Association of Broadcasters formed a committee to establish a "Pulitzer Prize for radio." Lambdin Kay, manager of WSB Radio in Atlanta, was a member of the committee. Nicknamed "The Little Colonel," Kay became a champion of the award project. He asked John E. Drewery, dean of the Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, to sponsor the program. An agreement was reached between the university and NAB, and the awards were first presented in 1941 for radio broadcasts in 1940. Television awards followed in 1948, with honors for cable introduced in 1981.

George Foster Peabody, a native Georgian, was an industrialist, financier and major benefactor of the university. It was his daughter, Majorie Peabody Waite, who, in addition to serving on the first Board of Advisors, commissioned the famous bronze medallion bearing her father's likeness. The awards "continue today to recognize distinguished achievement and meritorious service by radio and television networks, stations, producing organizations and individuals." While NAB had significant involvement in its founding, the award program is completely run today by the Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

The Peabody selection process works as follows: Depending on the volume of entries (about 1,100 per year from around the world, with the Pacific Rim nations dominating the international entry pool), some 30 initial screening committees are formed. They are composed of three persons, usually faculty, administration and students. Librarians serve on the committees as well. Each committee handles about 30 entries each. These 90 reviewers recommend the programs they think worthy of recognition to the Peabody Board, but the board is not bound by their recommendations. Board members can even consider other material that has not come through the screening process. According to the Peabody Award guidelines, "in its selections, the Board will not necessarily be restricted to those programs reviewed by the screening committees, but may consider reports of meritorious service from other sources and may, on its own initiative, select a program, station or individual for an award."

After some members of the board meet twice over a five-day period, the entire board assemblies for four and a half days and hashes out its final awards through "verbal exchange." Awards are not given in categories, but rather in an "all against all" final testing procedure. The categories are used at the submission level for administrative purposes.

Dr. Horace Newcomb, who holds an endowed professorship in the Communications Department at the Grady School, currently oversees the awards process. He considers the Peabody "perhaps the 'broadest' award in the industry, since it considers all types of broadcast programming." Newcomb feels it is vitally important to have an academic institution be the sponsor and guide to the competition, "because of the much more substantial neutrality that is afforded; there is none of the pressure of politics that come from industry-based, peer group awards. There's also the capability for any required follow-up research through the university resources."

According to Newcomb, the Peabody Awards program is not supported by an endowment; the University of Georgia provides a portion of the funding and the rest comes from other sources. The university presently lists the prestigious program for a $20 million endowment gift as part of a larger development campaign. No donor has stepped forward at present.

Newcomb also notes that the university library houses an archive of some 45,000 submissions of radio and television work, dating back to the early 1940s, and contains one of the best collections of local news in the US. The archive is accessible for research academically and for producers, but the copyrighted material would have to be cleared for any material used; the university will help researchers get in touch with the copyright holders.

The respective annual submission deadlines for the George Foster Peabody Awards and the Alfred I DuPont-Columbia University Awards are mid-January and early July.


Ron Sutton is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.