Schramm was born in Marietta, Ohio. After working for the Associated Press, he received an MA in American civilization at Harvard University and a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he eventually founded the creative writing workshop. His own stories resulted in his award of the O. Henry Prize for fiction in 1942. His interests extended beyond the humanistic tradition, and some of his early work examined the economic conditions surrounding the publication of Chaucer's tales, and audience reactions to poetry written in different meters. During the Second World War, Schramm joined the Office of War Information to investigate the nature of propaganda, and during this time and after employed largely behaviorist methodologies.
In 1947-1955, Schramm was Founding Director and Research Professor of the Institute for Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was also Founding Director of the Institute for Communication Research (1957-1973) and Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication (1961-1973) at Stanford University, where he retired and became Professor Emeritus in 1973. In 1973-1975, Schramm served as Director of the East-West Communication Institute at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. He later held the titles of Director Emeritus of the East-West Communication Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the East-West Center. In 1959-1960, he was Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
Schramm was especially influential for his 1964 book Mass Media and National Development which was published in conjunction with UNESCO, which effectively began research into the link between the spread of communication technology and socio-economic development.
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