AFRTS: the First Sixty
choose to record what is interesting and important to them. In the process much
that needs to be written is often left out and not told. This is perhaps not
the fault of the historian; rather it is the nature of his profession. He is
confronted with massive amounts of information and is compelled to pick and
choose. Nevertheless, some stories must be told. The history of the American
Forces Radio and Television Service is one of them.
outside of the Armed Forces probably have never heard of AFRTS. It is the story
of a seemingly small organization that does an outstanding job serving the
Armed Forces men and women, the diplomatic staff and their families in a myriad
of places around the world and at sea. It all started in 1942 in the midst of
World War II.
service for the soldiers, however, was not a War Department idea. General
George C. Marshall had been thinking about it as a means of educating and
informing the troops. He believed that the men and women in uniform needed to
know why they were fighting. Radio, Marshall
reasoned, was the best medium to do that.
Early beginnings of
army was thinking about a radio service, soldiers in the field began to put it
into practice by setting up, sometimes illegally, radio stations in Panama and then Alaska. The commanders in Panama were unable to communicate
with their troops because often the soldiers had their service radio receivers
turned off. It was felt that soldiers would
probably keep their radio receivers turned on if they had music and
entertainment interspersed with command information. So a transmitter was set
up and they began to broadcast music and entertainment and of course command
information as well. These broadcasts began in 1940.
radio broadcasts, however, were short-wave transmissions beamed to the Philippines by KGEI in San Francisco beginning in 1939. The response
from the field was encouraging. In Asia, it
was an answer to Japanese Radio Tokyo broadcasts that covered most of the
continent. When McArthur was struggling to save Philippines
from the Japanese, KGEI broadcasts were the only sources of news and
information coming from America.
McArthur’s people set up a transmitter at Bataan
and then rebroadcast KGEI programs. When the transmitter was, however, moved to
Corregidor with MacArthur it was used solely
for propaganda purposes, which was of little use. Later, MacArthur converted it
to “Voice of Freedom,” an important step in the right direction.
The Panama Canal radio station (PCAC) was an immediate hit
with soldiers and civilians. Therefore, the station had to look for programs
from the United States.
Many entertainers, like Jack Benny, and agencies, like NBC, were ready to
supply these programs. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor in December 1941, this station, however, was closed down.
In 1943, it reopened as part of the Armed Forces Radio Service.
The Sitka, Alaska
station too had a short life. It also opened in response to soldiers’ need for
recreation in their spare time. KODK in Kodiak,
Alaska was the one military radio
station that worked without interruptions although it was beset by many
technical and logistical problems. The pattern here, as at Sitka, was for soldiers to take the
initiative to start the station to meet the entertainment needs of their
friends. It went on air on October 28, 1941 and was a great success. Gradually
other stations were being established in other places.
Genesis of the Armed Forces Radio and
The Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor and their invasion of the Aleutian Islands
finally forced the hand of the military brass. America’s entry into the war and
the posting of American soldiers in remote areas of the world necessitated that
the War Department take steps to educate, entertain and inform the troops in
the field. Finally on May 26, 1942 the Department issued an order creating the
Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS).
Lewis, a vice president at Young and Rubicam, a Los Angeles advertising agency, was promptly
selected to become the first commander of the Armed Forces Radio Service. Lewis
received his commission as an Army Major and later on promoted to the rank of Colonel.
He, reportedly, was a ‘man of prayer’ who believed he always got what he wanted
from God. There is no question that Lewis was a capable commander who
successfully built the Department’s Radio Service from scratch.
Lewis chose Hollywood as the
headquarters of the new Service. It was certainly the most natural choice
because of its close proximity to the entertainment industry and to the
well-known entertainers who made Los
Angeles their home. The organization was at first set
up at the Taft building at Hollywood
and Vine Streets. Later, on the advice of the famous movie
Frank Capra, himself a Colonel in the Army at the time, Lewis moved his
operations to the old Twentieth Century Fox building in Hollywood.
established himself in his new position, Lewis set out to find the people to
work for the new organization. Most of these first hires were his friends and
close associates from his radio days in private industry. Lewis and his close
associates and their staff during this time are sometimes referred to as the Genesis Group. It included people like
True Boardman, Irving Fogel, Austin Peterson, Charles Vanda, Jerry Lewis,
Robert Lee and Al Scalpone.
At first AFRS
did not have any transmitters of their own. Therefore, it had to borrow shortwave
transmitters. Lewis sought established stations outside the U.S. to carry
AFRS programs. He negotiated with foreign governments and commercial stations
for such privileges. Moreover, he also used “B kits” or “Buddy Kits,” a
sixteen-inch turntable delivered with transcriptions of music and programs. As
for programs, AFRS procured them from commercial networks in the United States.
Talented stars and other entertainers continued to provide AFRS with free
programs as well.
time, talents and connections, Lewis and his associates worked hard to make
AFRS into a viable professional radio network spread throughout the world. At
the height of World War II in 1945, there were about three hundred radio
stations under AFRS auspices. Once the war was over, however, the operations
were scaled down and by 1949 the number of stations had declined to about
The History of
As the early
unofficial stations like PCAC and KODK became popular, the need for regular
programs became necessary. Comedian Joe Brown, who visited Alaska during this time, supplied his own
programs and later encouraged his friends in the entertainment industry to
donate programs. KODK also produced its own programs. Network programs came to
stations in Alaska and other places months
after their original broadcast in the continental U.S. Despite not being timely, they
nevertheless helped fill the need for programming.
attack on Pearl Harbor solidified popular
support behind the government and the Armed Forces, and helped make available
radio programs for Army broadcasting. This support gave a fillip to what later
came to be called the Command Performance
program series on military radio. The idea behind the name was that soldiers themselves
could command the performers to appear for shows on the radio. The first
program was broadcast on March 1, 1942. The programs were first transcribed on
two discs and then duplicated and send to stations so that they could be broadcast
at appropriate times. As American Forces were stationed in different countries
and time zones around the world, it was not possible to broadcast the programs
The first six
of the Command Performance shows were
produced in New York.
Eventually, however, the production moved to Hollywood because the required talent was
available there in abundance. Above all, the listeners wanted celebrities to
appear on the show. While the War Department bore the production costs, the
entertainment industry supplied the talent, studio facilities and the technical
know-how for the production. Until the creation of AFRS, Command Performance remained under the control of the Radio
Division, Bureau of Public Relations in the Department of War. The “Wedding of
Dick Tracy” episode broadcast in 1945 was the most celebrated Command Performance show.
Command Performance attracted a host of well-known Hollywood stars like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Judy
Garland, Bing Crosby, John and Lionel Barrymore, Betty Hutton, Harry Cooper,
Edgar Bergen and Gene Tierney. Many
others also appeared frequently on the
show. Later on, other programs like Mail
Call, Melody Roundup, Jubilee, and G.I. Jive appeared. G.I. Jive was a musical-request program
hosted by “G.I. Jill” (Martha “Marty” Wilkerson).
During World War II, a large number of
programs broadcast on AFRS had originated with the commercial networks. But, they
were de-commercialized before they were rebroadcast by AFRS because the War Department
did not want to give the impression that it was endorsing any products or
services. The sponsors accepted this arrangement.
remarkable is the fact that producers, performers and others agreed to provide
their time and programs free of cost. Otherwise it would have been impossible
for AFRS to continue to procure programs. AFRS staff produced the educational
and informational spots that took the place of the commercials that were
removed from the network programs. The spots dealt with a wide variety of topics
such as citizenship, brotherhood, American history and Communism. From the very
beginning religious programs found a place at all military broadcasting outlets.
Once the war was over, the focus of the spot programming shifted from morale building
to helping troops adjust to civilian life back in America. By 1950 AFRS had stopped
producing its own programs.
World War II came
to an end with surrender of Japan
in 1945. That, however, did not usher in a period of international peace.
Before long, the Cold War had developed between the United
States and the Soviet Union.
The Cold War at times degenerated into proxy hot wars in different places like Korea and Vietnam. U.S. involvement in these wars led
to the posting of American soldiers in both places. The Armed Forces Radio Service followed
the American service men and women into areas of combat.
broke out in Korea,
AFRS returned with the American soldiers. The Seoul station was located in the Banto Hotel
(the old American Embassy Hotel). When the Chinese military forces entered Seoul in December, 1950, the AFRS crew moved to a just-created
mobile unit and retreated to Taegu.
This mobile unite gave birth to what became AFRS Kilroy.
In the Spring
of 1951, additional mobile units were assembled and sent to Pusan,
Seoul and Chunchon.
By May 1951 the situation had stabilized and the Seoul station was re-established. With the
large number of American soldiers stationed in Korea, several other AFRS stations
were started. The famous TV series M*A*S*H
was born out of American soldiers’ experiences during the Korean War.
TV added to AFRS
coming of commercial TV, radio’s heyday was coming to a gradual end. Radio
would remain popular, but not as important as the new medium of television. Television
focused on game shows, drama and similar entertainment, while radio
concentrated its energies on news and music.
military’s TV broadcasting began on an experimental basis at Limestone Air
Force Base in Maine.
The results were quite encouraging. Television helped boost the morale of the
personnel and their families stationed there. Before long TV became part of
military broadcasting. Consequently, in
1954, AFRS became the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS).
AFRTS in Vietnam
American military presence in the Vietnam conflict increased, AFRTS
opened radio and (later) television stations there. One of the purposes was, of
course, to counter Radio Hanoi propaganda. However, the main aim was to provide
news, information and entertainment to the U.S. personnel serving “in-country.”
At one stage,
the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) broadcast to some 500,000 service
personnel and U.S.
civilians. It was also in Vietnam
that a number of AFRTS personnel became war-related casualties. When an Air
Force jet fighter crashed into the AFVN station in Udorn, Thailand,
nine AFRTS people were killed. In
addition, station staff at Da Nang
was captured and spent time as prisoners of the North Vietnamese.
For its Vietnam
broadcasts, AFRTS developed a program along the lines of G. I. Jive of World War II. This new program, hosted by Chris Noel,
was titled A Date with Chris and was
an instant hit with the troops. By this time, a good many of the programs AFRTS
broadcast were produced internally by local disc jockeys making hour-long music
shows, which even included anti-war songs. Beginning in 1971 AFRTS began to
pull out of Vietnam.
The last station to close was in Saigon in
Advances in Technologies
were taking place in technological arena and these impacted the way in which radio
and television signals were transmitted. As a result, starting in 1968, AFRTS
began to use satellites to transmit live news and sports broadcasts. Similarly
in 1972 color TV transmission took the place of black and white TV.
using a worldwide satellite network (SATNET), AFRTS began to broadcast programs
around the clock. By 1988 shortwave radio transmission became outdated and was replaced
by AFRTS with satellite distribution of its radio services.
In 1996, AFRTS
began using digital compression technology to send radio and television signals
to the then more than 400 outlets in over 150 countries. Direct-To-Sailor (DTS)
service also provided live radio and television broadcasts American Navy ships
at sea. And the single channel SATNET became a multiple-channel service.
AFRTS in Lebanon, Honduras
President Ronald Reagan sent U.S. Marines to maintain peace in war-torn Lebanon, AFRTS
dispatched a mobile broadcasting unit to serve them. The terrorist attack on a Marine
base in Lebanon
in 1983 took AFRTS out of service. The attack cost the lives of more than 240 Marines.
Later on the President withdrew U.S.
forces from Lebanon.
1980’s, when President Reagan supported the Contras against Sandinistas in Nicaragua, a large number of American soldiers
were stationed in neighboring Honduras.
Three mobile AFRTS broadcasting stations were dispatched to Honduras in support of the soldiers
In 1989 when
US invaded Panama,
its ruler, Manuel Noriega, sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy. In order to
drive him out of his hiding place, U.S. forces played music outside
the compound with ear-splitting volume. The recordings, with tunes like “I
Fought the Law” (and the law won) and “Nowhere to Run,” were provided by AFRTS.
AFRTS-BC Going Places
The growth in
the AFRTS service prompted moves of its California-based Broadcast Center. The first move was from Hollywood
to Sun Valley in 1986 and then from Sun Valley to March Air Base in Moreno Valley
in 1995. Today, the American Forces Network (AFN) Broadcast Center,
a world-class facility, is the hub of all AFRTS broadcasting activity.
Desert Shield and Desert
In 1990, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait.
Immediately President George H.W. Bush dispatched thousands of American
soldiers to the Middle East. Mobile AFRTS broadcast
stations were also sent to Dhahran and Riyadh in
Eventually the Armed Forces Desert Network was launched with its headquarters
Deployed troops received programming directly from the U.S. as well as locally-produced DJ
shows. The first song played by AFDN was
“Rock the Casbah” by the Clash.
In Somalia, Haiti,
Bosnia, Hungary, Macedonia,
Kosovo and other places where American military personnel have been stationed,
AFRTS has continued to provide broadcast services and support.
AFRTS celebrates the 50th
In 1992 AFRTS
turned 50. It was certainly a time to reflect and look back and celebrate the
achievements of the past. That year AFRTS received the George Foster Peabody Award for best broadcasting. It also received
the Golden Mike Award from the
Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters Association in Los Angeles, California.
years, changes in music programming have taken place. Rather than producing music
shows in house, AFRTS began to purchase programming from national syndicated
services. AFRTS also continued to broadcast commercial network news and political
commentary programs. The programs received via satellite come with cue tones
that enable AFRTS to automatically cover stateside commercials with Department
of Defense internal information announcements. Today overseas stations receive seven
music channels and five news/information channels 24 hours a day. Affiliate music
libraries abroad are renewed on a weekly basis keeping them more current than stations
in the United States.
Armed Forces Radio Service, which started in 1942, is still around and is one
of the largest networks of its kind anywhere in the world. No wonder, in 1978
AFRTS, in recognition of the services of its founder, Tom Lewis, established a Colonel Tom Lewis Award, given annually to
the best broadcaster in the Armed Forces. A distinguished panel of broadcasters
selects the finalist for the award from a list supplied by the three branches
of the Armed Forces, Army, Navy and Air Force.
Written by George
Thadathil in July, 2000
Martin Hadlow and Larry Sichter in June, 2009