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AFRTS: the First Sixty Years

AFRTS: the First Sixty Years




Historians 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.


Most people 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.


The radio 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 Military Broadcasting


While the 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.


The first 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 Televisions Services


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).


Thomas H. 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

director Frank Capra, himself a Colonel in the Army at the time, Lewis moved his operations to the old Twentieth Century Fox building in Hollywood.


Having 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.  


Using their 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 sixty. 


The History of Programming


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.


The Japanese 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 simultaneously.


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.


What is 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.




When war 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


With the 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.


The 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


As the 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 1973.


Advances in Technologies


Rapid developments 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.


In 1982, 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 and Panama


When 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.


During the 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 there.


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 Storm


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 Saudi Arabia. Eventually the Armed Forces Desert Network was launched with its headquarters in Kuwait. 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, Croatia, Kosovo and other places where American military personnel have been stationed, AFRTS has continued to provide broadcast services and support.


AFRTS celebrates the 50th anniversary


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.




In recent 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.


Thus, the 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

Edited by Martin Hadlow and Larry Sichter in June, 2009


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