(click thumbnail)ALEXANDRIA, Va. Research shows that besides a good commissary, nothing is more important to U.S. service members and civilians overseas than hearing news and music from the United States.
But cutbacks in live radio sports programming and the reassignment of personnel at the American Forces Radio and Television Service have resulted in fewer listening options.
American Forces Network, the operations arm of AFRTS, distributes a variety of radio programming, ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Ryan Seacrest and “American Top 40” to approximately 33 affiliates around the world from its broadcast center at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif. It reaches more than 1.5 million potential listeners each week.
The AFN broadcast center is making an effort to move in a more automated direction, said Larry Sichter, AFN chief of affiliate relations, as a result of position cuts over several years.
“The military has been reassigning some of their people, moving them out of support activity and more into combat support positions. Therefore we have experienced some cuts on the radio side,” Sichter said.
Sichter said there are now seven military employees working in AFN’s radio department in Riverside, down approximately one-third from staffing levels earlier this year.
Those changes partly explain AFN’s decision not to air the 2006 World Series, Sichter said, a decision that ended a tradition of carrying the World Series since 1947.
“Our surveys showed that fewer and fewer people are listening to sports broadcasts on the radio. To no one’s surprise, they indicated they prefer watching the games on TV, which is available to nearly 90 percent of those who can receive the radio broadcasts,” Sichter said. “Additionally, we were limited in manpower to run those games out of the broadcast center.” However, AFN will still broadcast the NFL Super Bowl on AFN radio, he said.
AFN uses proprietary Nielsen Media Research to assist in determining stateside audience preferences, Sichter said, and occasionally conducts worldwide audience surveys.
In all, AFN produces 10 general-use radio streams, including seven music channels. The newest music channel is AFN, “The Eagle,” modeled after the “Jack” format, AFRTS officials say.
Radio programming is uplinked from the broadcast center in California for distribution to 56 countries in Europe, western Asia, the Middle East, Scandinavia, northern Africa and other affiliates broadcasting on AM and FM terrestrial analog frequencies. Most often, the programming is then customized by inserting local command information, Sichter said.
“There’s AFN Europe, AFN Korea, AFN Iraq, AFN Tokyo and so on. We feed the affiliates with programming we acquire here in the States. For instance, the music channels are provided by ABC Radio and Westwood One,” Sichter said. “Local affiliates then insert local news and information to customize the service. Radio is a local medium and it should be that way.”
Any cutback in radio programming service for U.S. military personnel and Department of Defense civilians is unwelcome news, said Ann Mulligan, director of broadcasting for AFN Europe, which broadcasts across Germany and Italy. “We don’t like to lose coverage of anything. However, we realize because of circumstances we have to do more with less at times,” Mulligan said.
AFN Europe, headquartered in Mannheim, Germany, and with a regional office in Vicenza, Italy, selects from approximately 40 audio channels to program its two services, Power Network and AFN, The Eagle. Power Network consists of news and information, including offerings from National Public Radio and nationally syndicated radio talk shows.
Local command information, which could include anything from a base closing its gate early for the day to a mess hall changing operation hours, is what gives the two networks a “hometown station” sound, Mulligan said.
AFN Europe is a satellite-based operation, downlinking programming from the Riverside broadcast facility and inserting command information from 11 radio stations in Germany, Italy and Belgium, received via a wide-area network.
“We then uplink the finished program from Mannheim and downlink to dishes at transmitter sites, which transmit via AM and FM on assigned frequencies,” Mulligan said.
AFN Europe, which is staffed with Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel, operates broadcast stations that are a mix of high- and low-power signals in cities like Heidelberg, Germany and Naples, Italy.
Most of the AFN Europe affiliates, which operate from U.S. military bases, have been upgraded in the past several years to include Audioarts RD-12 digital radio consoles and Broadcast Electronics AudioVault servers and automation software.
Podcasts of various programming are now available from the AFN Europe Web site at www.afneurope.net, Mulligan said.
In Europe, the AFN is operated by the U.S. Army and can trace it origins to 1943 when the War Department established the Armed Forces Radio Service. The mission of AFN Europe is to provide news, entertainment and command information, Mulligan said.
“We feel like we are making a difference in the quality of life for service personnel and their families. Without us, there would be a near cutoff of information from the United States. It would be tough to live in a foreign country without it,” Mulligan said.
Other AFN regions have similar mission statements and are operated by the various branches of the United States military.
AFRTS is an operating element of the American Forces Information Service, a unit of the United States Department of Defense. AFRTS has a $50 million annual operations budget, according to Andreas Friedrich, deputy director of AFRTS.
“A huge slice of our budget, nearly 50 percent, goes to funding the use of nine domestic and international satellite transponders, numerous fiber connections and associated downlink and uplink services,” Friedrich said.
AFRTS funding can vary each fiscal year, Friedrich said, depending on appropriations approved by Congress in the yearly defense budget. The AFRTS 2007 budget is the same as 2006 except for an adjustment of 2.7 percent for inflation.
The AFRTS is a means to communicate U. S. Department of Defense policies, priorities, programs, goals and initiatives, according to the AFRTS Web site. However, there are critics who call the service a propaganda arm of the Department of Defense.
AFN Radio was criticized in 2005 when it initially refused to carry progressive talk show host Ed Schultz. After pressure from Democrats in Congress, officials later added the Schultz show to its weekday lineup.
“We do not censor,” said Sichter. “AFN disseminates DoD internal information to a Department of Defense audience.”
A Department of Defense directive calls for political programming on AFN Radio characterized by fairness and balance and news programming guided by a principle of fairness.
AFN Radio carries a wide range of conservative talk show hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Sichter said.