While broadcasters around the world have focused on telling folks back home what’s happening on the ground in the war in Iraq, the uniformed reporters and on-air personalities of the Armed Forces Network-Iraq in Baghdad have a more urgent audience to serve: the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of the multinational force on or near the front lines.
Day and night, its military and diplomatic audiences tune into what is dubbed “Freedom Radio,” broadcasting from its make-believe “Ocean Cliffs Compound” in the real-world scorching desert of Iraq.
At AFN-I’s studios in the International Zone (also known as the Green Zone), a small crew of public affairs specialists serving as radio/TV producers from the U.S. Air Force and Navy — which rotate with the U.S. Army for AFN duties — tackles an ambitious roster of news and entertainment programming for those in harm’s way.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason “J.D.” David, AFN-I’s news director, said the medium of radio is playing a unique role in the combat zone, as radio has for other wars over the past 70 years.
“Radio is certainly the most immediate and effective means to get information out there as quickly as possible, and the music, all the entertainment, as well.”
(click thumbnail)Technical Sgt. Chris Eder interviews entertainer Toby Keith on Freedom Radio at AFN-Iraq studios.FM network
David said his studios are fortunate to be located inside the International Zone with the presence of the multinational force, and not just for security reasons.
“We can check with other forces almost immediately when something big happens. If a bomb goes off somewhere in Iraq and other media are saying it’s ‘insurgents,’ that may not always be the truth. It may be just some random guy out there. People back home depend on [the networks] for coverage, but we’re here and so we can see what’s happening for ourselves and report to the troops here,” said David, who hails from Laurel, Md.
Freedom Radio airs a round-the-clock schedule of news, unclassified troop information, feature stories, and of course music in many genres, much of it requested song-by-song by military personnel in the field.
Much like any other network, Freedom Radio is heard on an array of FM frequencies throughout the region: Baghdad (104.1 and 107.7 MHz); Kirkuk (100.1 and 107.3); Balad (107.3); Mosul (105.1); Q-West (93.3); Sinjar (107.9); Tallil (100.1 and 107.3); and Tikrit (93.3).
But unlike most networks back home, in some areas in the war zone signals are transmitted terrestrially, while in other parts content is fed via an elaborate configuration of satellite and/or microwave systems.
(click thumbnail)Staff Sgt. Chuck Greene works on satellite equipment on the roof of the studios in Baghdad.Air Force Staff Sgt. Chuck Greene, in charge of the AFN-I Maintenance Section, said its radio air and production studios are equipped with a Broadcast Electronics AudioVault audio management system for storage and playback. Short audio elements are played from AudioVault or a 360 Systems Short/cut.
The studios use Electro-Voice RE20 mics, Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones and Truth B2031As from Behringer; other gear includes JBL Marquis Series speakers in the press conference studio, a Comrex DH22 Digital Hybrid, TASCAM CD-01U Professional CD Players, Leitch FR883 Audio Distribution Amplifier, Furman PL-Pro II power conditioners and ADC audio patch panels.
The considerable digital music resources primarily come from Powergold, whose software helps create, manage and update the various playlists.
Freedom Radio is building a new production studio, where a troublesome audio board will be soon be replaced by a new 1200 series model from Arrakis Systems. The air studio will be upgraded later.
“Our plan is to make them both mirrors so that we can easily switch back and forth between the studios,” Greene said. “The way it was set up when we got here would not allow that.”
The new studio was designed by Technical Sgt. Jeffrey Hood at the Air Force News Agency at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. After its components arrived at the air base, Hood and Staff Sgt. Randy Garcia wired the equipment rack, installed the software, tested everything and shipped it all to Baghdad.
“Now that the equipment is there, the Maintenance Section for AFN-I will install and build up the new studio and have everything running smoothly for their eventual replacements,” Greene said. That work was being done in November.
Other gear in use at the facility, which combines video and audio, includes Avid editing systems, Sony Vegas 7 editing software, a Mackie Onyx 24-4 analog audio mixer console and Sennheiser ew500 G2 wireless lapel mics for press briefings.
AFN, which was created in Europe during World War II and sets up its broadcast shop wherever significant numbers of U.S. military are deployed, maintains two major satellite feed-and-distribution centers in Vicenza, Italy, and Mannheim, Germany.
AFN-I also maintains its own Web site where the troops can make music requests if they’re lucky enough to be near a computer. The site is usually accessible to all military and civilian online users at www.afniraq.army.mil.
“Our mission here in Iraq traditionally is to provide useful information to the troops in-theater, along with entertainment similar to what they have back at home,” said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Leniel Garner, AFN-I’s station manager, from St. Louis.
“We do have a broader mission, too, where we support the various commercial media back home for news, especially since sometimes our guys are better equipped to get material from [the field] more than a network reporter is.”
Despite the trend toward lighter, smaller and far more versatile audio/video electronic media equipment compared to that used in past wars, Air Force Master Sgt. Joy Josephson said just traveling a few miles outside the Green Zone for news is a serious challenge.
Josephson, a native of Gerry, N.Y., has been with AFN for 15 years and now serves as AFN-I’s operations manager.
“I can tell you the missions here are the most important that we have now, being able to tell the stories of the multinational [troops] both in Iraq and Kuwait. I see some great broadcast journalism coming out of here.”
‘He went nuts’
(click thumbnail)‘Drill Team’: Staff Sgt. Chris Grogean, a member of the three-man maintenance team, points his drill during installation of new production equipment.David told Radio World he runs into situations every week that reinforce for him how Freedom Radio affects its mission in the war zone.
“I met an Army reservist from Tennessee recently who’s currently stationed in [nearby] Kuwait. He’s a truck driver. About 90 percent of his job takes him in and out of Iraq, from Basra down in the south, to Baghdad here in the center, and often up to Mosul in the northern sector.
“As soon as I told him what I did for a living, he went nuts! He told me if he didn’t have Freedom Radio, he’d go crazy. He said driving back and forth, up and down Iraq, he looks forward every day to what we air and what we do.”
David said one important segment of Freedom Radio’s audience works in temporary offices “down-range from [Baghdad], and they work 12-plus hours a day. We know that because they tell us when they contact us to request certain songs. They say, ‘You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve been at work. Please play that song for all of us here.’ And, of course, we always play it.”
Given the widely divergent ages and other demographics of the American, British and other troops in the field (especially since there are a lot of U.S. National Guard personnel serving), Radio Freedom’s programming includes nearly every music format — “although come to think of it, we don’t really have a folk music show,” David said with a laugh.
“But if it’s popular back in the States, we usually have it here.” Requests come in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because he said “people are always working in Iraq, night and day.”
Andy Carlson, a Navy Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class who serves as an AFN-I producer/editor, said, “There’s a lot more going on in Iraq — other than the bombs and kidnappings — that a lot of people [in the U.S.] are not hearing about. It’s not so much that the truth is being obscured, but it’s just that not all the story’s getting out there.” Carlson is a native of Sioux Falls, S.D.
And for the inevitable tragic stories of war, Garner said, “You can’t cover up the bad news. If there’s something that needs to be reported or discussed, we discuss it up front, or else the bad guys will twist it to say what they want. If it happens to be regrettable — like a bomb goes astray — we strive to report the factual information accurately, without any twisting of the facts.”
Ops manager Joy Josephson added, “What we’re doing is telling true stories of our service members here that you can’t hear or see on NBC or CNN.”