Chances are good you have never heard of the American Forces Network, or AFN. However, almost anyone who has been stationed overseas, such as military service personnel, military dependents, DoD employees, civil service employees, or who has served aboard a military vessel at sea, can verify that AFN is often a large part of their experience during these tours.
What is AFN?
AFN is the television and radio broadcast service the U.S. military provides to those stationed or assigned overseas, either through the military, the DoD, or the civil service, as well as service members aboard military vessels at sea. AFN falls under the operational control of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, or OASD-PA.
It is a branch of American Forces Radio and Television Service, or AFRTS, which is, in turn, supervised by Defense Media Activity, or DMA. AFN management is located at DMA headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland, and broadcast operations, which include global radio and television satellite feeds, emanate from the AFN Broadcast Center/Defense Media Center in Riverside.
The Department of Defense maintains editorial control of content aired by AFN, which operates in 17 countries through 28 broadcast affiliates.
AFN is staffed by service members with broadcasting occupational specialties, DoD civilians, and contractors. Service members who intend to enter broadcasting as their occupational specialty receive primary training at the Defense Information School, or DINFOS, which is also located at Ft. Meade, Maryland. During their training, the broadcasters are taught to use state-of-the-art audio and visual editing equipment similar to their civilian counterparts.
The Mission of AFN
AFN serves multiple functions: to improve morale, to disseminate internal communication information, and to increase military readiness.
The DoD utilizes AFN to improve troop morale overseas and at sea by providing access to popular American television and radio programs from major U.S. networks. This includes news, sports, entertainment, and informational programming. AFN personnel are responsible to negotiate for and acquire the rights to programming, as well as to schedule and broadcast content worldwide.
AFN also serves as the primary means for the DoD to disseminate internal communication information to service members overseas and at sea, as well as to DoD civilian and military family audiences. This includes functions such as base news broadcasts, commander’s access channel broadcasts, and base-wide email announcements.
AFN may also be used for certain aspects of military readiness. The presence of AFN facilities on a military base gives local installation commanders access to immediate communication capabilities with personnel under their command. During emergencies, such as natural disasters, this is an invaluable resource for installation commanders to quickly and efficiently share vital information with troops.
AFN Radio Origins
AFN did not officially exist prior to WWII. However, various American military bases housed radio stations, and one of the earliest of these was KODK at Fort Greely in Delta Junction, Alaska. Prior to the construction of KODK and Fort Greely in 1940, the town of Kodiak, located six miles away, had no radio service. Once construction was completed, KODK was staffed and operated by base personnel.
As a result, KODK was one of the first sources of radio information and entertainment for both service members and civilians in the region. Then, roughly two months prior to the formal establishment of AFN, PCAN, began to broadcast from a station housed at Fort Clayton in the former Panama Canal Zone.
PCAN broadcasts primarily consisted of informational programming for troops stationed in the region. Because of the success of KODK, PCAN, and other base-housed radio stations, AFN was formally created in 1942.
At 5:45 pm on July 4, 1943, Corporal Syl Binkin had the distinction of being the first U.S. military broadcaster on the first AFN transmission. This first broadcast was sent to U.S. troops stationed in Britain, and included five hours of sports, BBC news and recorded shows.
As the war effort to invade Nazi-occupied Europe intensified, AFN expanded and diversified operations. During the ramp-up to D-Day, AFN partnered with the BBC and Canada’s CBC to create programming primarily for Allied Expeditionary Forces.
This included the deployment of mobile broadcast stations to troops in the field. Using broadcasting equipment and record libraries, mobile station personnel would broadcast music and news to troops, and also report on front-line activities back to studios in London.
As Allied forces gained ground in Europe, AFN moved operations into Western Europe, and finally into Germany. AFN began to broadcast from a station in Munich on July 10, 1945, just three months after Nazi Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s unconditional surrender at Allied headquarters in Reims, France on May 7, 1945.
With the end of the war, AFN began what would become a recurring pattern for the organization: to increase AFN stations during wartime, only to decommission or move stations once the period of conflict concluded. On December 31, 1945, AFN London signed off the air permanently, and by 1948, AFN closed all AFN France stations. As a result, of the 300 AFN stations worldwide in 1945, only 60 remained in 1949.
After WWII, AFN stations continued to broadcast from American bases throughout Europe. During the 50s and 60s Cold War era, AFN was very popular with civilian audiences in European countries.
Most state-run European radio stations only played music from European countries, and stations in Communist bloc countries were often subjected to signal jamming to mitigate Western influences and control non-state sanctioned information. Consequently, AFN stations were virtually the only source for much sought-after American music at the time.
AFN Television Origins
It took longer for television to become part of AFN due to the expense involved in acquiring rights to programming. In fact, the introduction of television services for the military started as an experiment. In 1953, the Strategic Air Command at Limestone AFB, Maine was faced with serious morale issues among its troops, including court martials, AWOLs, and high divorce rates.
In order to counteract these issues, the DoD partnered with RCA to create the first base-housed television services at Limestone.
Programming began with an experimental broadcast on December 25, 1953. After the launch, the DoD observed both a reduction in disciplinary problems, and an increase in reenlistment at Limestone. In fact, the experiment was so successful that, in 1954, the DoD officially sanctioned more television services and added television to its mission. AFRS became AFRTS: the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.
Initially, AFN stations were not designed to produce content for the television service. However, as services increased, base-housed stations began to create news and informational programming. Also, because AFN was unable to show commercials, the Broadcast Center produced informational spots to play where commercials would normally air.
These spots would include a wide variety of information, such as advice for newly-arrived troops, tips regarding life on the base, and public service announcements. In 1968, AFRTS was one of the first agencies to use satellites for live news and sports broadcasts, and it introduced color television programming in the early 70s.
Today, AFN produces ten general-use streams in a variety of formats for radio stations to use, including country music, alternative rock, and talk radio.
AFN also produces internet radio services: AFN 360 Europe serves American bases in 15 countries, AFN 360 Pacific serves American bases in 3 countries, and AFN 360 Global programs broadcast to bases worldwide and outside the U.S.
AFN also provides eight channels of television programming in a variety of formats, including movies, current sitcoms, network news, dramas, children’s programming, syndicated court shows, talk shows, game shows, sports, and reality shows. Programming is time delayed behind U.S. air dates for between 24 hours to six months.
From its humble origins as a small radio station at Fort Greely, Alaska, and an experiment in morale improvement at Limestone AFB, Maine, AFN has become a staple of American military bases around the globe.
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