The headquarters of most big American radio and television networks are high above the towered streets of New York. An exception--the biggest network of them all, geographically--stands on a nondescript boulevard in Sun Valley.
The building is full of the usual monitor-crammed control rooms, but some of the engineers at the control boards are in camouflage fatigues or other military uniforms.
It is the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, which broadcasts around the clock to 1.5 million American servicemen and women and their families in 57 countries and on as many as 425 ships at sea.
With its roots in the nation’s mobilization for World War II, the service has been transmitting entertainment and Pentagon commercials to U.S. troops and their families from Berlin to Antarctica through three wars and the long years of Cold War.
In November, 1986, it moved its studios, which had been in Hollywood since the 1940s when Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were the big draws, to the San Fernando Valley, taking a 60,000-square-foot building on La Tuna Canyon Road that had been built as a bank computer center and was used as a cartoon studio.
The center relays news, sports and specials--such as presidential news conferences and the Academy Awards--from the major American networks and news services on radio and TV via satellite. Entertainment programs from the major networks and disc jockey shows are recorded on audiotapes or videocassettes and shipped.
As with any other network, commercials rule.
“We’re similar to ABC, NBC and CBS in that they’re not creating programs from the goodness of their hearts, but to sell things,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Pollack, deputy commander of the center.
“So are we. Our primary job is getting information to the troops and their dependents wrapped up in entertainment so it sells.”
One of the center’s main functions is removing civilian commercials from programs and substituting the Pentagon’s, which have nothing to do with beer calories or auto styling.
The subject matter ranges from what to do if captured by the enemy (shut up) to what to do at the end of an enlistment (re-enlist) to what to do with recreational drugs (nothing, ever).
There are also spots on safe driving and how to seek counseling for alcoholism or family problems and appeals to respect the host country’s customs and avoid friction with the natives.
The center operates like a regular network. The programs go to 88 local radio stations and 35 TV stations scattered from Greenland to Turkey and Diego Garcia. Military staffs at the stations control local broadcasts, choosing from the incoming mix of live and taped material.
Then the local military stations broadcast the programs using very low power so that the signals do not carry much beyond the intended audiences on the bases.
The local stations make and insert localized commercials, covering everything from what’s for dinner at the mess hall and the schedules of educational and hobby programs to advice or commands peculiar to a specific base or region.
The Sun Valley center has a staff of 140 people--96 civilians and 44 military personnel and an annual budget that has reached $28 million.
It also has some controversies.
In June, three congressmen protested what they said was the network’s censorship of American news shows rebroadcast in South Korea to remove material that might offend the government of that country because some South Koreans also watch the broadcasts meant for U.S. troops there.
“To allow any government de facto control over any political opposition voices being heard by American servicemen is beyond credence or explanation,” Rep. Chester Atkins (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to the State Department.
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, called censorship “utterly unacceptable” and threatened to hold hearings on the subject.
They were reacting to a report by Gaston Sigur, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs who said that the armed forces network had censored 17 news items in an 18-month period. Those included news stories that contained criticism of the South Korean government or activities of opposition leaders, portrayed South Korea as dependent on the United States or appeared to be favorable to North Korea, he said.
The military broadcasters also barred “MASH,” the comedy about a U.S. Army Medical Corps unit during the Korean War, because “the Korean government felt that the program portrayed Korea as a backward, subservient, war-torn country,” Sigur said.
Not so, Pollack said.
The South Korean government was indeed unhappy with “MASH,” he said, but did not register a complaint until after the series went off the air in February, 1983. “It’s true we don’t show ‘MASH’ in Korea, but then we aren’t showing ‘MASH’ anywhere since we carried the last episode of the series,” Pollack said.
There were South Korean attempts to keep American newscasts of disorders in Seoul off the armed forces channel there, but they were unsuccessful, Pollack said.
“ ‘MASH’ caused some anguish among Korean legislators who didn’t feel the series presented Korea in a favorable light,” said Navy Capt. Jack Martin, commander of the broadcast center.
The series became an issue in the negotiations between the U.S. military TV station in Korea and local TV stations over rights to American TV series.
American networks sell programs to the service for a minimal fee--$750 for a “The Cosby Show” episode contrasted with the $340,000 a major market TV station might pay--but the service and the networks hammer out restrictions to keep military stations from competing with the network’s own program sales to foreign stations.
The military station “voluntarily agreed not to run any more ‘MASH’ episodes” in return for cooperation from the South Korean stations on restrictions on other programs, Martin said.
By that time, the final episode of the series had already run, Martin said, but the armed forces station in Korea put a voluntary freeze on rebroadcast of some “MASH” episodes in its videotape library.
A spokesman for Solarz said the congressman had decided to put off a decision on whether to hold hearings on the matter until after the South Korean elections this month.
“We’re inclined to wait and see,” the spokesman said. “If a new, democratic government is elected, there may no longer be any pressures to engage in this sort of censorship.”
The armed services network never meddles with the content of the news shows it gets from the three major networks, Cable News Network and radio news programs from Associated Press and United Press International, Pollack said.
“We broadcast without censorship or propaganda,” he said. “We do not censor derogatory statements about the military or the U.S. government. Under our agreement with the networks, we guarantee that we do nothing to the contents of their news broadcasts. Our philosophy is that American servicemen and women have a right to the same information--and disinformation--that civilians do at home.”
The center sometimes gets letters from American tourists, especially conservatives, who are offended by what they regard as unflattering or unpatriotic material on American military broadcasts overseas. “We try to explain to them that we’re not the Voice of America. We’re a conduit for entertainment and information,” Pollack said.
But, because citizens of the host country can pick up some Armed Forces Radio and Television Service programming, shows that raise questions of “host nation sensitivity” are flagged for the attention of the staffs who run stations in those countries, he said.
“They can decide locally not to air it.”
The local station cannot remove specific news stories but can withhold the entire newscast and substitute another, he said. The same rule applies to entertainment. Movies or entire episodes of a TV series may not be broadcast in some countries.
“It’s just common sense that you don’t play ‘Zorba the Greek’ in Turkey,” Pollack said.
The Japanese dislike stories involving nuclear weapons, the Turks are sensitive to any reference to the massacre of the Armenians or the troubles on Cyprus, and the Philippine government is cracking down on showing symbols of the drug culture--everything from T-shirts decorated with paintings of marijuana leaves to portrayals of the cocaine-fueled high life on “Miami Vice,” Pollack said.
The final authority on whether a controversial newscast or show can be carried on an armed forces channel overseas rests with the U.S. ambassador “as the head of the American team in that country,” Pollack said.
In the case of South Korea, “the government there didn’t want us to carry the news reports of the demonstrations recently, but the ambassador and the military command there decided that our people there needed to know what was going on so we carried them anyway.”
Asking an ambassador whether a program is too sensitive to broadcast happens “only about once a year, at most” Pollack said.
The service has had other problems over the years.
Founded in Hollywood as the Armed Forces Radio Service in May, 1942, it originally shipped phonographs overseas, followed by 16-inch records of popular radio shows. Meanwhile, the Office of War Information broadcast news to overseas forces via shortwave radio.
By the end of World War II, Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasters were among the troops, setting up stations close to the front lines. Gen. George C. Patton tried unsuccessfully to track down and court-martial a broadcaster whose booming sign-on in Germany not only startled the general while he was shaving, causing Patton to cut himself, but failed to give Patton’s army credit for being in charge of the local landscape.
Throughout the war, the Armed Forces Radio Service tried to give U.S. troops a better alternative for entertainment than enemy propaganda broadcasts by such announcers as Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose.
In the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur learned from an Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast that President Harry S. Truman had fired him.
By the Vietnam War era, 95% of the troops could receive the service’s radio programs, and 85% were able to see TV programs in base camps. TV programs were first beamed from circling aircraft, but the service later acquired ground stations, and its staff in Vietnam swelled to 170.