Armed Forces Radio Service

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Armed Forces Radio Service

During World War II American radio made three key contributions to the war effort: news broadcasts supporting U.S. involvement in the war, propaganda beamed at Nazi-occupied Europe, and entertainment and news broadcasts to American troops around the world via the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). Since 1930, the airwaves had been dominated by the entertainment-oriented programming of the three major American networks, CBS, ABC, and NBC. With the AFRS a new type of network emerged, one historian Erik Barnouw describes as "global and without precedent."

In the pre-television era radio was considered such an integral part of American life that a concentrated effort was made to continue providing it to American troops in both the European and the Pacific theatres. Thus the Armed Forces Radio Service was born and commenced broadcasting in the first years of America's intervention in World War II. At the beginning of 1943 AFRS had 21 outlets, but by the end of the same year that number had grown to over 300. It was heard in 47 countries, and every week each outlet received over 40 hours of recorded programming by plane from the United States; additional material (such as news, sports, and special events coverage) was relayed by short-wave. (The very first programs for troops had actually gone out direct by short-wave in 1942 when AFRS began broadcasting on a limited scale). First leasing time on foreign (and mostly government run) stations, AFRS programming moved into high gear with the creation of its own "American expeditionary stations," the first set-up in Casablanca in March of 1943, with stations in Oran, Tunis, Sicily, and Naples soon following. By 1945 over 800 outlets were getting the weekly shipments of AFRS programs.

The nerve center of Armed Forces Radio was at 6011 Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Its uniformed staff included Army and Navy personnel as well as civilians. Its commandant, Colonel Thomas H. A. Lewis, had been vice-president of a Hollywood advertising agency, and was also married to actress Loretta Young, a combination which assured AFRS access to major Hollywood talent. Also on the staff were Sergeants Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who would later co-write Auntie Mame, Inherit the Wind, and other Broadway successes.

Ultimately the AFRS produced forty-three programs (14 hours) itself, and aired another thirty-six hours of U.S. network radio shows with all commercials deleted. The exorcising of commercial advertising was a particular AFRS innovation. Historian Susan Smulyan writes in Selling Radio : "The radio industry had worked since the 1920s to make broadcast advertising seem natural and reassuringly 'American,' but the stark contrast between wartime realities and radio merchandising appeals revealed that advertising was neither wholly accepted yet nor considered particularly patriotic." While dependent on the major networks for its most popular programs, the AFRS nonetheless still deleted all commercial references and advertising from its broadcasts. Programs such as the "Camel Caravan" became "Comedy Caravan," and the "Chase and Sanborn Hour" became simply "Charlie McCarthy."

A technical innovation pioneered by the AFRS was pre-recorded programming. During its early history radio had prided itself on its live broadcasts and shied away from developing recorded shows. But the ability to pre-record had obvious advantages, among them the capacity to select the best performances and "takes," and to delete controversial and time-sensitive material. Recorded shows were also cheaper to produce and gave everyone involved a flexibility and control impossible in live broadcasting.

Because recording tape had not yet been developed, the process involved the manipulation of a series of vinyl and glass discs similar to very large 78 rpm records. The final vinylite discs (which were the copies of the shows then shipped around the world) were pressed from a master disc which in turn had been edited from two duplicate glass disc copies of shows recorded off of live network radio. As Barnouw comments: "The process involved new techniques" requiring considerable skill on the part of the engineer/editor since it necessitated "dropping a playing needle into the right spot on the right groove at the right moment. Editing-on-disc, scarcely tried before the war, became a highly developed specialty at AFRS."

The AFRS show "Command Performance" was the first to be pre-recorded, and it proved that the technology existed to edit programs and re-broadcast them from disc copies. Smulyan speculated that it may have been Bing Crosby's experience on "Command Performance" that motivated him to demand a transcription clause in his 1946 contact with ABC, enabling him to record his shows in Los Angeles and ship them to ABC in New York for later broadcasting. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the phrase "Brought to you by transcription" became a familiar tag line at the conclusion of many network radio shows, the by-then standard procedure having been developed and perfected by AFRS. To this day some of the large and unwieldy 16-inch vinylite transcription discs from the World War II Armed Forces Radio Service occasionally turn up in the flea markets of southern California.

Today called Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, the AFRS continued to air pre-recorded radio shows in years following World War II. But by the early 1960s conventional radio had changed with the times, and the AFRS changed as well, both now emphasing recorded popular music of the day aired by disc-jockey personalities. The story of one of the more off-beat army DJs, Adrian Cronauer, and his controversial AFRS programming in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict is portrayed in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam.

—Ross Care

Further Reading:

Barnouw, Erik. The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933-1953. New York, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Smulyan, Susan. Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting, 1920-1934. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

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