Who Me? A Broadcaster?
Some years ago, when applying for a job, I had listed on the application, or mentioned - I don’t recall which - that I had been a “broadcaster” on AFRTS stations while in the Air Force. (By the way, “AFRTS” can be used for either “Armed Forces Radio and Television Service” what it was when I came aboard, or “American Forces Radio and Television Service,” to which it changed somewhere around 1969 or so. I don’t know what it is today.) The interviewer asked me what it was like to be a member of the military broadcasting service. I remember that at that moment that I couldn’t put it into words he would really understand. After a few seconds of thought - which seemed like several hours to me at the time - I realized that if I wanted a commercial broadcasting job, I probably shouldn’t tell him what it was like for me.
During those few seconds, I reviewed what I’d felt as a “disk jockey for the Air Force.”
First of all, I was in the military; I had a rank, steady pay, no real competition, plenty to eat, and a place to live. But, my job wasn’t “military” in the true sense of the word. It was to be that disk jockey and to be the very best one I knew how to be. It was, in a nutshell, to play music for the other guys on my base, where ever that might be. One of our AFRTS mottoes was that we were there to “entertain, educate, and inform” other military, and to be “the sound of home” while overseas.
Although there were a few restrictions - most of them common sense things - mostly it was far more enjoyment than work. We considered ourselves to be the best of the best in our world; at least as good as any civilian “Deejay” any of us had ever heard.
We had our own versions of the ABCs, CBS’, and NBCs in AFRTS, along with the smaller local networks, and a few independent stations, and where ever you went, like our civilian counterparts, they were all basically the same. Several of our “biggies” - the major networks - were AFN (European Armed Forces Network; FEN (The Far East Network - Japan, etc.). The smaller networks were like the ones we had during the War in Southeast Asia, commonly called Vietnam, were the Armed Forces Thailand Network, with the six bases in Thailand, the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (pretty self explanatory, thanks to Robin Kronauer and Robin Williams), with a number of automated “repeater” sites. Then there were the few “independents” that were in places most people wouldn’t want to go even in peacetime, like Thule Air Base, Greenland, or Okinawa, or Teheran, Iran. If we include the Navy, we have “ship-board” radio and television stations basically for those sailors on board. But for this purpose, let’s look at my favorite tour of duty in all of my broadcasting days.
AFTN-NKP. Without any question, NKP, or Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, was … different! At that time, it was the most top-secret base in the Air Force, I believe. There were many reasons for that designation, from search and rescue of downed pilots to far more exotic missions which long habit makes me think twice before mentioning. For example, our base flew missions to find and mark areas of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, along which supplies for the North Vietnamese were shuttled on a daily - or nightly - basis. In my day, the planes used to spot and mark those sites for attack by fast, well-armed fighter bombers from other bases in Thailand as well as from Vietnam, to destroy as much supplies as we could. There were some other aspects of that “interdiction” which were more highly classified, but far more effective (it was hoped), and much more accurate in location and bombing. This is what the base I was assigned to did for a living way back then in late 1966. Everything on the base was geared toward supporting that mission. Except for we broadcasters, we felt.
For us, knowledge of what was happening wasn’t as important as doing our jobs, spinning records and putting out “information and entertainment!” Sure, in the back of our minds there were plenty of reasons we were there, and most of the base was “fighting the war.” But we were just disk jockeys.
Now don’t get me wrong! Our duty hours were like the rest of the base, twelve hours on duty and twelve hours off duty, seven days a week for the most part. The electricity we used was provided by generators which were never more than a few feet away at about any point of the base. In the winter months, we got very used to putting every stitch of clothing we owned on the bed before crawling in at night (it was a very wet 38 to 40 degrees); in the summer with 10 degree plus days, you went to great lengths to get a mosquito net of some kind, or you didn’t sleep well, if at all! Other than the few places where having delicate electronics warranted it, there was essentially no air conditioning … and where there was a/c, like our station, it was almost a joke that it was really a hardship to live essentially out of doors, then enter an icy, air conditioned building to work. Just drying out uniforms was miserable … but some would say definitely worth it!!
And it became second nature to do things like never pass a water source without taking a drink, taking showers during the warmest parts of the day, so the water wouldn’t be quite so “cool” - and deep wells made for right cool water! Everyone carried flashlights at night to see what was on the road, path, or track in front of you - it was not a good thing to walk upon “Mr. No-Shoulders” - a Cobra, one of the larger indigenous snakes in the area, not to mention all the smaller, more venomous snakes and “crawley critters” which literally kept everyone “on their toes,” and it was second nature by the second day, to shake out boots in the mornings, to make sure nothing had “made its home” there. The latrines - or toilets, if you will - were all located in separate buildings, usually in the middle of four barracks buildings. When I arrived, they were open rooms with bunks and a locker for up to forty men per. Later, we got more private rooms, in which only four of us shared the facilities. Oh, one more work on the snakes: in his welcoming speech, the chaplain always mentioned that in Thailand there are 101 species of dangerous snakes, 100 of which can kill you in seconds if you get bitten. That 101st one will simply eat you alive! Good joke, but very close to fact.
Food was in “Dining Halls” around the base, if you were one of the lower grade airmen; and for both NCOs and Officers, there were either the appropriate clubs, or the “snack bar” near the flight line. That snack bar was the source of a very peculiar habit which went back to the states with most of us - a typical breakfast in the snack bar, due to the availability of food, was a piece of Spam between two slices of bread, and a Coke or Pepsi - usually the latter - for the caffeine jolt. For years after, you could always tell a SEA vet, because he would carry around his morning “Pepsi” or Coke, rather than a cup of coffee. While coffee just wasn’t always available, the eggs and milk were of the powdered variety, and while there was usually bread, it was made locally, and sometimes even looked like bread.
Most of us had only two complete uniform sets. They were washed each day, more to keep away the mildew than for cleanliness, but that counted too. For boots, they were changed each day with the socks for the same reason. And if you were of the particular crowd who wanted starched and pressed fatigues each day, you had to get used to the smell of scorched coconut/palm starch! That was the prevailing “stiffener”, and the irons used by the laundry were normally hand-made, heated by wood fire, and frequently left brown scorch marks on the clothes. But, then, a new set of fatigues, custom fit and made to order were something on the order of seven to ten bucks.
I mentioned our duty day being twelve-hour shifts. Again, while everyone else was directly supporting the war, we felt that it was hard on our voices to have to maintain a twelve hour shift !! But that was after we got our station. When I arrived, it was basically straight from broadcasting school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, at Indianapolis, Indiana. We went through our eight weeks of general knowledge for public affairs (or as we called it at the time, “Information Office” stuff. Then those of us who were going to be broadcasters went on to about eight weeks of radio and two more of television training - on brand new, sparkling clean, and ultra modern equipment! Then we went to NKP! Our “studio” was a small building - about 16’ x 16’, divided into two rooms - and the equipment was one hand-made control board which obviously had been made out of scavenged aircraft radio parts, an ancient transmitter, and a pair of old obviously cast-off turntables. The guys who’d been there ahead of us wanted some radio, so they put it all together, and volunteered to run it. The records were “donations” from individuals, and from home-town radio stations who sent us their out of date records and “demonstrator” disks. While we had an “audition” channel to make sure the records were cued up, we had to use the newly available small, shirt-pocket sized transistor radios and the ear plugs that came with them, to make sure we were on the air. Since the building was “donated” it was right alongside the active aircraft “runup” pad, where the planes were stared to warm them up for missions - resulting in a blast of hot, oily exhaust smoke being funneled right through our “studio.” We didn’t even try to talk on the air when the planes were being warmed up. I recall putting a piece of cardboard on the windward side of the turntables to keep the record tone arm on the groove.
But, as time went on, we began getting our AFRTS “package” to make up our program days. In the normal run of things, our programming was split into rough thirds; one third “live DJ work” where we played records, one third pre-recorded programs of half or one-hour lengths, and the rest devoted to news, features and special events like baseball games, as available. That only became a norm after we’d moved some four months later, into our new building.
One of my first jobs as a new broadcaster was to open some of the boxed shipments of records, clean them off, put them in new jackets, and make up three index cards for every song or tune on the disks. Then, we could start filing both disks and cards!! It took us at least four months to finish that project, and I completely wore out the three typewriter ribbons I’d brought with my portable Smith-Corona typewriter - which was the only station typewriter we had until we got into the new station.
It’s hard to remember that in those days, we didn’t have “portable” equipment, and very few tapes for the machines we did have. “Remote” broadcasts meant that we’d strung a pair of wires to wherever the remote was happening, or, when available, used a telephone line. Miniature tape recorders were the thing in those days, with the small 3” reels and mailers sent back and forth instead of letters. The cassette recorder/player was so new that we couldn’t use them on air, because of the poor speed control that “warbled” speech and made music impossible to tape. As for portable video equipment - there weren’t any below station equipment levels. And those all took a specialized operator to run. To be fair, almost all of the above had been ‘available’ for years prior, but not at a price any individual could afford.
It was a mixed blessing of an assignment. Extremes were the norm, with brand new electronics all through the base, powered by large but portable generators. Air conditioning here and there, but living in open barracks which froze in the winters, and par-broiled us in the summers. Long shifts of duty without “normal” days off, and in the early days, plenty of the one or two varieties of food we did have.
Now, all of this went through my mind as I sat in the job interviewer’s office. Not only would I not get the job if I told him what it was like to be an AFTRS, military disk jockey; but I realized that I really didn’t want that job, in the first place!! Best decision I ever made was standing up, shaking the man’s hand, and saying “Thanks but no thanks,” and walking out. He’d just never understand what “real broadcasting” was all about!
What I felt about being a Military Broadcaster
Although I was IN the military, as a broadcaster I wasn’t OF the military. I had rank, wore a uniform, abided by regulations, but really wasn’t MILITARY, while I was on the air. I was “Doc Ball” not “Air Force Staff Sergeant Ball.” I was unique, different, and to that guy on the flight line at three am, trying to stay awake, I was the voice of home, right out there with him, sharing my time and music to help his loneliness. I wasn’t a “voice of authority, but a friend right there with him. I gave him news from home, reminded him of what was going on around base, and things that were available to him. He wasn’t one of “you guys out there,” he was sharing his space with me, just he and I, and I was doing the comforting, the spirit lifting, and the helping time to pass in the long night hours, or the long daytime hours, as the case might be. He was as close to me as my microphone, and I was as close as his radio speaker or headphone. I kept him going, and by listening to my voice over the air, he was keeping me in a job. It’s what kept me at it for all those years as a “disk jockey for the Air Force;” not an Air Force disk jockey.” That is really what “military broadcasting” is all about. That’s what it is to me.
Davis F. “Doc” Ball
AFRTS, Thule Air Base, Greenland,
AFRS-Ramey, Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico