Saturday, January 7, 2012

AFRTS to a Dependent

Karl Bartlett sent in his AFRTS memories:

I’ll start my story at what is (sort of) the beginning.  For the record, I’m what’s affectionately known as an “army brat.”  I was twelve years old in the summer of  1966 when my family moved from Paris, France, to Athens, Greece.  That was around the time I first heard what at the time was called “Armed Forces Radio.”  The next five years would prove to be a very special part of my life.

Prior to moving to Greece, I spent three years in Paris, France. I had my own transistor radio, and
grew up listening to French music and news. I knew where all the stations were on the dial, and at what time all the shows came on. That was the beginning of what would become, for better or worse, a life-long obsession.

When we moved to Athens after a brief stay in the States, my faithful transistor radio of course came along for the ride.  I went to an American school in Athens, and because of that my French was
and still is much better than my Greek. My radio listening habits changed somewhat, and I discovered
the local AFRTS outlet.  Somewhere along the way my parents bought me a shortwave set at the local
PX, and the obsession with radio continued.  My memories at this point were being made by AFRTS, Voice of America, as well as the BBC, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Monte-Carlo, and other European super-stations, both on what we call “AM” (it was called “mediumwave” over there) as well as on shortwave. 

Sometime in the summer of ’68, I arranged for a “tour” of the AFRTS studios. I was an avid listener
of Athens-A-Gogo, the locally produced show that featured the current hits of the day.  I had already
written several letters, one of which was read over the air. (What ever happened to Air Force Sgt. Joe
Wilson?) I asked why they never played any flip sides, and Joe said something about “special” records.  Until I actually saw the pressings, I imagined them to be 45-rpm records with a blank side!
Turn the calendar ahead one year, to the summer of ’69.  On Saturday mornings at 1000 (I’m going
to use military time, since this is Armed Forces Radio!) there was a local show called TeenScene. After hearing a couple of my classmates on the radio, I decided that, well, why shouldn’t I be doing this?  During that summer, I managed to land a part-time summer unpaid “job.” Looking back, I guess it could be considered an internship!  My first duties were to file the weekly shipments of records numer-ically by taking a Sharpie and marking those infamous generic brown folders with the disc number; then I had to go trough the enclosed three-by-five cards, and take any titles that already existed and type them up on an existing card; this was a space-saving measure. The idea was to have one card (or two, or three, if necessary,) listing all versions of the same song.  The same principle was applied to the artist cards as well. Part of the fun of all this was trying to deal with some of the inconsistencies that popped up from time to time. Enoch Light and the Light Brigade would be filed as “Light, Enoch, and the Light Brigade” or “Light and the Light Brigade, Enoch.” As I write this, I find it rather scary that I actually remember that.

It has always been strictly verboten to play anything over AFRTS airwaves other than officially
sanctioned material, namely, the aforementioned record library. It was permissible to “lift” tunes from
the pre-recorded shows, although this was usually rather tricky, since the DJ’s usually talked over the
beginning and end of any given song.  (I will digress quickly here and mention that much of AFRTS
programming at the time was an early form of syndication. Many of the big names in Los Angeles ra-dio recorded special shows for AFRTS, and the shows were shipped, on vinyl, to the stations along with the weekly additions to the library.)  The AFRTS-LA jocks would sometimes play material that wasn’t in the station library. I never understood why they could play tunes that we (the locals) couldn’t, but I guess “that’s the way it is.”

One Saturday afternoon that same summer, I was listening to the station, and heard an interesting tune called “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. The next time I was at the station, the first thing I
did –  of course – was look up the song on those infamous index cards. I looked backwards and for-wards, thinking it was somehow misplaced. I would, of course, immediately correct the error! After not finding “Eve of Destruction,” I proceeded to look for the artist. I must have looked for any variation of “McGuire” that I could think of; I may even have looked under “Barry.”

The next time I ran into this particular staffer (he shall remain nameless to protect the innocent as
well as the not-so-innocent) he admitted that he brought the record in from home. It would have been
one thing to bring in a commercial copy of a song that was already in the library – but in those days, at
the height of the Vietnam War, protest songs weren’t exactly welcome by AFRTS brass. 

Unfortunately for him, the manager also heard the offending tune. I seem to recall him (the staffer, not the manager) being “re-assigned” to the base post office, and he may or may not have been allowed back, but I can’t recall. I was reminded of this incident years later when the movie Good Morning Vietnam! came out.

Even as a mere teenager, I learned that at AFRTS there were hard and fast rules, and there were certain things that you just didn’t do. As someone once told me, “there was an Adrian Cronauer, and he did say ‘good morning, Vietnam!’ but he didn’t do half the crap Robin Williams did in the movie.”
Sometime in the fall of 1970, TeenScene needed a new host, a student from the area, since this was
not a paying position. Naturally, I applied for the “job.” However, the station wanted to keep an appearance of fairness, and since I was connected with the station, management did give me the position, but I was given a co-host, a girl from the same American school I attended.  We essentially
tried to be as famous as Athens-A-Gogo, which at this point was hosted by Air Force Sgt. David Hart.
(Thanks, Dave, wherever you are!)  TeenScene  lasted about six months, after which point it was canceled for reasons still unknown (to me, anyway.)
We left Greece and headed back stateside in the summer of ’71, and unfortunately my association
with AFRTS came to an untimely end. Maybe that small little station at the Hellenikon Air Base was
never a major player in the AFRTS fleet, but it was to me.

It’s strange. Today we have the capability of putting the entire AFRTS music library on a flash drive
no bigger than a human finger. We can hear all of  latest tunes on YouTube the very same day they are
released. Back in the “good old days” a number of songs that were hits in the States never made it to
AFRTS, either because of musical content, licensing issues, or any number of other reasons. We can
listen to stations from almost anywhere in the world without having to string an antenna across the
back yard, and they even sound better too! It’s strange, but even with all the technology that’s available today, the magic has disappeared.  Those were the days, my friend; We thought they’d never end...