Tuesday, September 27, 2016

FEN - Wakkanai 1961 Jim Pritchard

Thom, as a graduate of AFRTS, I give thanks ever everyday that I was in a place where I could break in.  I went on to spend 15 years behind the mic with stops in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Salt Lake City and some smaller locales, thanks to my year of experience with FEN-Wakkanai.

Wakkanai is as far north in Japan as you can get.  The USAF facility there was part of the "Security Service".  USAFSS had a string of "listening posts" surrounding the USSR, from Scotland to Japan.  Sometime around 1959 or so, the guys at the base decided they needed a radio station to help pass the time in this "remote" location.  Since it was a listening facility, it was loaded with electronic gear and troops that knew how to use it.

They built a small, low power AM station without bothering to tell the Far East Network (FEN-Japan).  Things went along OK for several months and then one strange night, as AM stations will do the signal took off and skipped right into the middle of downtown Tokyo, blocking out a major AM station there.

Needless to say, this started a major international fuss.  After much discussion, FEN offered to step in and set up one of their outlets in full cooperation with the Japan version of the FCC.

They shipped all the needed equipment along with the music library and one Army Spec-4 to supervise and got the whole thing going.  It was a 24/7 operation, since the base was working every hour of every day.  With no staff announcers, it was up to volunteers to do the on-air work.  Shifts were 4 hours long and the troops usually had about 2 or so every week.

I showed up in January, 1961, part of a group of just-graduated accounting and finance clerks.  I had enlisted right after I graduated high school since I had no grades to make college my future.  I was a pretty serious follower of the pop music of the day and had even had a by-line column about the hits in my school newspaper.

It turned out that one of my roommates, Jerry, was working the 5-9 AM shift on a regular basis.  When he found out that I was a real music fan, he invited me over to the studio to look through the AFRTS transcription library.  I did so a few times and then one day, he told me to put on the earphones and see what I sounded like when I opened the mic.  All I had to do was give the station ID between two radio dramas that were on the schedule.  Finally the time came, I opened the mic and uttered the immortal words "Serving American forces overseas, this is the Far East Network".

Jerry walked in the control room and informed me that I needed to be on the volunteer staff .   I was stunned.  That afternoon, I found the Army guy and told him what had happened.  He'd already heard from Jerry, so he said that I did have to follow the usual custom of my first shift being an all-night gig.  That was fine with me and so my broadcast career got underway.

I got some great feedback from the guys that were listening in operations that night.  Within about a month, I was among the upper echelon of the staff guys, working the "Saturday Bandstand" shift and lending my knowledge of pop music to the other guys.  What a thrill it was.

In the Spring of 1962, I was on our base bowling team and traveled to Tachikawa AFB for the "All Air Force Japan" tournament.  While I was there I took the opportunity to spend the afternoon at the FEN main studios.  It turned out that Wakkanai was quite famous among the crew there because the FEN did a major weather program 3 times a day, with all the Japan stations checking in. They loved listening to us because our weather was always the worst of all the outlets, especially in the winter.  I also found a little closed circuit station that was piped into all the barracks in Tachi, and they played only all the pop music of he day.  The DJ there was a good guy to talk to and passed on a few tips.

Later that summer, I was transferred to Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, TX.  My dad had given me a car so after I'd been there about a month I drove into town and found the KTEO studios, the local Top 40 outlet.  I walked in the door and asked if they needed weekend help.  The manager asked if I had any experience, I told them about a year in AFRTS.  He said to show up Sunday at 6 PM and they'd give me a listen.

I did a 6 hour gig, finding out how much different commercial radio was compared to AFRTS.  They liked what they heard, so I did two weekends of all-night shifts and then asked me to do the 9-midnight every night.  For a 20 year old kid, being a real live DJ on a real live Top 40 station was beyond my wildest dreams, and I loved it.

I found out later that FEN Wakkanai became a duty station about a year after I left with no more volunteers so I  was blessed to be there when I was.  To this day, I give thanks that I just happened to be there at the right time.  Being a radio DJ back then was truly a gift from heaven.

Thanks for the AFRTS site, I hope this helped your info gathering

James Pritchard
(aka Jim Southern, DJ)
Gladstone, OR

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