Considering we’re here to interrogate soldiers and photograph Marines, security at the AFN’s (American Forces Network) HQ is surprisingly low-key. The guard, a tubby old retainer hunkered over a loud sitcom playing on a DVD player, deigns to tip an eyebrow like an experienced auction bidder to acknowledge our arrival. Before flashing business cards we are three strangers in sunglasses bearing baggage like bombs, or their kin: bulky camera cases, lighting rigs like artillery, tripods folded into slim cases, shoulder-mounted. Sure, the AFN is a TV network, not a weapons depository or a “situation” nor a “theatre”, but Nickelodeon is tougher to enter. But then, you suppose, the military can look after themselves.
“We have a small town mentality here,” says Mel Russell. It’s easy to imagine the boss of the AFRTS (American Forces Radio and Television Service), to give the AFN its full initials, as the sheriff of a tight-knit town. Not surprisingly a short walk around the leafy block in Alexandria, Virginia (half an hour from the Pentagon in a taxi, presumably half that in a military motorcade) provides instant evocation of the network’s mission, to provide “a touch of home”. But Mel’s being folksy. In fact, Mr (formerly Lieutenant colonel) Russell presides over a media network that provides 800,000 US servicemen and women with 13 television and 35 radio stations and employs 1,100 reporters, producers and staff of both military and civilian extraction in bases and outposts in 177 countries across the world. “We even get to Antarctica,” says Russell. Ideally, where there’s a GI there’s a TV.
The AFRS (there was no T for TV then) was established in 1942 by Colonel Tom Lewis – in civvies, a high profile ad executive and a friend of Frank Capra. At the time General “Marshall Plan” Marshall was concerned about enemy propaganda emanating from Axis Sally in Germany and Tokyo Rose in Japan, so he established a shortwave radio service to broadcast his own. While informing troops in the American way, Capra’s showbiz pals – Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante – were conscripted to entertain on the airwaves. Fifty years later there are 12 principal stations broadcasting 24 hours a day to varying demographics within the military. Mostly, though, it’s young guys. “The isolated male audience on air force bases and warships around the world,” as Russell calls them.
And it’s all good stuff. It’s real. Tune into the painstakingly time-skewed schedule on a Tuesday evening in Mannheim, Okinawa or Basra and enjoy Letterman, Leno and Law & Order on AFN Prime. Flick through AFN Spectrum – Wife Swap, Iron Chef – to AFN Sports and cheer at the live or as-live wall-to-wall coverage of the NFL, NBA, NASCAR and Major League baseball. The sports channel carried over 600 hours of Olympics this summer. Most brilliantly, from the point of view of Mel Russell and his thousand-odd employees, is that all this TV is free. “It’s the last great deal in the world,” says Russell with satisfaction. “I guess the producers of these shows are just as proud to serve the troops as I am.”
Thankfully for the troops, AFN is not allowed to air commercials. The military, however, makes its own. “Command information” messages range from international entreaties to re-enlist, to regional pushes to support a blood-drive to local information about heavy snowfall delaying school buses in Kaiserslautern. There is straightforward information on how to claim health and education benefits, rose-tinted depictions of military life and celebrity endorsements of the troops that recall Japan’s habitual miscasting of Hollywood stars for domestic commercials. Plenty of blog-roll has been dedicated to describing this stuff as propaganda. In fact, it’s closer to another piece of papal persuasion: it’s indoctrination. AFN can only be watched by the military and their families, so it’s not missionary work – it’s preaching to the converted. Besides, next to much of American ad-land’s usual barrel-scraping, AFN’s infomercials are averagely plausible.
News can be tricky, though. “At the Pentagon Channel, we love soldiers reporting on soldiers because it brings credibility – they report it as they see it,” says Jim (formerly Air Force Master sergeant) Langdon, an executive producer. “The flipside is that it can be seen as propaganda – but I don’t think it is.” While AFN News plays a reasonably fair mixture of the US networks’ and cable channels’ bulletins, the Pentagon Channel – the 13th station on the AFN roster – exists in a vacuum sealed by the Department of Defense. The Pentagon Channel’s job is to transmit defence news and information based on home soil. Sometimes international debate on a military issue will have to reach fever pitch in order for the station to pay it lip service. “When there was all this controversy about water-boarding at Gitmo [Guantánamo Bay’s detention centre], we reported that there was a debate about it but we didn’t labour the point like the civilian media did,” says Langdon. “Let’s talk about building bridges, helping Iraqi kids, fighting the bad guys in the mountains of Afghanistan, you know?”
Sergeant Ted “Mac” Macdonald is one of the anchors of Around the Services, the Pentagon Channel’s regular news bulletin. Mac recently returned from a 13-month tour in Iraq as a combat correspondent where he taught himself to shoot, edit, produce and present four-minute stories direct from his embed with units in Fallujah and Ramadi. Off-screen, Mac’s an effusive quick-talker about his news-gathering adventures; “I’ve been on patrols. I’ve been part of the entry team. I’ve been the fourth guy through the door with a video camera in one hand and a carbine in the other,” he says, tapping a Marlboro on his camouflaged knee. “Sometimes I’d bring the camera back and I couldn’t believe what I’d done – it’s awesome.” The tone of the Pentagon Channel’s news has changed since Mac’s return. He describes Ramadi as the difference between “night and day from two years ago” and talks about a 22-year-old Marine sergeant who enlisted five other Marines and 50 Iraqi police officers to “take ownership” of an entire neighbourhood. If a family had a fire the young sergeant knew about it, if someone’s wife was sick he would make sure she was looked after. These are the stories, on the changing role of soldiering, that get told now. Set up in 2004 around the slogan “serving those who serve”, the Pentagon Channel, besides the news, broadcasts a lot of long speeches. The Department of Defense has a lot to say. There’s a full schedule of interminable dais action: it’s Valhalla for podium-fanciers. As Langdon admits, “The young 18-30 year olds out there fighting the war – they’re not going to watch it, really.”
To lighten the load then, and attract these 18-30s – to serve those who serve – the station produces entertainment shows, too. The Grill Sergeant – an army cook from Louisiana, “a star with the cajun stuff”, according to Mel Russell – is the channel’s first breakout star, attracting interest from the Food Network. Fit for Duty is an exercise show that surprised channel bosses by being downloaded 30,000 times as a podcast in its first month. Recon recently focused on the military’s “dirtiest jobs” – mucking out horses, scrubbing coastguard boats, washing urinalysis machines, but not, it seems, killing people. SitRep (situation report), which is currently in development, will be a Meet the Press-style Q&A chaired by a Marine master gunnery sergeant.
It’s a mostly well-meaning mix, but it rarely stands at ease. The on-message atmosphere and preponderance of uniforms breaking into stiff jocularity suggest Robin Williams’s po-faced station controllers in Good Morning, Vietnam. Some rigour is useful, though: “I have to do 50 every time I upload a spelling mistake,” pants Petty officer Scott Terry, a Pentagon Channel web technician, as he sweats through punishment push-ups on the production room floor.
“When we were going to do a town hall meeting right here in the Pentagon with the secretary of defence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the question came up, ‘how will the troops back here in the States watch it?’” says Allison Barber, in her well-appointed office, just across the Potomac and past all the security, in the Pentagon. “Well, they couldn’t watch it, so at the time Secretary Rumsfeld looked across at me and said, ‘well, fix that’.” And so Ms Barber, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for internal communications and public liaison, did fix that and the Pentagon Channel was created, and quickly. On starting the job in May 2001, Barber realised that Americans were disconnected from their troops. Broadly speaking, it was peace time. “Then September 11 happened and immediately people were connected to the military,” she says. Barber’s mission is that they stay connected; “It’s much easier to help communicate the mission of our military when we are at war,” says the army wife and former Red Cross PR director, candid on her home turf. “The long-term effect of a non-connected atmosphere to the military is dangerous for the state of our country.” Some staffers at the Pentagon’s TV station call the place “the five-sided building” as euphemistic actors refer to “the Scottish play”. And the building – the Vatican of war – does possess an air of nervy theatricality: it’s wall-to-wall uniforms, buzz cuts, white-knuckled decorum. Apart from the garden in the centre of the structure – a pretty, unofficial haven from selected details of military protocol – officers are saluted by subordinates at every corner along the miles of corridors and jobs aren’t done; missions are accomplished.
An America away from the manicured lawns of Washington DC and the acacia avenues of Alexandria, all this TV is beamed from the satellite farm at the Defense Media Center in Riverside, a city sprawled in the valley of a baking Southern Californian desert. The sense of humour’s drier, too. “When we first launched our ‘Direct to Sailors’ service, not all the ships had the right dish for it and were using their navigation equipment to pick up the signal,” laughs Larry Marotta, responsible for the acquisition of all this free TV. “Anyway, we were told fairly abruptly by command ‘don’t do that’ – we had all these warships wandering around the ocean losing their way just so they could watch the game!” There’s a ripple of indulgent laughter around the gargantuan conference table as the importance of AFN’s sports service is elucidated candidly. For a nerve centre, the Media Center is refreshingly relaxed. This building, in the style of a mega hacienda and originally designed to house the Air Force’s “combat camera” service (military operations committed to tape), is where 300 channels of American television are captured, taken to pieces, ingested into banks of servers and rebroadcast as the AFN. Besides the oppressive pink paintwork, these too are corridors of power. Rooms of edit suites, master controls, playback systems and civilian and military staff are the providers of the “touch of home” that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines hanker for in the 177 countries in which they serve. And it’s not just the Californian sun that makes the Media Center seem loose-limbed: a lot of the staff are civilians. While most of the executive tier are ex-military and find themselves smart, straight-backed and “roger-ing that”, there are plenty of the jeans, T-shirts and collar-worrying haircuts found in any civvy station.
“The military tend to think ‘what’s the point in having someone in uniform pushing these buttons?’” says executive director Jeffrey (née Colonel) White with a shrug. “They think soldiers ought to be carrying a gun, not a camera.” The civilian conversion of the military media may unsettle the top brass, but might also act as a check on command information’s doctrinaire excesses. The fact remains that there is nothing like the AFN: in terms of coverage, proud to be the most widespread media network in the world and just as proud of its small town feel. If you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean at Super Bowl time, you’ll be just fine. If you’re tuning into the Pentagon Channel, take it with a pinch of salt: the military can look after themselves. Back in Virginia, Mac was adamant about it, though; “We report the truth and we report with journalistic integrity. We just do different stories.”