Face of Defense: Official Recalls AFRTS Milestones
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT MEADE, Md., April 30, 2012 As they turn on their TV sets anywhere in the world -- whether at military bases thousands of miles from U.S. soil, a remote outpost in Afghanistan or on a Navy ship at sea -- military members and their families have access to multiple channels of live American TV programming.
Melvin Russell, acting director of the Defense Media Activity, retires April 30, 2012, after 51 years of service, during which he played a major role in expanding American Forces Radio and Television Service from a single-channel, over-the-air system into the multi-channel, satellite-delivered network that now reaches millions of viewers in 177 countries. DOD photo by Linda Hosek
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
And in many ways, they have Melvin Russell to thank for that. Russell, acting director of Defense Media Activity, retires today after 51 years of military and civilian service.
The “touch of home” the American Forces Radio and Television Service provides has been a hallmark throughout its 70-year history. Since its earliest roots providing radio to deployed World War II forces, the Defense Department-operated service has worked to provide the men and women in uniform and the families who accompany them around the world a link to the same news, sports and entertainment they enjoy at home.
The evolution of the world’s first worldwide satellite radio and TV system is intertwined with Russell's career as one of its visionaries and primary architects.
Russell remembers firsthand what it felt like, while deployed to Vietnam as an Army signal officer, to hear familiar sounds of home via the American Forces Vietnam Network.
Little did he know at the time that his career -- shaped by an Army-sponsored master’s degree program in film and television production at the University of Texas -- ultimately would land him in a position to chart AFRTS’ future.
At the Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., Russell made the Army’s first conversion from black-and-white to color, providing a template for all other Army schoolhouses. After a two-year tour in Great Britain, where he helped the British army set up its first TV production facility, Russell moved on to the Pentagon to manage the Army’s audiovisual facility. Five years later, he began his final military assignment as assistant director of the American Forces Radio and Television Service.
Returning to AFRTS a year after his 1983 military retirement, Russell devoted his next 28 years to expanding the service from a single-channel, over-the-air system into the multi-channel, satellite-delivered network that now reaches millions of viewers in 177 countries.
“When I look back, it’s almost impossible to remember how basic we were,” Russell said of the legacy system he initially oversaw. “We had no live television. We duplicated thousands of tapes a year, and we shipped them all over the world by mail.”
Each week, he explained, major AFRTS outlets and Navy ships at sea got hundreds of hours of tape that they would play on air, then ship on to the next outlet. This process was cumbersome and slow, he recalled, with smaller stations sometimes receiving unplayable tapes if they received them at all.
“In that case, they ended up playing last week’s [programming] again,” Russell remembered with a smile.
Despite occasional delays and inconveniences, AFRTS stayed true to its charter, he said. “The thing that AFRTS has always provided has been what we call ‘a touch of home,’” he said. “And that touch of home, even if it was months old, was always there,” he added. “You could see ‘Sesame Street’ or ‘Murder, She Wrote’ -- programs that were popular back then -- even if they were months old when you got them. But at least you had the opportunity to see them.”
Meanwhile, overseas audiences could get current news via AFRTS radio. Military broadcasters typically read wire-service copy over the air and incorporated it in their programs, along with music from vinyl records distributed by AFRTS, Russell said.
AFRTS television provided a visual version of this same programming, with anchors reading wire-service material. If still photos were available, the broadcasters used them as graphics in their newscasts.
Dissatisfied that this was the best service AFRTS could provide, Russell set his sights on leveraging emerging technology to stand up the world’s first worldwide satellite broadcasting system. The quest to deliver live American TV, wherever U.S. military members and their families may be, has remained Russell’s holy grail throughout his career.
“In every survey that we have ever done of what troops and their families stationed overseas miss when they are overseas, it is news and sports,” he said. “And so for me, the idea of taping a sporting event in the States, making copies of that and sending it overseas so that it could be played weeks later was unacceptable.”
So beginning in the early 1980s, AFRTS began delivering about a half-dozen major sporting events live, slowly expanding the service to include more news and sports programming as satellite TV technology advanced.
Along with technical challenges came diplomatic ones, Russell recalled. He traveled all around the world, personally asking allies and partner nations for permission to download American TV signals to rebroadcast to American bases within their borders.
“Some were easy, but some were very tough,” he said of the discussions. “We had to negotiate with each one of those countries to allow us to bring down the signal. Back then, governments controlled satellite capability. So you had to deal with the government and they had to allow you to bring down the American television signal on an international satellite.”
When one European holdout finally relented and agreed to the plan, Russell was so intent on seeing the system go operational there that he personally accompanied the giant contingency satellite dishes on their flight from California and helped to assemble them.
“We set up live television within a few days,” he said. The reward, one of the “ah-ha” moments of Russell’s career, came when he walked into the club across the street from the dishes and saw a live American sports event being aired there for the first time on AFRTS. “Looking back, those are thing things that you remember doing,” he said.
Russell reflected on the magnitude of the accomplishment for AFRTS. “This was the first worldwide network, the first time they had ever allowed for a foreign service, the United States, to deliver American television to multiple downlinks around the world,” he said. “So we were the pioneer in doing that.”
The worldwide AFRTS system was such a technological breakthrough that CNN turned to Russell and his staff in the early 1980s for satellite access, while standing up its own 24/7 worldwide network. In return, CNN provided its programming, including CNN Headline News, at no charge for AFRTS to broadcast to its overseas audience.
Throughout AFRTS’ history, program owners and syndicators have provided American programming at no cost. This arrangement also bans AFRTS from airing commercials. Instead, it fills those program gaps with command information spots designed to help service members succeed in their careers and family life.
“It is probably unique in the Department of Defense, if not in the government, that American broadcasters and production companies and program owners provide their product, radio and television, to AFRTS at no cost,” Russell said. “That is unique in the world. So because of that, we have to protect it when it is on the satellite, or anyone could use it.”
To protect these broadcasts, AFRTS came up with an encryption system and issued decoders so its overseas stations could download the signals.
Beginning in the late 1990s in Europe and in 2002 in Japan and Korea, AFRTS took its programming to the next level with its direct-to-home service. This gave service members and families overseas living off base their first chance to see live American TV.
Another major advancement came in 1997, when AFRTS applied technology it developed in partnership with the Navy to deliver the first live broadcasts to Navy ships at sea.
Previously, shipboard movement while under way caused constant interruption of broadcast signals. As a result, onboard TV was limited to prepackaged videos that AFRTS distributed.
New gyroscope-controlled satellite dishes controlled by the ship’s steering system and able to lock in on a satellite signal changed all that, Russell said. But it presented another challenge, requiring high-bandwidth satellites that maintain fixed positions over the Earth and cover large swaths of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
Over time, AFRTS began providing three channels of live TV to 150 ships at sea. As a side benefit, the ship-to-sailor system served another previously neglected population: land-based U.S. service members in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other remote areas of the Pacific, many of them based at U.S. Embassies.
As AFRTS increasingly extended its reach, it also delivered more programming choices to its audiences, thanks in large part to new video compression technology. This enabled the service to deliver more programming without using additional transponders or bandwidth, Russell explained.
He recalled the limited number of TV stations available to most U.S. markets as late as the 1960s and 1970s. As cable television expanded these offerings in the United States, AFRTS’ overseas audiences wanted more channels, too.
AFRTS expanded from one to three TV channels in 1996 -- with one devoted to news, one to sports and one to general entertainment -- while continuing to provide multiple radio choices.
Today, it offers eight channels of television programming and 12 radio services.
The current selections of programming include one of the most recent additions to the system: the Pentagon Channel. That network, established in 2004, represents AFRTS’ only service for military members and their families in the United States. Its 24-hour-a-day news programming serves more than 350 bases in the United States, as well as 38 million U.S. homes, and represents AFRTS’ eighth TV channel overseas.
In standing up the Pentagon Channel, AFRTS also became one of the first networks to take advantage of new technology called “streaming” to air its broadcasts on the Internet live, 24 hours a day, Russell said.
Looking to the future, Russell said the AFRTS evolution is far from over. The explosion in mobile devices will continue to change how audiences select their programming and how, when and where they receive it, he said.
Gone, he acknowledged, will be the days when broadcasters can air their programs confident that they have a captive audience.
“The way we get TV is going to change, because all those new devices give the user the capability to select what they want to view or read or see,” he said. “Everything will be on demand. The programming will be out there, and when you want it, wherever you are and whatever device you have, you will be able to take it down and watch it, view it, read it, or whatever you do with it.”
That will bring big opportunities to AFRTS and its audiences, but also new challenges in getting key command information messages across, Russell said. So more than ever before, he said, duplicating those messages through multiple means -- TV, radio, social media, the Internet and other mechanisms -- will be critical.
Though AFRTS has experienced many changes over the years, the service has never lost sight of its core mission, Russell said.
“The one thing that has not changed and never will is the requirement for a capability of getting news and information to troops and their families wherever they are in the world,” he said. “We have gone from short-wave radio in World War II to television to multi-channel television and radio, to the Web, to social media,” he continued. “But the bottom line is, someone has to get that information and decide how best to format it to get it to the various audiences. And fulfilling that will always be our mission.”
As he prepares to step down today from the helm of the Defense Media Activity, where he oversees all Defense Department internal media operations, Russell said he’s gratified that he’s been able to play a part in supporting that mission.
He recalled a speech by Army Lt. Col. Tom Lewis, father of the American Forces Radio Service during World War II. “He said, ‘My mission has been that, wherever an American military person is, that we deliver them radio service,’” Russell said. ‘And he said that until the last military member overseas has that available, ‘I have not completed my mission.’”
That’s exactly how Russell feels about AFRTS television and another Defense Media Activity product, the Stars and Stripes newspaper.
“This sounds hokey,” he said. “But I honestly feel that until the very last military member somewhere in the world, in a god-awful place, has live radio, television and Stars and Stripes paper available to them, we have not done our mission. And I really believe that.”
This drive has kept Russell focused on the job long past the point where most of his contemporaries have moved on. “That’s the reason I have stayed around: to be able to do that because I think it’s so important,” he said.
But now, at age 73 with 51 years of military and federal service under his belt, Russell said he’s reluctantly retiring only because he feels his goal has been achieved, or is within close reach.
“I can’t tell you for certain that we are there, but we are damned close,” he said. “And if someone out there doesn’t have live television, it’s because I don’t know they don’t have it. Because if I know that any of them didn’t have it, I would get it to them.
“The bottom line for me is that when you go overseas, you don’t leave the States behind. You need to feel that connection,” he added. “So if you are in Afghanistan at an outpost, you should be able to watch a live NFL game.”
Russell called providing that service “the right thing to do” and said he’s found tremendous gratification in delivering it.
“I’ve been unbelievably lucky in life, being allowed to do what I love doing and getting paid for it,” he said. “I don’t see how you can beat that. You just can’t.”