Inside DOD   Know Your Military

AFN: Keeping Military Troops, Families Informed Since 1942

April 26, 2021 | BY Katie Lange, DOD News

People outside the military may only know of AFN through the Robin Williams movie "Good Morning Vietnam" — or, if you’re younger than 30, possibly not at all. 

But for anyone who’s grown up around the military, AFN — the American Forces Network — is a way of life. For nearly 80 years, the network has brought entertainment to deployed U.S. troops and military families who live overseas. Most importantly, it’s been a lifeline to keep them informed in times of emergency, life-threatening disasters and other crises — even now, when we have just about everything at our fingertips.

A man holds a microphone on stage while uniformed service members watch from below.
AFN Robin Williams
For many, Robin Williams is the person who first brought military broadcasting to the nation’s attention. The comic starred as real-life military DJ Adrian Cronauer in the movie "Good Morning Vietnam." Williams made many personal appearances with the USO to visit troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and other hot spots. His stand up comedy was a huge boost to morale.
Photo By: Dave Gatley/USO
VIRIN: 210420-O-ZZ999-048

AFN has grown in size and scope since its first broadcast during World War II. Its name may have changed once or twice, too (okay… five times), but its mission has always remained the same.

A Quick History 

Makeshift radio stations that catered to U.S. troops were set up in places like Panama, Alaska and the Philippines as early as 1940. They were so successful at building morale that military leaders took note.

Several men crowd around a 1940s-era radio sitting just inside a tent.
AFN World War II
During World War II, airmen of the 443Rd Signal Construction Battalion stationed on Okinawa, Japan, listen to an Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast about the end of the hostilities in Europe, May 8, 1945.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 450508-F-ZZ999-062

On May 26, 1942, a few months after the U.S. entered World War II, the Armed Forces Radio Service was established. Tom Lewis, an advertising executive in Los Angeles, was commissioned into the Army as the first AFRS commander. Using his Hollywood connections, he scraped together enough personnel and equipment to kick-start the network. 

Some of its earliest radio shows included Command Performance and Mail Call, which were created for U.S. troops and featured some top performers of the 1940s, including singer Bing Crosby, singer/actress Judy Garland and comedians Abbott and Costello. Needless to say, it was a hit.

By January 1943, the War Department officially directed the military to support the growing network. Under that direction, its first official shows were broadcast from BBC studios in London on July 4, 1943. By D-Day on June 6, 1944, mobile radio studios and transmitters were available to follow the troops as they landed and advanced inland.

A woman and two men stand in front of a 40s-era microphone that says "AFRS."
AFN AFRS
The Armed Forces Radio Service featured the top Hollywood stars of the 1940s, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Here, the actors were interviewed by AFRS's Jack Brown (center).
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 210420-D-ZZ999-049

Television didn’t factor into the mix until 1953, when an experimental station was set up at Limestone Air Force Base, Maine. By April 1954, AFRS officially became the Armed Forces Radio AND Television Service.

The network continued to grow from there. By the early 1970s, color TV was introduced. In 1988, satellite radio replaced the shortwave system, offering listeners better quality and coverage. Satellite TV also began in the 1980s, offering viewers live news and sports programming. Ever since, the latest in technology has been introduced to keep the programming accessible and on point. 

Depending on where you are on the planet, you can now get as many as eight TV and 29 radio services, or as few as four TV and four radio services. And, of course, social media accounts complement each service. AFN is currently testing a streaming, video-on-demand service, to give viewers another choice of how and when to watch their favorite shows.

Five service members crowd around a small television in a tented room.
AFN 80s
U.S. service members, such as these 2nd Infantry Division Army soldiers in Korea in the 1980s, listened to Armed Forces Radio and Television Service broadcasting to get messages about force protection, news and entertainment wherever they were stationed.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 210420-D-ZZ999-050

The network’s name went through a bit of a transition as well. In 1969, officials changed it to the American Forces Radio and Television Service. They changed it back to Armed in 1982 before once again changing it to American in 2000. From there, one more adjustment was made; it was officially changed to its current iteration, American Forces Network, in October 2017. 

Did You Know? 

While top Hollywood talent has entertained our troops for decades via AFN, we can also thank the network for introducing us to some famous faces. For example, household names like "American Top 40" host Casey Kasem and "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak were both once military broadcasters. 

A man in uniform squats down to pose near a sign that's cut off.
AFN Pat Sajak
Famed "Wheel of Fortune" game show host Pat Sajak served in the Army in Vietnam as a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 210420-A-ZZ999-052

And have you ever wondered how so many foreigners became obsessed with our music, movies and pop culture in general? It’s because they, too, tuned in to AFN! From 1943 until the 1970s, AFN was the only way foreign countries could get classic American tunes from the jazz, rock, country and Motown genres. In fact, some of the world’s biggest stars — such as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop — have credited AFN for influencing them.

AFN currently delivers its services via satellite, which allows the network to broadcast to audiences in 168 countries and ships at sea. It was once heard in Iran, and it’s still available in far-flung locations like Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, Antarctica and even the International Space Station.

Several seated people surround a small TV in a tent.
AFN Super Bowl
Service members deployed to Afghanistan react while watching a live broadcast of Super Bowl XLVI in the USO. The game was broadcast on the American Forces Network.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jonathan Carmichael
VIRIN: 120206-N-UH337-002

The network is no longer the only English-language radio or TV available to overseas military members, but it can go where those other services cannot. Aside from tuning in via an installation’s cable system, DOD personnel and other authorized viewers can use their own satellite dish and buy or rent an AFN decoder. 

"A soldier in a classified location in the Middle East won’t have enough internet bandwidth to watch TV, but if he points his satellite dish up to the sky, he’ll get AFN," AFN public affairs officer George Smith said. "Troops in parts of Asia may have enough internet bandwidth to watch TV, but data caps make accessing shows online cost-prohibitive."

Furthermore, some top U.S. network shows aren’t authorized for viewing in certain parts of the world, but they can still be found on AFN. The tune-in options are definitely a step up from World War II, when troops had to get creative and make their own listening devices out of items like copper wire and metal from their mess kits.

A man in fatigues is on the phone while another man dons headphones in a small studio.
AFN Desert Shield
U.S. service members work in an Armed Forces Radio and Television Service broadcast van during Operation Desert Shield.
Photo By: JO1 Joe Gawlowicz, DOD
VIRIN: 210420-D-ZZ999-051

While the digital revolution has made music and entertainment more global, Smith said residents of our host countries still listen to AFN radio. Many of them contact the network with questions and requests simply because they like the programming. 

As for AFN’s news content, viewers and listeners still see and hear exactly what they would if they were in the U.S., although the occasional odd request has come in over time. For example, during World War II, AFN London was asked to play a French children’s song 14 times in one day. The DJs later learned it was a code song for French resistance forces. However, the network has always made sure that the enemy — which might also tune in — doesn’t get any inadvertent intel.

A uniformed man in headphones touches DJ equipment in a radio studio.
AFN Gary Bautell
Gary Bautell was a DJ and newscaster for AFN in Germany for four decades. He joined the radio network in 1962 as an Army private and became known as the voice of the U.S. military in Europe.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 210420-A-ZZ999-102

AFN’s unique reach also lends a hand to its most important task — informing the force. The network partners with commanders to pass along everything DOD personnel need to know in real-time, such as force protection changes, installation updates during COVID-19, how to get promoted, or how to enjoy all that your host country has to offer. 

AFN was there to inform our forces during 9/11, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and the terrorist attacks in France and Belgium. It will continue to be around for many years to come.