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Iraq’s Freedom Radio goes quiet

The American Forces Network station, broadcasting from Baghdad since 2003, has finally shut down. Dan Zak

world Updated: Sep 24, 2011 22:53 IST
Dan Zak

An apricot sunrise burns through the gray haze over Baghdad, which wakes up Friday to the jocular baritones of two staff sergeants in a ramshackle, mostly disassembled sound booth in a squat, Saddam-era bunker on a dusty side street of the Green Zone.

“Baghdad, you are not cloudy, you are not partly cloudy. You have blotch. That’s the weather. Gonna get up to 106 today. It’s gonna be a hot one.”

It’s 100 days before the deadline for US troop withdrawal, and Baghdad-based Freedom Radio — after nearly eight years of broadcasting talk and music to service members and Iraqis — terminates its live transmission at midnight and cedes the airwaves to military satellite signals from Europe and Afghanistan.

Sgts Adam Prickel, 29, and Jay Townsend, 30, have tag-teamed their Freedom Radio show, ‘Morning P-T’, since December, doing the weather, jazzing up military announcements, taking requests for top-40 hits and golden oldies, smudging the conservative brass with their ribald humor.

One constant of modern warfare since 1942 has been the American Forces Radio and Television Service Network, a communications arm of the Defense Department that broadcasts to 175 countries and US territories and is now headquartered at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.

There has been funny business: An on-air deconstruction of Britney Spears’s anatomy and behavior, a sermon about feminism and the emasculation of the American male, a discussion about the familial roles played by Joey and Uncle Jesse on the ‘90s sitcom ‘Full House’.

And those hijinks, according to broadcast quality control officer Sgt. Don Dees, catch and hold listeners’ attention for the serious and important stuff: The on-air announcement of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, reminders about base protocol and Arabic phrases, taped messages from spouses back home, somber bulletins about troop deaths.

“Some of us more advanced in rank and age sometimes bristle at [Prickel and Townsend’s] methodology, but their intent is to reach their target audience, and they know where the line is,” says Dees, 43, who hails from Woodbridge.

“Generally speaking, military broadcasters can’t pull off a two-person show. That requires chemistry, mutual understanding, teamwork and balance. But they remained friends between deployments, and at the beginning I knew I had something in them that was unexpected and very, very likely to succeed.”

Service members listen on the remaining 38 bases in the country. Iraqis post requests and comments on the station’s Facebook page.

Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant has said his first exposure to Muddy Waters and Little Richard in 1950s England was via the American Forces Network out of Germany.

Prickel and Townsend fantasise that, in 20 years, an Iraqi rock star might fondly remember the tunes on Freedom Radio.

They and their fellow hosts aspired to reach past hard realities — 100,000-plus Iraqi civilians and American troops wounded or dead, $3 billion-plus spent — and offer distraction, entertainment, remembrance and positive messages.

Townsend, who returns home to Arkansas next month, has reenlisted with the Army for another six years, predicts he’ll be sent to Afghanistan eventually and wonders whether he’ll be on the last broadcasting team there, too. Prickel is leaving the Army to be a video journalist at his hometown CBS affiliate in Indianapolis.

“We’re 10 minutes away from never saying another word,” Townsend says as midnight approaches. The Freedom Radio staffers — some awake since 0400 hours — gather in the studio for the final countdown.

“To be part of that apparatus that provides that morale boost — I will always remember being here with you guys and being together for the final moments of our broadcast,” Dees says on the air after Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” plays.

With four minutes to go, Townsend cues Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” which listeners voted should close out the soundtrack of the war in Iraq.

And at exactly 0000 hours, the microphones go dead and Porky Pig’s voice squeaks a loony sign-off over the airwaves: “That’s all, folks”.