The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS, also going by the brand AFN, Armed Forces Network) operate one of the largest Satellite Television and Radio systems in the world. The service was and is considered vital to the morale of American Service Men and Women serving overseas, but is little known beyond those it serves. The services origins are shrouded in the mists of legend that develop as time passes.
The need for troop recreation in order to maintain morale was well recognized by the end of WWI. Several organizations, often religiously based, had stepped in to fill the gap, but it became obvious that the military itself could do a better and more effective job. In the years after the First World War the US Military experienced a drastic draw-down, and there were very few areas where Army personnel would have an overseas posting. These included Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Philippine Islands.
In the Canal Zone there was a problem communicating with the Coastal Artillery Installations from the Central Command Post. Distribution of radio receivers seemed a simple and inexpensive solution. However the soldiers on post had little reason to keep their radios turned on if there was nothing to listen too, so they were not effective as a warning device. It was theorized that if popular music and other programming were offered the radios would remain turned on. The NCO in charge of the broadcast began humbly corresponding with radio personalities seeking programming, sending letters to Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby. The response was as immediate as it could be at the time. Benny sent an autographed subscription disk to the Canal Zone and offered further transcriptions of his shows free of charge. NBC send 2000 pounds of transcription material, literally a ton of programming, to the Troops in Panama.
Free or extremely low-cost programming is still provided to AFN. The Dept of Defense takes no control over the content other than removing all commercials. This is to insure that the DoD will not be seen as endorsing products. DoD internal messages and Public Service Announcements replace the commercials.
In some areas, such as the Philippines, servicemen could listen to English Language programming directed at Western Civilians working in the area. In the Philippines much of this was from Japanese Radio Tokyo, which blanketed much of Asia. Shortwave Broadcasts were received in Manila from San Francisco’s KGEI and rebroadcast on commercial bands. After the Japanese invasion General MacArthur has the 1000 watt broadcast facility moved to Bataan and later Corregidor. The KGEI rebroadcasts became an important source of information and entertainment. Warnings were also passed to the Philippine people using this service. One was warning of counterfeit currency being used by the occupying Japanese. Radio Tokyo responded by warning that Philippine shopkeepers were required to accept currency provided by Japanese personnel or the shopkeeper could be shot.