June 25, 2010: U.S. military television stations in Europe are halting the broadcasting of their signals. Not because so many American troops have left Europe since the end of the Cold War, but because everyone has cable. A few broadcasting towers will keep operating, for the few areas where barracks are not yet wired for cable. The big losers are American retirees and military families living off the base. In addition, a lot of locals enjoyed the availability of the "American Channel" and the military oriented content. It was something they could not find on the largest local cable plans. AFN often broadcast American TV shows before they were bought by local networks for broadcast in dubbed format. The dubbing is often poor, and many Europeans speak English, and like to get American TV shows as soon as they come out. But now that's all history.
An era has ended. It all began after World War II, when U.S. forces established their own radio and television broadcast network overseas, to provide American programming for troops and their families stationed there. But new technology is rapidly mutating what the AFN (Armed Forces Network) does, and how it does it. A common thread through all these media changes is the Internet, which provides a cheaper and more convenient way to move TV, radio and print material.
An example of this is the impact of the iPod and downloaded music. Since World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces Radio (AFR) has broadcast to the troops, no matter where they are, using local transmitters and troops as announcers. But declining ratings, caused by iPods and changing tastes, has resulted in massive changes in what will be heard. Surveys and focus groups were conducted among the military audience, and it was found that a lot of the current programming was not well liked, or listened to. Troops would tune in for the news, and then go back to their MP3 players for music and podcasts. Another change that has sort of crept up on everyone is the fact that over half the troops are married, and most have kids. There are more families overseas, who are also AFR listeners, and they have different preferences than the troops..
While AFR has been losing a lot of its American military listeners, the stations (like their TV counterparts) are still enormously popular with the locals. AFR has often been the first exposure, especially for youngsters, to American radio. Many who later migrated to the U.S., or simply came to visit, noted that they learned a lot of their English listening to AFR. But even that isn't what it used to be, because with podcasts and radio stations streaming their content on the Internet, foreigners have more ways to listen to American style programming.
AFR has learned what every other radio professional in the West (where there are lots of iPods and Internet users) knows; the market is changing fast. You have to constantly adapt. Commercial radio is only about 80 years old, and it has gone through many major changes in that time. AFR has not been as quick to change, mainly because it had a captive audience. But as the younger, iPod generation, gets older, AFR will have fewer listeners. There will probably be more call for some kind of "all news" format, with more talk radio. These are two formats that the iPod cannot compete with, although as more radio shows provide podcasts of their content, and browser equipped cell phones become more popular, the radio will lose people from that as well. AFR itself is not likely to disappear anytime soon. Even with the presence of cell phones and the Internet, the radio is still one of the quick ways to get important news out. Long term, AFR will mutate into AFN (Armed Forces Network), that will live on cell phones and the Internet, not via radio broadcasts. AFR will become a fond memory, like many other military customs that have disappeared the last half century.
Finally, the technology tidal wave is also destroying the oldest form of American military media; the base newspaper. Four years ago, U.S. Air Force bases began to scrap a century old tradition; the base newspaper. Some bases later brought the papers back, because they found there were a significant minority of base residents who did not use the Internet (which was supposed to replace the newspaper.) But that is not going to last long.
These weeklies were almost standard on military bases, mainly as a vehicle for getting out information of use to all those who lived or worked there. There were administrative announcements, as well as social ones. The base newspapers served a morale function, as well as a practical one. But the newspapers cost money, some $3,000-$5,000 a week. The papers were distributed for free, and now there's a trend towards eliminating the papers, and just putting out all the information on the base web site. All bases now have web sites, and troops, especially younger ones, find these more useful than newspapers. Surveys indicate that most junior troops don't even read newspapers (nor do their civilian peers). But all these young troops rely on the web for news, and other information. The troops also note that, when they are deployed overseas, or just away from the base for a few days, they only way to stay in touch with what's happening on the base is via the web site. But many older NCOs and officers, along with their spouses, do still read newspapers. It's a generational thing, so the base newspaper is still doomed.
Those bases that are reviving the base newspaper are not spending any money on it. Instead, they are looking for civilian contractors who will put out the paper for free, in return for keeping all the advertising revenue. The contractor would also provide some of the content, but the people on the base would also provide material, along with those official announcements, which is the only reason for bringing the base newspaper back, at least temporarily. Some bases are going the contractor route, instead of closing the existing base newspaper.