Sunday, December 20, 2009

Radio guys had impact on AFRTS

For some 70 years, the Armed Forces Radio Service -- now known as the American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) -- has provided information and entertainment to U.S. military personnel around the world. Technology, of course, has remarkably reshaped the service, which in 2009 delivers programs on a variety of platforms with greater technical sophistication. But its audience has always valued AFRTS, even when it was a scratchy AM radio service in the gloomy, early days of World War II. From crude mobile stations in Europe to small makeshift operations on isolated islands in the south Pacific, Armed Forces Radio brought music, comedy, culture and news to military personnel. Back then, it was about the only real method for giving GIs overseas a taste of home.

Given its longevity and rich history, It’s no big surprise that thousands of broadcasters over the years gained their first real experience in radio and television with AFRTS.

We had the privilege of working with two men who had a big impact upon AFRTS. And both had strong ties to KCSR in Chadron, Nebraska.

Bill Finch – in the years following his selling KCSR to the Huse Publishing Company (licensee of WJAG in Norfolk) in 1959 – eventually landed in Colorado Springs, where he produced and hosted a local big band radio program. We don’t know how the program came to the attention of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, but by the late 1960s, Finch was flying to Hollywood periodically to produce a big band music program called “Finch’s Bandwagon.” This photo shows him visiting with an unidentified Army officer (at left) in an AFRTS production room. Finch's shows were tape recorded and then pressed to audio discs for distribution to stations around the world. These programs aired for a several years on AFRTS and were quite popular with G.I.s around the globe.

The other photo (below right) shows Finch during a recording session with band leader and entrepreneur Lawrence Welk, one of dozens legendary musicians he interviewed for the program.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what’s happened to Bill Finch. A few long-time Colorado broadcasters say they remember him, and they think he moved to North or South Carolina. Alas, efforts to locate him have been unsuccessful.

We remember Finch as a laid back guy with loads of talent. He seems to have vanished from the broadcasting world, and we're not certain he's even still alive.

If Finch was laid back and creative, Bob Thomas was probably a better businessman -- someone who was conservative and paid attention to details. Bob was General Manager of WJAG in Norfolk, Nebraska for many years. In 1958-59, he orchestrated the purchase of KCSR in Chadron for the Huse “Beef Empire Stations.”

During World War II, Thomas was assigned as Officer-in-Charge of the Armed Forces Radio Service shortwave branch in San Francisco, beaming programs to G.I.s across the South Pacific and other regions of the world. It was impressive that the top brass picked a small market Nebraska broadcaster to take on this huge task – a decided compliment to Bob and his achievements at WJAG.

In this photograph, Thomas is seated at his desk in San Francisco. The other two gents are not identified. Thomas once recounted for us how the War Department, at the end of World War II, planned to close down the AFRS operation in New York City. Although his hitch in the Army was about to end, Thomas was sent to New York to begin the closure process. he was soon discharged and went home to Nebraska, only to learn some months later that the War Department actually closed down AFRS San Francisco instead, keeping the New York operation open for several more years. Such are the ways of the military.

It’s been many years since we’ve visited with Bob Thomas. In the 1970s, he was instrumental in helping us write a history of AFRTS as an MS thesis at Iowa State University. Last we knew, he had re-located to the warmer climate of Arizona in retirement. Finch and Thomas had distinctly different approaches to broadcasting and management, but each -- in his own way -- left an indelible mark on this broadcaster and, we believe, on the radio business.