Midnight Rock & Roll – Adventures on the Night Shift

The second of two parts – the overnight shift at the AFRTS radio station at Hellenikon AB, Athens, Greece in about 1984. The base is long-closed, the radio station also closed. Practically all the technology discussed, as well as the various broadcast media are antiques from another era.

Program out, hit the ID, time hack… and this time I hit one cart for playback, another for record.
We need to pre-record and review every newscast and news feature that we air, because of the host-nation sensitivity issue. Every allied country where AFRTS operates has its own list of things and issues that we may not, as tactful users of their airwaves, and considerable of a shadow audience among their nationals, broadcast in any way, shape or form. Well, every country but Denmark, tolerant and broadminded, who have stated that really, they can’t imagine taking offense to anything AFRTS might broadcast. Greece, on the other hand, has a lengthy list: any mention of Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, NATO or the EEC (European Economic Community) is red-flagged, even the most brief and casual mention. We are supposed to get clearance from the NCOIC/Radio, the Program Director, Station Manager, PAO, and maybe even elevate it to the JUSMAGG PAO, depending on the seriousness of the mention. Or, just pitch the newscast, if it is a one-time only mention, and hope for better luck with the next newscast feed. Given the Greek propensity for taking hair-trigger offense, and our location in Athens, with a large, English-speaking population… well, it is the only way we can operate, but we all become very paranoid, about reviewing the newscasts.

I have an abiding nightmare that in the middle of some innocuous interview with some Hollywood nit-wit, when I am only paying half-attention, someone will say, “Oh, by the way, did you know that the Prime Minister of Greece routinely performs sexual indignities with barnyard animals?” I suspect the capacity for perceived insult is inversely proportional to the grasp of rapid, colloquial American English . One of our troops had a reference to a “greasy spoon restaurant” in a locally produced spot, and some high-up in the government made it out to be an offence on the culture of Greece. We had to pull the spot, I don’t know if anyone ever attempted to explain the difference to the objecting gentleman, but on the whole, it was fortunate that a lot of what Wolfman Jack said went straight over many heads.

Someday, a long time from now, when I am in my deathbed coma, they will be able to bring me out of it by leaning down and whispering in my ear; “GREECE-TURKEY-CYPRUS-NATO-and-the-EEC!” Oh, yeah, that will snap every fiber and nerve cell to quivering attention, for those are our host nation sensitivities. Any mention of any of these, in any context, is forbidden mention in any broadcast news or feature materiel, not without being approved by progressively higher levels of authority, depending on the nature of the story.

“Why wasn’t Morning Edition broadcast today?” Asks a caller at half-past eleven; English, by the accent, educated by his vocabulary. We had attempted to air an hour of NPR news for the last couple of months, taping it and playing it back the next hour, in the late afternoon due to the time zone.
“Probably a story about Greece in it, that we couldn’t clear in time, “I said regretfully. “So we had to bag it and air something else.”
“Censorship is such an ugly term, “ says the Englishman jokingly, and I say, starchily, “It certainly is… that’s why we prefer to think of it as a tender regard for the delicate sensibilities of our host nation and our shadow audience.”

Our higher levels of authority fear, with considerable justification, pissing off the Greek government. We operate with their permission— which could be easily revoked— and their good will. The supposed “good will” is tenuous at best to most American personnel; strikes, terrorism, petty vandalism, anti-American graffiti, and the constant stream of insult about the base, the US, and American military personnel in the English-language publications leave all but a handful of die-hard “Greekophiles” disliking the place intensely, counting the days until their tour is over, and convinced of the malignancy of the Papandraeou administration.

For those passionate few, our love of the place is enough to carry us over and beyond these few and passing evils. Some have married here, or their families came from Greece, and some like me have their eyes on Greece of the classics and history. To walk every day where Socrates taught, in the places that Pericles adorned, where the great plays of the ancient playwrights were performed, to visit the Oracle at Delphi, and the beaches at Marathon… oh, that was pure intellectual ecstasy. I often felt sorry for those ordinary mortal tourists who were here for a couple of measly days or weeks, when I had the great privilege of living there, year round.

During the long AOR selections, I listen a second time to each of the four newscasts I have taped on cart, and stack them up in order on top of the cart deck I will play them on. They will carry me through midnight, one, two and three AM, and through the dull headache of AOR. At 2:20 AM, the phone light flashes again.
“EBS-Hellenikon, Sgt. Hayes, may I help you?”
It is an older lady, by the sound of it. She explains that she lives in Kifissia, but she used to live in Gyphada, where she had many American and English friends. She misses them, and misses speaking English…. So in the wee hours, she calls up the American Forces radio station to talk to the DJ. I’m bored and a bit lonely myself, so I talk to her a while. She is only elderly and chatty, not deranged like The Other Georgios, or Emmy the Nympho.

Those two are our local stalkers: The Other Georgios calls frequently to tell is how much he loves America and the military, and how much he wants to go to America and work for the CIA…. We usually cringe when he gets to that part— the thought does occur that he could be an agent provocateur, and the phone could be tapped— and encourage him to call the American Embassy and see about a visa. We suspect those bastards at the Embassy have probably gotten lots of calls from the Other Georgios and sicced him back on us. Emmy the Nympho is much more of a pest, developing spectacularly overwrought crushes, sight unseen on the male DJs, pestering them with incessant, completely insane phone calls. One of the guys, during the time that he was the object of her obsession, was in a bar in Glyphada one evening, and was horrified to hear a familiar voice in the crowd; Emmy the Nympho. For all of her devotion, she didn’t know what he looked like, so he left with all speed, keeping his voice very, very low. She managed to infiltrate the base once, no one knew how, and showed up at the station demanding to be united with the current object of devotion. Her immoderate affections do not include the Sapphic variety, so I have been spared having to waste time on them.

My live show, and conversation with the lady from Kifissia end at 3 AM. My shift is better than half over, most of the heavy lifting is over, my main challenge now is to stay awake without the traditional night shifts’ fuel of coffee when the live show adrenaline wears off. (I can’t drink more than a single cup of coffee with a lot of milk in it, my stomach begins to hurt, otherwise.) I’ll take a short break now, and eat the sandwich I brought from home. When I run down the stairs to the workroom where I left my purse at the beginning of the shift, I collect the reader spot logbook. It’s another one of the ubiquitous GSA blank books, bound in pale green fabric. Half a dozen requests for publicity are tucked between the pages that are filled up, and the ones that are blank: some are handwritten on plain paper, some are nicely typed letters, most are on our own “Spot Request” form. They will need to be properly entered in the book and given a sequential number, and typed onto a form for the book of reader spots in the on-air studio, so that we can read them easily.

An astonishingly large proportion of our requests are from people who think that they can scribble something on a piece of paper concerning some sort of event or deadline, and they can drop it off at the station several hours before said event, and we will just drop everything else to do a media blitz for them. The NCOIC/Radio spends many hours discouraging people from this unrealistic belief, and instead instilling a grasp of certain realities. These realities include reminding them to be sure and include the date, and the time and the location of the event. One of these elements is often omitted, in the excitement of anticipation. Another reality is to give us a couple of days to process these, and a week of airtime for their announcement. Failure to plan on their part does not constitute an emergency on ours, and hitting a spot just once or twice usually doesn’t build much awareness at all. (When it doesn’t, this is our fault, of course.)

There is a desk in the library, and an electric typewriter. In the old studio, the typewriter was in the on-air studio. We were tasked with so much production, and typing up so many readers we often were doing it while doing our live shows, but since the departure of the previous PD, the pace has not been so frenetic. I translate each request into broadcast format, direct, plain grammatical and spelled correctly— a spelling error can cause a broadcaster to hesitate untimely, and staple the original request to the back of the typed version.

Our alibi, in case of the requester calling up and saying, “It’s at 10 AM, not 11!” and we can reply
“I’m sorry, it says 11 AM on your original request.” (Repeat as often as necessary.)

In the 5:00AM block, I grab and review four more newscasts, all free of any Greece-Turkey-Cyprus-NATO-EEC cooties, and leave them reviewed and stacked neatly on the rack for the morning guy. The sky outside the studio window, looking east at the ridge of the Attic peninsula above Glphyada and Sourmena is beginning to pale, the stars fading one by one. I look ahead at the log, with the lists of local produced spots to be aired each hour, and pull them from the wire racks. They are stacked separately, by the hour. People always think that DJs are such wild and crazy and freewheeling types; many certainly appear that way, to the listener, but that wild and crazy freewheeling is the icing on a dense and solid cake of phobic organization. I need to have everything I am going to play stacked in precise order, spots, jingles, station IDs and all; another DJ I know of has to have all the records for his show, stacked in order— the side with the particular song he is going to play facing up.
Five minutes to 6:00AM. The phone rings: it is the day shift, calling from downstairs to be let in. Nothing like leaving things to the last minute. He is one of those who is a little less phobic about preparation. He has his playlists, though, and he is grabbing his first couple of records while I take the ID and get into the newscast, gearing up his intensity level while I am letting mine down.
“Anything going on?” he asks, as I hand him the headset.
“Nope. Same old, same old. See ya.”
He waves a distracted goodbye, settles the headsets over his ears, and pulls the mike closer, as I close the door and go down the stairs. Outside, the darkness has lifted, although the streetlights are still on. I drive up the hill, and as I go out the gate to Vouliagmeni, there are already cars heading in to base. Poor saps, I think smugly to myself: your work day is just getting started, but mine is done.

2 thoughts on “Midnight Rock & Roll – Adventures on the Night Shift”

  1. Very entertaining. I love reading about the days of defending (and entertaining) the ungrateful people who hated us.

    I can’t drink more than a single cup of coffee with a lot of milk in it, my stomach begins to hurt, otherwise.

    That may not have been the coffee as much as what’s called Shift Work Disorder. Circadian patterns regularly disrupted by overnight shifts is linked to all sorts of ailments including gastrointestinal disorders. I used to have a lot of stomach problems when I used to work during pre-dawn hours.

  2. Actually, I found straight nights, or straight swings to be a piece of cake. This place had a particularly brutal combination of a single day shift, followed by two swing shifts and two night shifts. That one was real hard to work, as you were always sleepy and never had a routine to adjust to.

    The anti-Americanism was pervasive, and occasionally very personal, and usually at the worst time. It was very hard for a lot of people and their families to take. They wound up their tours despising Greece, the Greeks in general – there was a lot of English-language media around; two monthly magazines and a weekly newspaper, and they were all cheerfully anti-American when it suited, so it was in our face all the time. When I was in Spain, there might have been just as much of it, but not in the English-language media, so it wasn’t right in our face, every day.

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