In Memoriam: TV Knights & Radio Daze

We learned this week of the death of Adrian Cronauer, famous as the wild and wacky military radio DJ during a tour of duty in Vietnam, made even wilder and wackier when he was played by Robin Williams in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam. Of course, the movie bore only the slightest resemblance to real-life military radio operations. Some day, I may bore the very dickens out of you all by fisking it down to the subatomic level, but Adrian Cronauer himself is supposed to have had the definitive answer, when asked how accurate the movie was. “There was a Vietnam War, and there is an Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.”

As a matter of fact, those of us who served in the various military broadcast detachments were rather disappointed on two accounts with the movie when it first came out; the multitude of operational details which were just wrong, wrong, wrongedy-wrong, and secondly – because we all had stories of incidents and people which were just much more bizarre, comic and ironic. Which would have made an even funnier movie.

Some time ago, for the original Sgt. Stryker’s Daily Brief website, I wrote about some of them in the post retrieved from my archives. (It’s also one of the essays in this collection.)

The guys at Far East Network-Misawa in the days of my first duty station in the Air Force and my first overseas tour were a joke-loving lot, much given to razzing each other, with elaborate practical jokes and humor of the blacker sort. Practically none of it would survive scrutiny these days by a Social Actions officer, or anyone from the politically-correct set, either in the military or out. The nature of the job means the successful are verbally aggressive, intellectually quick, and even when off-mike, very, very entertaining. Some broadcasters I encountered later on were either sociopaths, terminally immature, pathological liars, or otherwise severely maladapted to the real world. They could generally cope, given a nice padded studio, a clearly defined set of duties, and a microphone with which to engage with the real world at a remove. Regular, face to face interaction with others of their species was a bit more problematic. But all that would come later. The people during my first tour or two were something else entirely.

The middle management NCOs were all Vietnam-era, and in some cases, Vietnam veterans. The draft had brought them into the military, and military broadcasting, they liked it, and had stayed. They tended to be rather more results-oriented than the regulation-driven broadcast management I encountered later on, a lot less uptight, and consequently much more fun.”What’s that VU light for?” was a favorite gag, asked from the studio door as the on-air broadcaster sat poised to read news headlines. With a few seconds to go on your music, or carted spot, they would snap off the overhead studio light, leaving you to read the copy, live, by the light of the two little lighted meters what measured audio levels.

Or, the joker could whip out a Bic lighter and set the copy on fire. We couldn’t do that at FEN-Misawa, though, the building was an ancient wooden fire trap; and we couldn’t do the favorite radio-announcer tease favored at AFRTS-Sondrestrom, which was to bribe an SAS stewardess to walk into the studio naked and sit on the guys’ lap when he was in the middle of the afternoon drive-time.

The specialty at FEN-Misawa was cracking up the duty TV announcer or DJ on the occasion of their last on-air newscast or radio show. There were only two restrictions: the provocation could not be seen by the TV audience, and no laying of violent hands on the person, although one guy had shaving lotion squirted up his pant legs. One of our departing sportscasters also had a narrow escape when his girlfriend crawled under the stand-up news set desk during his last newscast… if you have seen the Police Academy movies, you’ll have an idea; luckily, she was defeated by a stubborn belt buckle. My good friend Marsh was mooned by the entire male staff during her final newscast, everyone from the station manager and chief engineer on down. She roped me into a plot to discombobulate another departing newscaster by having one of the three women at the station do a strip tease.

“It will have to be the one of us least likely to do something like that,” she said, and I replied, “Hey, why are you both looking at me?”

“You can wear a bikini,” Marsh said reassuringly. “And it’s winter, you’ll have lots of clothes on.”

So, I was floor manager for the newscast that night, standing underneath the main camera, cueing him to the #2 camera, and giving the time cues. He had to look at the main camera, of course, and every time I caught his eye and deliberately took something off. By the time I got as far as the bikini, he was so rattled he was re-reading the sports copy twice.

The most thorough job ever done in cracking up the departing newscaster was done by a Navy guy nicknamed “Spider” to an Air Force newscaster named Chris on a night when I was directing the cast. Spider was one of those wiry hairy, little guys, and he borrowed some more than usually exotic underwear from his girlfriend for the occasion. I could not see into the studio from the control room, but I could track Chris’s reactions when Spider pranced out into the studio wearing a black bra and panties, garter belt and fishnet stockings and high heels, and carrying an inflatable plastic duck. At the midpoint in the newscast, when we didn’t need the #2 camera, I directed the cameraman to dolly all the way back and focus on Spider, so we could follow it all in the control room. Poor Chris cracked up and lost it when Spider began miming unnatural acts with the duck. When I rolled the end credits and the closing cart, Chris was lying across the news set desk gasping like a hooked fish, not even able to do his outro.

I added my own little fillip to that newscast: as they were gathering in the newsroom, I came out of the control room with a horrified and apologetic look on my face and said, “Geeze, guys…. I am so sorry… right when you were doing that bit with the duck, my finger slipped…. And I accidentally put cam 2 on the air… but it was only for a second or too, really, not more than that, if you blinked you would have missed it…”

Spider froze, with this horrible “Omigawd I won’t be able to go out in public for MONTHS” look on his face. The cameraman grabbed me by the throat, screaming, “You’re kidding, aren’t you! TELL ME YOU’RE KIDDING!” until I began laughing and said;”Gotcha!”

They took a picture of Spider and his duck and framed a nice 8 x 10 glossy, and hung it in the studio as a memorial, hidden deep behind the cyc. It remained there, as far as I know, until the rackety old firetrap of a building was finally torn down and replaced. If anyone at FEN-Misawa ever wondered about it – well well, now you know

We shall not look upon their like again… Probably a good thing, from the Social Actions office point of view.

3 thoughts on “In Memoriam: TV Knights & Radio Daze”

  1. Ceila, bet this provides much insight into how come the fiction you write has so much connection to the actual world.

  2. As a matter of fact, those of us who served in the various military broadcast detachments were rather disappointed on two accounts with the movie when it first came out; the multitude of operational details which were just wrong, wrong, wrongedy-wrong, and secondly – because we all had stories of incidents and people which were just much more bizarre, comic and ironic. Which would have made an even funnier movie.

    This is why the only medical movie I have ever liked was “MASH,” which was accurate about a lot of OR detail. The subplot about going to Japan was nonsense but the OR scenes were good.

    “Bullet” had a good OR scene and the medical scenes were good.

  3. Well … the military is a good general introduction to the blue-collar, working-class world, I have to say. Robust, if crude sense of humor, and little toleration for BS, although I daresay that the last decade may have put a crimp in it, or driven it underground.
    Dr. K – basically, everything about the actual radio operations in GM,VN was wrong. From the time the live shows started – not at the top of the hour, but at five past, with a brief newscast on the hour, to the records that were shown. The actual records (ET, or electrical transcriptions in radio-speak) were not commercially-available albums, but special compilations supplied by the AFRS programming center; all the current hits were in the inventory at the time, but they had distinctive labels and came in plain manila-paper shucks. We could not even bring regular commercial albums into the station, or take the special issues out of it, on pain of several different kinds of military punishment.
    But I promised that I wouldn’t get into an item by item fisk…

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