Cronauer worked stateside and in Greece, putting together instructional programs for soldiers, sailors and Marines and broadcasting with an on-air style heavily influenced by KDKA (1020) morning man Rege Cordic. In 1965, with one year left on his hitch, Cronauer was offered the choice of returning to the States to make more training films, or shipping to an overseas post in Korea or Vietnam.
He chose Vietnam, just as the war got much, much hotter in the face of President Johnson’s “escalation” policy. As host of the morning wake-up show “Dawn Buster” over AFVN, Cronauer played the hits and tried to bring a little taste of America to homesick GIs.
AFVN, he told McCoy years later, was “block programmed,” carrying top 40, country, jazz and oldies: “Nobody was forcing us to play polkas or Lawrence Welk. We were the only English language station around, so we tried to please everybody’s tastes.”
(Incidentally, other AFVN alumni include Pat Sajak; Mike McGann of Pittsburgh’s WJAS was heard over AFVN but worked for AFRTS itself. See his comment, below.)
Unlike Williams in the film, the real Cronauer worked within U.S. Defense Department regulations, telling an interviewer in 2005, “I was faced more with apathy than opposition.”
After his discharge, Cronauer worked in radio in Ohio and New York in radio, TV and advertising before switching careers and entering law school. In the late 1970s, he wrote a pilot for a TV sitcom based on his experiences in AFVN. The networks didn’t bite, possibly because it seemed too much like “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “M*A*S*H,” then running in prime-time.
Cronauer reworked the pilot into a “movie of the week” script which was optioned and found its way to Robin Williams. The rest is cinematic history.
The last AFVN station closed in 1973, after the Nixon Administration agreed to withdraw most U.S. forces from Vietnam, but American Forces Radio & Television Service (AFRTS) is very much alive.
AFRTS (affectionately known as “A-Farts” to its alumni) was created in 1942. Currently headquartered in Alexandria, Va., it uses seven satellites to feed radio and TV services to more than 1,000 U.S military installations in more than 175 countries.
Under the name American Forces Network (AFN), AFRTS delivers radio newscasts and talk shows from stateside networks like NPR, CBS and The Associated Press, along with sports and rock and country music. On TV, up to 10 different channels offer a mix of military-produced and American civilian programs.
Service personnel can receive AFN via cable, satellite and over-the-air repeaters. In addition, the radio service is available on nine different shortwave frequencies for field personnel; depending on the time of day and weather conditions, you can often pull in one or more of the AFRTS signals in Pittsburgh.
Now, for listeners “from the Delta to the DMZ,” here are a few AFVN clips:
Twenty years ago, Robin Williams made a University of Pittsburgh alumnus world famous.
In the hit movie “Good Morning, Vietnam,” released during Christmas 1987, Williams played Adrian Cronauer, a motor-mouthed disc jockey on American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN), the radio stations operated in South Vietnam for the benefit of U.S. servicemen and women during the Vietnam War.
The movie, directed by Barry Levinson, depicts AFVN in the mid-1960s as a group of somnolent DJs running “beautiful music.” Williams’ character brings Top 40 music and a high-energy personality to Vietnam, bucking the chain of command and being threatened with court-martial or worse.
The real Cronauer was a native Pittsburgher who went to Pitt and in 1958 joined a group of students trying to launch an AM carrier-current radio station on campus. Their first attempt to turn on the transmitter inside the student union, then called Schenley Hall, reportedly blew fuses all over the building.
The station eventually went on the air as WPGH; in 1987, Cronauer told Pittsburgh radio writer Adrian McCoy that students literally “cannibalized our parents’ stereo systems and put a station together” with the help of a $250 grant from the university. Cronauer also worked part-time as an announcer at WQED-TV (13).
But by the time the Pitt station was on the air full time, Cronauer had transferred to American University in Washington, D.C., to major in broadcasting. Though he needed only 11 credit-hours to graduate, the draft board was pressuring him to enlist, so he volunteered for the Air Force in 1962.