The headquarters of most big American radio and television networks are high above the towered streets of New York. An exception--the biggest network of them all, geographically--stands on a nondescript boulevard in Sun Valley.
The building is full of the usual monitor-crammed control rooms, but some of the engineers at the control boards are in camouflage fatigues or other military uniforms.
From a 60,000-square-foot building on La Tuna Canyon Road, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service broadcasts around the clock to 1.5 million American servicemen and women and their families in 57 countries and on as many as 425 ships at sea.
With its roots in the nation's mobilization for World War II, the service has been transmitting entertainment and Pentagon commercials to U.S. troops and their families from Berlin to the Antarctic through three wars and the long years of Cold War.
In November, 1986, it moved its studios, which had been in Hollywood since the 1940s, when Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were the big draws, to Sun Valley, taking over a building that had been built as a bank computer center and was used as a cartoon studio.
Operates Like a Network
The center relays news, sports and specials--such as presidential news conferences and the Academy Awards--from the major American networks and news services, on radio and TV, via satellite, 24 hours a day.
The center operates like a regular network. The programs go to 88 local radio stations, and 35 TV stations, scattered from Greenland to Turkey and to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
"We're similar to ABC, NBC and CBS, in that they're not creating programs from the goodness of their hearts, but to sell things," said Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Pollack, deputy commander of the center.
"So are we. Our primary job is getting information to the troops and their dependents, wrapped up in entertainment so it sells."
One of the center's main functions is removing civilian commercials from programs and substituting the Pentagon's, which have nothing to do with beer calories or auto styling.
The subject matter ranges from what to do if captured by the enemy (shut up) to what to do at the end of an enlistment (re-enlist) to what to do with recreational drugs (nothing, ever).
The Sun Valley center has a staff of 140 people--96 civilians and 44 military personnel, and an annual budget that has reached $28 million.
It also has some controversies.
In June, three congressmen protested what they said was the network's censorship of American news shows, rebroadcast in South Korea, to remove material that might offend the government of that country because some South Koreans also watch the broadcasts meant for U.S. troops there.
"To allow any government de facto control over any political opposition voices being heard by American servicemen is beyond credence or explanation," Rep. Chester Atkins (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to the State Department.
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, called censorship "utterly unacceptable" and threatened to hold hearings on the subject.
They were joined by Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa).
They were reacting to a report by Gaston Sigur, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who said that the armed forces network had censored 17 news items in an 18-month period. Those included news stories that contained criticism of the South Korean government or activities of opposition leaders, portrayed South Korea as dependent on the United States or appeared to be favorable to North Korea, he said.
The military broadcasters also barred "MASH," a comedy about a U.S. Army Medical Corps unit during the Korean War, because "The Korean government felt that the program portrayed Korea as a backward, subservient, war-torn country," Sigur said.
Not so, Pollack said.
The South Korean government was indeed unhappy with "MASH," he said, but did not register a complaint until after the series went off the air in February, 1983. "It's true we don't show 'MASH' in Korea, but then we aren't showing 'MASH' anywhere since we carried the last episode of the series," Pollack said.
There were South Korean attempts to keep American newscasts of disorders in Seoul off the armed forces channel there, but they were unsuccessful, Pollack said.
A spokesman for Solarz said the congressman had decided to put off a decision on whether to hold hearings on the matter until after the South Korean elections in December.
The armed services network never meddles with the content of the news shows it gets from the three major networks, plus CNN and radio news programs from the Associated Press and United Press International, Pollack said.