Freedom Radio in Iraq, soundtrack to a war, goes quiet

September 23, 2011

“It’s 81 degrees in beautiful downtown Baghdad. Six oh five on your clock on Fun Fact Friday. I’m Prickel.”

“And I’m Townsend. Thanks for falling into extended formation this morning.”

An apricot sunrise burns through the gray haze over Baghdad, which wakes up Friday to the jocular baritones of two staff sergeants in a ramshackle, mostly disassembled sound booth in a squat, Saddam-era bunker on a dusty side street of the Green Zone.

“Prickel is over at the weather desk.”

“Before I get into the weather, I wanna point this out: We have blotch.”


The on-air broadcast staff of Freedom Radio gathers in the studio in a Saddam-era bunker for the final hour of transmission. (Dan Zak/WASHINGTON POST)

“Baghdad, you are not cloudy, you are not partly cloudy. You have blotch.”

“It’s just a blotch on the radar. That’s the weather. Gonna get up to 106 today. It’s gonna be a hot one.”

It’s 100 days before the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal , and Baghdad-based Freedom Radio — after nearly eight years of broadcasting talk and music to service members and Iraqis — terminates its live transmission at midnight and cedes the airwaves to military satellite signals from Europe and Afghanistan. Sgts. Adam Prickel, 29, and Jay Townsend, 30, have tag-teamed their Freedom Radio show, “Morning P-T,” since December — doing the weather, jazzing up military announcements, taking requests for top-40 hits and golden oldies, smudging the conservative brass with their ribald humor.

“What’s the most important physical trait a woman can possess? According to a magazine: a pretty face. You have to be able to look her in the face.”

“That can be fixed by a coupla drinks and turning the lights off.”

“Coming up here shortly we’ll have an interview with Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, deputy commanding general for operations for U.S. forces in Iraq, and his adviser.”

“Hopefully they weren’t listening to what we were just talking about.”


Freedom Radio morning host Sgt. Jay Townsend adjusts the volume levels in the studio of the U.S. military's FM frequency, which has broadcast since Dec. 2003. (Dan Zak/WASHINGTON POST)

The duo cues Cee Lo Green’s “[Bleep] You.”

Every war has a soundtrack. This one has rolled and blundered along to Green Day and Toby Keith, Britney Spears and Linkin Park, and most recently Adele and Daughtry and “Lighters” featuring Eminem and Bruno Mars. One constant of modern warfare since 1942 has been the American Forces Radio and Television Service Network, a communications arm of the Defense Department that broadcasts to 175 countries and U.S. territories and is now headquartered at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.

And at the end of a rotating line of enlisted broadcasters in operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn is the 206th Broadcast Operations Detachment out of Grand Prairie, Tex. It includes on-air talent Prickel and Townsend, who met on military-journalist deployments during the 2007 surge, and the hosts who follow them (Sgt. Brad Ruffin, 42, of the “Midday Getaway” at 1000 hours and Capt. Chris McNair, 44, of the “Afternoon Express” at 1400 hours).

There has been funny business: An on-air deconstruction of Britney Spears’s anatomy and behavior, a sermon about feminism and the emasculation of the American male, a discussion about the familial roles played by Joey and Uncle Jesse on the ’90s sitcom “Full House.”

And those hijinks, according to broadcast quality control officer Sgt. Don Dees, catch and hold listeners’ attention for the serious and important stuff: The on-air announcement of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, reminders about base protocol and Arabic phrases, taped messages from spouses back home, somber bulletins about troop deaths.

“Some of us more advanced in rank and age sometimes bristle at [Prickel and Townsend’s] methodology, but their intent is to reach their target audience, and they know where the line is,” says Dees, 43, who hails from Woodbridge. “Generally speaking, military broadcasters can’t pull off a two-person show. That requires chemistry, mutual understanding, teamwork and balance. But they remained friends between deployments, and at the beginning I knew I had something in them that was unexpected and very, very likely to succeed.”

Service members listen on the remaining 38 bases in the country. Iraqis post requests and comments on the station’s Facebook page:

I started listening to this station about 4 years ago and it’s literally the best thing i’ve ever heard, I can honestly say i might cry at midnight

you will be missed dearly.

Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant has said his first exposure to Muddy Waters and Little Richard in 1950s England was via the American Forces Network out of Germany. Prickel and Townsend fantasize that, in 20 years, an Iraqi rock star might fondly remember the American tunes on Freedom Radio.

They and their fellow hosts aspired to reach past hard realities — 100,000-plus Iraqi civilians and American troops wounded or dead, $3 billion-plus spent — and offer distraction, entertainment, remembrance and positive messages over 93.3 MHz on the FM dial.

Townsend, who returns home to Arkansas next month, has reenlisted with the Army for another six years, predicts he’ll be sent to Afghanistan eventually and wonders whether he’ll be on the last broadcasting team there, too. Prickel is leaving the Army to be a video journalist at his hometown CBS affiliate in Indianapolis.

“We’re 10 minutes away from never saying another word,” Townsend says as midnight approaches. The Freedom Radio staffers — some awake since 0400 hours — gather in the studio for the final countdown.

“To be part of that apparatus that provides that morale boost — I will always remember being here with you guys and being together for the final moments of our broadcast,” Dees says on the air after Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” plays.

With four minutes to go, Townsend cues Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” which listeners voted should close out the soundtrack of the war in Iraq.

And at exactly 0000 hours, the microphones go dead and Porky Pig’s voice squeaks a loony sign-off over the airwaves: “That’s all, folks.”

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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