clap clap blog: we have moved

Saturday, April 17, 2004
In response to the NYT story about soldiers' listening choices/options in Iraq, a Plastic poster with actual experienece chimes in:

Music is important in Iraq for a number of reasons. A simple one is that, when you're living ten (or more) to a tent, you do anything you can to isolate yourself. So headphones become a lifeline. Particularly since the guy in the next cot probably doesn't share your taste in music 100%.

Why music on the server? I was there for four months, current Air Force policy is six month tours, and the Army does a year. How many CD's do you think you can pack in an A-bag? So it's an unwritten policy that everybody shares what they have. It's not p2p, it's just one big freaking server that everybody goes to. It contains everything from the ugliest "pull my glock/pop him in a drive-by" rap to Perry Como. I burned a few CDs while I was there, too. It's just self-preservation: you save your sanity however you can.

There's choice in the radio stations, though. Yes, AFN is the only thing some people listen to. But when I got there in July, we had other spots on the dial to choose from.

There were, of course, dozens of Arabic-language stations. Are you aware that there are multiple varieties of Arabic music, all practically indistinguishable from each other to the Western ear? In fact, their most unique feature, as far as I can tell, is how much they all resemble a 60s Arabian movie soundtrack (or maybe "The Thief of Baghdad." That would be fitting, wouldn't it?). These guys are all about the full string section backing the wailing pipes and... um... unusual singing style.

There were two non-Arabic stations to choose from... well, OK. One and a half. One of the stations played Western music every other song. Weird kind of dissonance there, although it worked pretty well when they'd play something like Sting's "Desert Rose." And after a while, it dropped to one Western song in three.

The other Euro-influenced station played about 50% Western music during the day, but just went hog-wild at night. And they seem to subscribe to the "How obscure can you get?" format ? I had a hard time identifying some of this stuff. (Between 0300 and 0400 one night, for instance, it was apparently Obscure-80s-Hair-Metal-Hour.)

There was one station... well, we were never sure what it was. It seemed to be prerecorded, since it repeated the same songs in the same order. But not at the same time, so it wasn't a 24-hour tape. (You notice these things on a twelve-hour shift.) And they put in a new tape every couple of days. There were no ads, no DJ, nothing but music. The selection was odd ? everything from middle-of-the-road country to heavy metal. There were odd groupings, like a half-hour of Blink-182-wannabes, or forty-five minutes of Oasis-inspired Brit-trash.

It might have been a pirate station, but every once in a while, it would throw in some patriotic semi-classical piece (the Battle Hymn of the Republican, "Yankee Doodle" with strings and a wind section, that kind of thing) that made us wonder if it wasn't some CIA-sponsored "hearts-and-minds" gig. They started having dead air at random hours of the day and night, and finally went away completely (I guess they didn't gather up enough hearts or meet their quota on minds).

AFN went through a lot of changes while I was there, and if they have their own DJ's, they've undergone at least one more, although the music choice seems to have stayed pretty much the same.

AFN, for you civilian types, is the "Armed Forces Network" (if you really want useless detail to clutter up your minds the way it clogs mine, AFN springs from AFRTS, the "Armed Forces Radio and Television Service").

At first, we didn't have a "real" AFN station ? it was prerecorded. No ads "on purpose," but every once in a while, the monkey on the editing board would miss one and we'd get fifteen or thirty seconds of somebody pimping Radio Shack or somewhere. There were, though, a lot of PSAs (Public Service Announcements) and, yes, station identification (in case you didn't know you were listening to AFN based on the "Armed Forces News," "Navy Update," "Moments in History," or the rest of the nausea-inducing-but-blessedly-short filler between the songs).

In the afternoon, a strangely "sanitized" DJ came on, with no reference to where she was broadcasting from, nothing location-specific at all. Maybe it's the next big thing. "Generic Radio ? all the programming, half the cost!" (like ClearChannel, but with less personality). They stuck firmly to their genre, though. Mostly current pop, with a smattering of seventies-through-nineties pop (emphasis on the more recent years). Hard-core country or rap fans were out of luck. (The metalheads could go to the CIAirplay station and get the occasional fix.)

For a while, AFN split in two: one was news/talk, and the other one only played music. As time went on, we lost 90% of the talk station (I guess the second antenna went to Tikrit or somewhere). That didn't bother anyone too much though: they didn't have enough bits to make up a whole day of programming, and so it repeated the various bits it played several times throughout the morning.

As it changed to one station, the music side went from crap (all pop all the time), to upgraded crap: the pop of "the 80's, 90's and today." And the pattern changed. Instead of a constant string of bad songs, we got a couple of songs, a crappy "History Minute," a song, the "Army Report" (military-oriented news, delivered badly), a song, oops-a-commercial-slipped-in, a song, and so on. They still used generic syndicated DJ's. No big names ? no Bob & Tom, no Howard Stern, just faceless voices ? and the afternoon guy was just annoying as hell (thank god I slept most afternoons and worked all night).

The final choice? BBC World. It's everywhere. I've listened to it in Europe, in Kuwait, and we got it in Baghdad (weak signal, though ? not sure where they were broadcasting from). When I had a radio available AND a taste for NPR-style talk-radio (without the political agenda, and WITH a sexy British accent), that was where I went. But that's just me.