By George A. Smith, AFN EuropeJune 14, 2013
MANNHEIM, Germany -- Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant used to tune in a crackly AM signal late at night on the radio he smuggled into the bed as a kid in the United Kingdom: the American Forces Network (AFN) Europe.
The signal wasn't coming from anywhere on the island nation. AFN hasn't broadcast radio there since it was founded 70 years ago in the BBC studios in London.
Plant was listening to a 150,000-watt AM transmitter signal originating from near Frankfurt, Germany, which skipped across the English Channel at night. Plant said AFN was "quite a revelation," exposing him to many different types of music.
That same transmitter first went on the air as 872 AM in 1951 and went to 873 AM in 1978, and made an impact on Van Morrison in Northern Ireland. The musician mentioned AFN in his '70s song "In the Days Before Rock and Roll."
The legendary 873 AM radio transmitter went off the air for the last time May 31 as part of the U.S. government's efforts to reduce costs. It cost about $400,000 a year in power and upkeep.
Now the power's turned off except for just enough "juice" to keep red aircraft warning lights blinking on the three 86-meter antenna masts. AFN is continuing to work with military and German officials to determine how to most cost effectively dismantle the complex's four buildings, fences, concrete slabs, ground plane and masts.
The network wants to minimize the impact on German farmers, who for years have slowly navigated their tractors around the transmitter in a remote field in Weisskirchen, Germany.
When long-time listeners and former AFN broadcasters heard the transmitter was going dark they reacted like there was a death in the family.
"Kiss her goodbye for me," said one former announcer whose newscasts were heard in central Germany via the transmitter they called a "flame-thrower" because of its reach.
Former AFNers took to social media to swap stories on looking out for stray voltage or cutting the grass. One DJ shared how he taught his son to ride bike on the farmer's dirt roads.
Thirty people called or e-mailed in their displeasure with the move. Some were angry. One colonel noted he couldn't set up an AFN satellite dish in his apartment complex in downtown Wiesbaden, and had counted on the AM transmitter for news and sports as well as NPR.
But times have changed. An AFN DJ now working for Radio Luxembourg noted that many European nations have already turned off their AM transmitters because of cost and dwindling listenership.
Radio Sweden International, Radio Monte Carlo, Radio Netherlands and Swiss Radio International have all dropped some of their AM radio services.
Just last November, the U.S. government's Radio Liberty stopped its AM broadcasting service in Moscow because of a new Russian law. National Public Radio reported Radio Liberty is looking to go to Internet radio services to compensate.
Just like Radio Liberty, AFN Europe would like to provide listeners with a streaming Internet radio service of news and talk. AFN Europe already streams a 24/7 stereo service called AFN 360: Internet Radio.
So just like Robert Plant did with AFN Europe's historic AM radio transmitter in the '60s, maybe, just maybe, a future rock legend is tuning in AFN 360 right now.