Lajes more than speck in television history

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Chris Beckwith
  • Air Force News Agency Detachment 6
Fifty years ago, the tiny island of Terceira -- more specifically Lajes Field -- made television history. It was an event that brought the people of Portugal and the United States closer, helped define an Air Force specialty and would become one of the first quality-of-life necessities for Airmen deployed worldwide.

It was television, and Lajes was the first to broadcast what is now called American Forces Network-TV to a military audience.

Before 1954, military broadcasting consisted of only radio. Armed Forces Radio Service provided “a little touch of home” by recording disc jockey programs and shipping them to broadcast affiliates for local military radio airwaves. Television was not even on the drawing board, but that soon changed.

A military-run TV station was first proposed to Gen. Curtis E. LeMay as a way to boost morale at remote strategic air command bases in the United States. Limestone Air Force Base, Maine, was far from the nearest commercial TV station. With 15,000 servicemembers and their families assigned, the base faced a high rate of absences without leave and divorce.

Two years after Limestone, later named Loring AFB, began broadcasting its television signal, the AWOL rate dropped from 20 per 1,000 men to 2.5 per 1,000. Re-enlistments increased from zero in early 1954 to 18 per month by March 1955. The value of military broadcasting had proven itself, and the military air transport service installed TV stations at all isolated bases under its control.

According to the book, “History of AFRTS, the First 50 Years,” transport service officials negotiated with the Portuguese government to open a station here, and Air Force News Agency’s Detachment 6, as it is called now, broadcast the first overseas television signal Oct. 17, 1954.

“From that first television signal 50 years ago to the 10 AFN channels now enjoyed by our military servicemembers around the world, Lajes has a proud history of providing the highest quality information and entertainment to those proudly serving in uniform, their families and civilian employees,” said Mel Russell, American Forces Radio and Television Service director. “Lajes has the distinct honor of putting the ‘T’ in AFRTS.”

AFN-Lajes was also the first television station in Portugal, providing the local people their first taste of American entertainment.

“The Portuguese had never seen television before AFN,” said Jose Mendes, an employee of AFN-Lajes for 40 years. “The response was amazing. I lived on the west end of Terceira, and people actually wanted to move east, closer to the base, just to receive the signal.”

When Mr. Mendes first began working at the detachment, the TV broadcast day began at 6 p.m., and sign-off was at midnight.

“Radio was the primary source of information; television was for entertainment,” he said. “But soon, we began producing a live evening newscast and even used magazine and newspaper pictures instead of film. We’ve come a long way since that time, and I’ve enjoyed watching and being a part of the progress.”

Today, AFN offers its military customers multiple services.

“We take great pride in what we do every day,” said Master Sgt. John Tway, Det. 6 operations manager. “While we can’t air everyone’s favorite program or sports team, we strive for perfection and customer service in everything we do. No stateside network offers the mix of programming that we do … and we did it first. That’s something the entire base can be proud of.”