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BFBS’s staff are civilians, and the company is run from the UK. But it has outposts all over the world, and its staff deploy on operations, just like their audience. Before beginning broadcasts from Bastion, in Oct 09, Miller, Wright and their colleagues were on a British base in Iraq, where they slept in steel-reinforced bunks nicknamed ‘coffins’, and a silent alarm would illuminate during live shows to advise them when to switch to a tape and take cover from incoming rocket attacks.

“We’re not a civilian station, acting independent of the operational theatre – we are an integral part of what this operation’s about,” Miller says. “We’re all in it together, really – and to a certain extent, I think that’s how the military view us. They arrive, and, nine times out of ten, BFBS are already here. They come here, they switch the radio on, and they go, ‘Oh – we’re alright, BFBS are here. We’ll have our telly, we’ll have our radio, we’ll be able to say hi to the wives, and more importantly the wives will be able to say hi to us.’ The wife gets up in the morning, switches on the radio, and if she’s got DAB and she’s listening to BFBS, she knows her husband is listening to exactly what she’s listening to. Just by telling them, ‘It’s hot, the weather’s clear blue skies and 45 degrees,’ they can picture what their husband’s doing. It’s important stuff. And that’s how our programming is actually designed.”

This difference in approach is reflected in every aspect of BFBS’s output, but not least in the music it plays. “Our listener could be an 18-year-old squaddie or airman just joined, or a 55-year-old sergeant about to retire,” Miller says. “The established, marketing-driven mechanisms in UK broadcasting don’t really work for us at all.”

The backbone of BFBS’s playlist is Forces 500, a list of tracks voted for by their audience. It leans heavily towards classic rock – Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is No 1, while Sweet Child O’ Mine, Wonderwall and Summer of 69 are all in the Top 10 – but it includes hits that span decades and genres. Another vote was taken among soldiers in theatre to choose the first song played when BFBS began its live broadcasts from Bastion and the winner was Wake Up Boo! by the Boo Radleys. The BFBS listener seems quite wry.

“There’ll be a guy who’s been on guard duty out at a patrol base,” says Miller, “and when he finally gets to a phone he’ll ring up and ask for All Along the Watchtower. We

had a gazebo go up in flames on the base at Kandahar the other day: within minutes, we had a dedication for the guy they think caused it – they wanted Firestarter.”

“There is a squaddie humour, and they don’t shy away from it,” says Wright. “They’re very keen on hearing Boom! Shake the Room.” This doesn’t mean, though, that questions of tone are unimportant. When the playlist computer spat out the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays for broadcast after the terrorist killings in Norway in July, station staff decided not to play it. Yet unlike the BBC during the 1991 Gulf war, BFBS will happily play tracks by Massive Attack; the Killers are in the Forces 500 Top 10.

The aspect of the BFBS operation that perhaps most strongly emphasises their difference from a conventional broadcaster comes after a death. Whenever a Serviceman or woman is killed or seriously injured, the process called Op Minimise sparks into action across British military bases. The few phones and internet connections available for personnel to use are switched off, to prevent news accidentally getting out before next of kin have been informed. Within minutes, helicopters will be going in and out of their base next to the BFBS studio, bringing the dead and wounded back to Bastion’s hospital.

“When there’s an incident, if we’re not the first, we’re the second people called,” says Miller. “We know that the mood around the camp is going to be very different, so the tone of our broadcasting’s got to be slightly different. And we have so many dedications, requests, mentions, that we need to know pretty quickly, before we start saying ‘Happy anniversary darling’ from a wife to a soldier.”

Sometimes, though, the information doesn’t get through in time. Shortly after BFBS began broadcasting from Bastion, five soldiers were killed by an Afghan police officer they had been training. One of them was a Regimental Sergeant Major, whose wife had recently been interviewed by BFBS in the UK.

“I’d got the piece of audio from our reporter on the Monday,” Miller says. “His wife was pregnant at the time. She was saying the bump was getting bigger, and ‘I know we haven’t heard from you, but we know you’re busy,’ and so on. So I played it out, and twelve hours later he was dead. That affected me for probably three to four weeks afterwards. Every time I got a dedication or a piece of audio, I almost didn’t want to play it, just in case.”

Even two years on, it’s something that still visibly affects the presenter.

“I don’t know, but I would like to think that the last time he heard from his wife was actually on my radio show,” he says. “I normally clear out all my audio, but it’s the one piece I just can’t get rid of. And one day I will go and see his wife – and baby George, who he never got to see – and say: ‘Look, I need to introduce myself, and just tell you a little bit of it.’

“I try to say to all of our new presenters that it’s nothing like you will broadcast anywhere else,” Miller continues. “It’s an emotional thing that you have to deal with. You hear that helicopter and you think, ‘That’s another family in the UK that’s about to get some bad news.’ I find it quite tough, and I’ve been doing it for years, so how you can prepare people for that is almost impossible. But that’s the job, I’m afraid.”

Envoy Winter 2011 11

©Angus Batey/The Guardian

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