News: Radio GTMO – A Symphony in Three Parts
Story by Sgt. Benjamin Cossel
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- For more than 60 years, personalities have come, personalities have gone. The call letters are now different and the station has seen several format changes as it works to keep pace with its ever-changing audience. But through the years, one thing has never changed at Radio GTMO: day-in, day-out the DJs of the station are on-hand ensuring music, information and plenty of everything in between gets out over the airwaves and is heard by the Guantanamo Bay community.
The year is 1947; memories of World War II are beginning to ease into the recesses of the American psyche. The post-war economy is roaring along at hyper speed. Nearly every day some new, must-have gadget is rolled on to the shelf. Just as quickly, refrigerators, televisions and cars are gobbled up by a population heady with a new-found economic freedom.
The music of Count Basie, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra dominate the airwaves but it’s a relatively obscure Ted Weems with his single “Heartaches” who stays on the top of the charts for 12 weeks — the longest chart-topper that year. At a small little naval station on the southern corner of Cuba, a switch is flipped and WGBY comes to life. A legacy begins.
“The original station was under the control of Armed Forces Radio and Television Service,” explained the station’s acting officer in charge, Interior Communications Electrician 1st class Norman Corliss.
Hurricane Flora made the original studio inoperable when it tore through the island in 1963, flooding the building. More than $150,000 was used to remodel the interior of the Morin Center, what would become the new home of the station. During the remodeling, new radio and television equipment — including transmitters, antennas, TV camera and FM broadcasting gear — was added to the new facilities. On Thanksgiving Day, 1964 the staff of the naval station’s newspaper, television and radio operations began production at the new building.
In his “Radio-TV Journal” blog, former WGBY personality Larry Miller said following the souring of relations between governments of Cuba and the United States, the radio and television station took on an unspoken role.
“There was another ‘shadow audience’ that we served, too,” Miller said. “Cuban citizens on the ‘other side of the fence,’ who were curious about the United States and who likely enjoyed some of the programs they heard.”
Miller went on to say, “Maybe they were trying to learn English, or perhaps just eavesdropping on a bit of U.S. culture by tuning in to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on WGBY Radio. In any event, we acknowledged the Cuban audience and provided them with ‘Noticias en Espanol.’”
When the station first went on the air, music, news and other broadcast pieces arrived on vinyl records. Today, the station receives its materials from the Defense Media Agency in the form of CDs. Music is placed into a central computer where DJs can select them as they build their prerecorded and live programs. The programs themselves are mixed and voiced with commercial software; the entire process is nearly 100 percent digital. But Radio GTMO holds a distinct asterisk in all of the Department of Defense’s broadcast outlets.
“We are the last radio station in all of DoD still capable of broadcasting off the record player,” said Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin “Dr. J.” Ailes.
The station maintains a library of nearly 10,000 records covering music from the 1950’s into the 1980’s.
“Everything began switching to CDs in early 1990’s,” explained Corliss.
But for every sailor working at the station, the records are a source of pride and wonder.
“I’ve gone back through some of those records and just been amazed at what I’ve found,” Ailes said.
Second Movement and Finale
“We’re not under the jurisdiction of the FCC,” said Corliss explaining why the station once known as WGBY became Radio GTMO. “Typically, when we operate outside the United States, we fall under the rules of the host country …” Corliss let the words drift off, a silent acknowledgment of a radio station operating in a country with no formal relations between the two governments.
Serving the Guantanamo Bay community, seven Sailors head to work every morning at Radio GTMO. Of Corliss’ staff, three are broadcasters, four serve as technicians. The station is designated a Radio-plus. Corliss said with the plus designation, not only does his staff work the radio side of things; they also handle the satellite feeds used for local television broadcast.
“I’m pretty proud of my staff,” Corliss said. “We do so much with such a small staff and have a large impact on our community.”
Making sure the machine that is Radio GTMO continues to broadcast on its three radio stations and four television channels are the technicians of the building.
“Being a tech at Radio GTMO is a very small part of what an IC on a ship would be expected to do,” Corliss explained. “This really is a dream job.”
While the techs keep everything operational, it is the three DJs of the station who are the most well-known of the sailors. Corliss said his DJs do five live shows a week and record 16 shows for playback at set times to cover the station’s eight hours per day of local content.
“Each of the DJs has their own niche they play to,” said Corliss. “We try to play a mix of music with each of the different shows. You’re not going to please everyone but we do try.”
When the station isn’t running one of its local talents, Corliss has 14 satellite radio feeds to choose from. The civilian contracted feeds are provided to Radio GTMO through DMA-Riverside, who reviews the program material before making it available.
Local talent, Dr. J. – the aforementioned Ailes – takes to the air with a heavy metal show. “I was born to do this job,” Ailes said as a broad smile spread across his face.
“What could be better than telling the service members’ story and to know I’m reaching out and someone is listening,” he asks, then answers his own question. “That’s pretty cool.”
Sometimes lost in the mix of format and personalities is the primary mission of the radio station.
“First and foremost, our job is command information,” Corliss said.
The crew accomplishes their mission with the use of spot pieces in the form of public services announcements in between the music Corliss explained.
“I know some people out there may think some of those spots are stupid,” Corliss said. “But if you remember the message, we’ve done our job.”
Ailes said the spots also have the effect of permanently identifying him.
“So many people come up to me and they don’t think of me as Dr. J.,” he said. “They always come up to me and say ‘Hey! You’re the talking iguana on the radio’ and yes ... yes I am.”