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Is that ‘Freedom Radio’? Well, turn it up

Spc. Kristen King of Shreveport, La., hosts the daily country music show on Iraq’s most popular English-language radio station. Classic rock also is popular on the station.

ANDREW TILGHMAN / S&S

By ANDREW TILGHMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 16, 2006

BAGHDAD — Spc. Kristen King cranks up her Louisiana drawl every morning at 10 a.m. in a cramped and foam-padded trailer in Baghdad’s relatively safe and quite Green Zone.

“It’s going to be a hot one in Basra today with a high of 107, so ya’ll make sure you drink plenty of water,” the 21-year-old reservist tells thousands of radio listeners as she cues up a daily set of country music tunes ranging from Willie Nelson to Toby Keith.

King, a journalism major from Louisiana State University, hosts the most popular English-language radio show each day in Iraq, the midday country music block broadcast on “Freedom Radio” on 107.7 FM.

The station, owned and run by the U.S. Department of Defense, is heard throughout Iraq and Kuwait. It is just one of the two options for U.S. troops in Iraq, where the only other non-Arabic radio station is the analogous British Forces Broadcasting Service.

Threaded with Associated Press news reports and snippets of military-style public service announcements, the radio station is run by Armed Forces Network and broadcasts live 18 hours a day with active-duty soldiers serving as disc jockeys.

In place of commercials, the station often tips off listeners to weekly activities such as a yoga class at Camp Taji, a chess tournament at Camp Liberty, or a belly-dancing class in the Green Zone.

The midday country music station’s popularity underscores some aspects of U.S. military culture, where many troops hail from the southern and western states.

“It reminds them of home,” said Master Sgt. Andy Starr, the station manager and a reservist and an engineer for Bell Helicopter back home in Fort Worth, Texas.

“And there’s a lot more patriotic music coming out of the country music world, so that’s part of it.”

Some songs with profanity or war-related subject matter are plucked from the playlist, such as Outkast’s Bombs Over Baghdad.

“These guys are seeing this stuff every day — bombs going off. They come in from patrol and try to relax in their hooch, the last thing they want to be reminded of is what they are going to see at work tomorrow,” said Sgt. 1st Class Gail Anderson, a reservist who has worked in commercial radio across the country.

“We’re not trying to censor anything; we’re just trying to improve their quality of life,” she said.

Anderson and others who run the station are part of the 206th Broadcast Operations Detachment based in Seagoville, Texas.

While primarily intended for the roughly 133,000 troops who are mostly young males, the station’s audience also includes contractors and U.S. State Department workers, along with a “shadow” audience of Iraqis. Those non-military listeners tend to be older and make the evening classic rock show and the 1980s “flashback” show on Sunday’s a popular one, Anderson said.

Despite the diverse audience, King says she feels like she is playing for the typical young soldiers.

“I kind of picture these greasy guys out there working on the trucks and listening to the music. You know, guys in the mechanic shops, and guys out there working on the planes,” she said.