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The expansion of its television services and contraction of its staff have prompted the American Forces Network to end more than a half-century of radio sports broadcasts, network spokesmen said.

“A decade ago, AFN [television] could schedule only a few sports events a week,” Pentagon spokesman Greg Hicks wrote Wednesday in response to an e-mail query. “Now, since the introduction of AFN-Sports and the recent launch of AFN-Xtra, AFN is offering more live and tape-delayed play-by-play sports than ever before.”

The total approaches 80 events per week, according to Robert Matheson, director of broadcasting for AFN in Riverside, Calif., far more than the average 10 per week provided to radio.

According to AFN audience surveys, support for the switch from radio to TV is overwhelming.

“AFN audiences prefer to watch the greater variety of sports on television than listen to them on the radio,” a press release quotes Matheson as saying. “When radio sports coverage comes on, most listeners tune out.”

Random questioning of a dozen or so potential listeners at a recent sports event in Heidelberg, Germany, appeared to bear Matheson out. Only one person said he missed radio sports.

“I’m a radio guy,” said Jim Moss, 62, of Kaiserslautern. “I love to listen during the wee hours of the morning.”

However, according to Matheson, the wee hours were part of the problem.

“Many of our radio stations didn’t carry the games when they were provided,” he said in the AFN press release. “U.S. East Coast games start at 1 a.m. Central European Time, when very few people are awake to hear them. Those same games start at 8 a.m. in Japan and Korea, when many stations there won’t interrupt their morning radio shows for play-by-play sports.”

Loyal listener Moss said he keeps three of his car radio buttons set on AFN frequencies in Frankfurt, Mannheim and Bavaria to keep the network in range as he drives across Germany. But Hicks downplayed the idea that sports fans in Europe listened to sports events in their cars.

“Radio sports events usually last a couple of hours,” he wrote, “far longer than most people can drive overseas and stay tuned to an AFN station. On the other hand, music shows are composed of short songs, which is more compatible with the average car trip.”

Reduced staff also factored into the decision to drop radio sports, Hicks said, noting the radio division has been trimmed by one-third.

Play-by-play sports requires a staff member to operate equipment to air a replacement for the stateside commercials, which AFN is prohibited from airing, he wrote.

The switch to TV potentially affects just 10 percent of the AFN audience, Hicks wrote.

“On-base personnel have access to all of AFN’s TV channels ... while off-base personnel are being given an AFN decoder and satellite dish in many locations,” he wrote. “Overall, about 90 percent of the AFN audience now receives all of the ... TV channels.”

More than a half-century of tradition will end Sept. 9, when AFN radio broadcasts its final scheduled live event, a Nextel Cup stock car race. For longtime listeners who remember hearing Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game or Joe Namath’s Jets’ upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III via AFN radio, it’s a quiet ending to decades of excitement.

Matheson, however, sees the situation as “duty first.”

“Our mission is better served,” he is quoted as saying, “when the largest possible audience tunes in ... and spends more time listening.”


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