'Good morning, Afghanistan': War radio

British Forces radio has hit the airwaves in Helmand. Terri Judd reports
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The Independent Online

The hi-tech equipment, red "On Air" light and the DJs' patter are no different from those at any radio station. But step out of the studio and you are greeted by sandstorms, attack helicopters and armoured vehicles bearing machine guns. At a time when most of us were slumbering happily, at 6.30am Helmand time today, the words "Good Morning, Afghanistan" boomed forth from the first British Forces radio station in the country.

More than 9,000 troops fighting in the southern province's war zone were greeted with the upbeat sounds of The Boo Radleys' Wake Up Boo! – a track selected by British soldiers around the world to be the first broadcast from the new British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) station at Camp Bastion.

"There may be a touch of irony in this choice: 'Wake up it's a beautiful morning,'" conceded Nicky Ness, the controller of BFBS. DJ Dusty Miller, who mimicked Robin Williams's greeting this morning, added: "Mindful of the very particular brand of humour among our listeners, we were worried what they might foist on us – but we were braced to play whatever they asked for. The first song played on the ground in any operational theatre tends to get a bit of an iconic status."

British Forces' radio has been following the troops around the world since an experimental station was sent up in an Algiers harem during the Second World War. It has been there through the Aden crisis, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Falklands conflict, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Balkans conflicts, the handover of Hong Kong and the two Iraq wars, with presenters as diverse as Sir Roger Moore and Kenny Everett.

In Iraq, the team prided itself that it continued to broadcast through mortar attacks and went off-air only once when the building had to be evacuated to clear a rocket that had landed nearby. But the move to Afghanistan has been a long time coming. BFBS originally built and shipped a radio studio to Afghanistan in 2007 but it took two years to finally get a site for the equipment and months more for engineers to restore it since it had been buffeted by the harsh desert conditions.

But it finally opened a new chapter in radio history this morning when Mr Miller and his fellow DJ, Dave Simon, began broadcasting across airwaves dedicated to the troops in Helmand and to their families back home. The ironies the forces have to contend with during their tours of Afghanistan was more than evident in the tracks chosen when the broadcaster asked the forces community to vote for the song that should be the first broadcast. The Boo Radleys track beat competition from such songs as The Sound of Music sung by Julie Andrews, which includes the famous line: "The hills are alive."

Other favourites in the poll included Edwin Starr's Stop The War Now, Razorlight's Before I Fall To Pieces , Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms , It Bites' Calling All The Heroes. Iron Maiden's epic Run To The Hills, The Clash's Rock The Casbah, Leaving On A Jet Plane by John Denver and Take That's Patience were all in contention too. The nomination that came in eighth on the list was the Coming Home debut album by three servicemen who have formed The Soldiers to raise funds for service charities including The Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes.

"Many came in with dedications and we will be playing those messages whether the tracks made the top 10 or not," Mr Miller said. "As a presenter, I intend to make sure that every single request gets played."

To the servicemen and women on Helmand's front line, any contact with home is priceless and that message, Mr Miller said, had come through loud and clear when troops were asked what they wanted from the new station. While service personnel in Afghanistan have been able to tune into BFBS Radio shows from the UK over the past years, this is the first time they will have their own dedicated station and be able to choose the music, messages and shows that are broadcast. They will be able to walk in to the station, use a dedicated military phone or online messaging service.

BFBS began broadcasting digitally in the UK six months ago so for the first time relatives will be able to hear soldiers talking live in Helmand as well as send their own messages out. The mix of dedications with news and music will be broadcast from Afghanistan to the UK three times daily, while those serving in Helmand will hear broadcasts alternating between programmes from Helmand, the UK and bases in Germany.