Guantánamo

Vinyl records at Guantánamo: Navy radio station resisted a recall

A Grateful Dead album.
A Grateful Dead album. THE MIAMI HERALD

Havana may have its classic American automobiles but, step into a back room of this base radio station, and the U.S. sailors who broadcast here behind a Cuban minefield have a vintage collection trapped in a time warp of its own.

There’s a trove of about 20,000 vinyl records saved from a headquarters recall in the ’90s and sometimes broadcast to base residents when the mostly strict military format allows.

In fact, Radio Gitmo has the U.S. military’s last broadcasting collection of vinyl records — and studios outfitted with turntables.

“We are more or less trusted with this media,” said Petty Officer Jared Collins, 26, a station engineer, standing amid rows of records in paper slipcovers in an obsolete TV studio. “It would be a crime to get rid of them.”

On a recent Friday he set a stylus onto a live recording of Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling and broadcast it to radio listeners among the 6,000 or so people on this base.

There’s a live Bob Marley concert and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, John Coltrane recordings and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, part of a collection that for years the DJs wouldn’t discuss for fear that the bosses would order them to destroy them or ship the collection off the island, like other radio stations in the Defense Department broadcasting system.

There’s also Santana’s rendition of Oye Como Va, the Grateful Dead playing Radio City Music Hall in 1980, Led Zeppelin, The Brides of Funkenstein, The Doors — all predigital recordings pressed from the 50s into the 90s.

The Armed Forces Network got out of analog music in the 1990s with a recall order to its outlets, says George A. Smith, chief of affiliate relations at the AFN Broadcast Center in Riverside, California. The Pentagon’s radio and TV network was transitioning to new technology, meaning “our only choices were to keep turntables to occasionally play records, keep the vinyl for historical purposes or dispose of the collection in accordance with our copyright agreements.”

One set went to the Library of Congress, says Smith. Another is kept in the broadcast center’s archive.

At Guantánamo, where the station’s jingle not so long ago was “On an island with no where to go,” it seems, the DJs just never got around to complying.

In fact, the vinyl collection was for years one of Guantánamo’s worst-kept secrets, something everybody seemed to know about but nobody wanted talked about beyond the base. It’s stashed in a room with station souvenirs — Fidel Castro bobble heads, T-shirt, mugs, key chains emblazoned with “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard,” the station’s motto never uttered on the air.

Sailors assigned to the radio station were worried that, if higher headquarters heard about it, they might insist on its recall. But now, with vinyl making a comeback, the opposite has happened. Headquarters is hailing, not threatening, the unique collection at this unique outpost.

“The fact they still retain the vinyl records is their choice and used for special occasions,” Smith said by email, adding that only the Guantánamo station “is actively maintaining a record library and occasionally airing records on the air.” Their use is occasional, he said, a break in a mostly scripted military format — “merely an augmentation of the other current and relevant AFN services offered.”

So sailors squiring visitors around the station now enthusiastically let reporters look around and marvel at the collection’s database— a card catalog typed up by sailors starting in the ’60s to correlate with the LPs on the shelves.

On a recent visit, station staff offered estimates on the collection’s value, starting at $3 million, then revising it downward to $2 million or $1 million, if the records were sold individually on eBay.

The reality is, it’s priceless. And, frankly, theoretical. The vinyl is copyrighted — resale forbidden under the terms that the U.S. military acquired it — with its use limited to “authorized U.S. military community listeners overseas,” says Smith. So there can be no auction — on eBay or otherwise.

Radio Gitmo broadcasts three stations, much of it canned, in different formats — Top 40 from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on one, country in the same time slot on another and a blend of all-talk broadcasts ripped from NPR, FOX, ABC and others, “so everybody can get their fix,” as Collins puts it. Night time brings electronic dance music and classic rock.

That leaves little time for the vinyl beyond Throwback Thursdays when the sailors who serve as DJs and engineers can more freely pluck from the shelves. And once a year the station does a fundraiser, a radio-thon. Callers donate a dollar to get a song played. The next caller donates $2 to get it off the air.

So, says Collins, the DJs get to play from the collection “every once in a while. We still have to comply with what we’re doing. When they want to hear Top 40, they’re going to hear Top 40.”

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