By George A. Smith
Some parts of a tour of duty in Germany haven’t changed for the last 50 years: Cars blaze down the Autobahn, people swig mugs of beer and Gary Bautell broadcasts on AFN.
If you, your parents or even your grandparents were assigned to Germany over the past four decades, chances are you’d recognize his voice. Bautell says he often meets people who say they feel like they know him.
It’s a lopsided relationship.
While many may “know” the mustachioed man with the salt-and-pepper hair, he doesn’t know them. An example, said the veteran newsman, was when he finished introducing then U.S. Army Europe Commander Gen. Carter Ham at a wounded warrior event.
“Up until then I had never met him,” said Bautell, “but when he took to the podium, he called me the voice of the U.S. military in Europe.” The general later told the awkwardly flattered Bautell that his voice had been a part of three different tours in Europe.
At times Germans act a bit wacky around Bautell too. During a tour of the AFN Europe Headquarters in Mannheim, one man strolled by Bautell’s office, saw his name, and excitedly called his dad on his cell phone, blurting out, “Guess whom I’m standing next to? Gary Bautell.”
He put his father on the phone with Bautell, who made pop’s day.
Bautell may skirt celebrity status these days but in his early years with AFN announcers like him were considered out-right stars.
Army Pvt. Gary Bautell joined AFN in November 1962. He heard AFN radio when he was stationed in Germany as an engineer, and re-enlisted to join the military network after showing his recruiter he had commercial DJ experience at an AM/FM radio station in Houghton Lake, Mich. He also worked at his campus radio station at Michigan State University.
Bautell’s first day on the job at the network headquarters at the Frankfurt Hoechst Castle was spent taking a battery of tests, including a voice audition and exams on foreign affairs and classical music. He passed them all and was on his way to a long career in military broadcasting.
In the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, AFN radio was more than a choice on the dial, it was the most different, most rebellious place on the dial.
“You’d hear AFN in taxis, in restaurants and cars all over Germany,” Bautell said. “We had thousands of American listeners, but millions of Germans.”
The difference back then, Bautell said, was that German radio was “state-run, boring stuff.” It was mostly German-language folk type music. “AFN changed German pop culture by introducing them to rock, country and jazz,” he said.
This was before the Internet, iPods and satellite radio. You only got music from the radio stations on your dial. Other than the music, there was another draw for young Germans: Many were eager to learn English. AFN was designed to reach the American military audience and no one expected so many Germans to tune in.
But they did. They enjoyed AFN’s contemporary music so much that it contributed to the German government privatizing radio in the late ‘80s and led to many of the German radio stations you now hear playing English language hits.
Bautell went on to host three different DJ programs: “The Dufflebag Show,” two rock songs an hour mixed in with “milder” music by singers such as Ella Fitzgerald; “Music in the Air,” back-to-back instrumental songs; and “Midnight in Europe,” a mix of poetry and jazz.
Bautell would turn on his microphone and deliver laid back lines like, “Cool breezes, blowing leaves and smooth jazz, you’ve got it all right here with Mr. Midnight.” Yes, that was his air name, as well as the name of the other two DJs who hosted the same show over the years.
Bautell made the transition from DJ to newscaster, but if you listened to him in the ‘60s you wouldn’t have recognized his voice. He rewound an old, brittle tape for me, using a pencil to help the struggling reel-to-reel machine play back its contents. The voice I heard from the built-in speaker sounded a lot more like legendary CBS TV anchorman Walter Cronkite than him. Bautell laughed and agreed.
“Cronkite was one of my idols. I thought everyone doing news had to sound like him. But now I listen to it and it sounds hokey,” he said.
Bautell eventually stopped trying to mimic Cronkite and developed his own style. His mentor at the time was Hal Walker, one of the first black American foreign correspondents. Bautell was a part-time stringer for ABC radio in Bonn, where Walker was assigned.
“Hal helped me focus on the most important facts in a story and not get distracted by side issues and too many words,” said Bautell. “He really boosted my confidence.”
That training paid off later when Bautell got to cover what he calls his most memorable story.
“Watching the Soviet Union crumble in place was mind boggling,” said Bautell. “I got to travel to a former Soviet army headquarters in East Germany and see close up what was unimaginable for me to see just weeks before. They were polishing tanks, a band was playing and they had troops marching — all for me and my cameraman. Later I got to see an underground East German airfield bunker that was supposed to protect several hundred people in the event of a nuclear strike. The only problem was the air vents in the bunker were simply holes in the roof with no filters.”
Bautell’s voice, fluent German and experience as a journalist made him the obvious choice to interview or meet every German chancellor from Willy Brandt to Angela Merkel, as well as many U.S. secretaries of defense and even Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
American historian John Provan, who has lived in Germany for 50 of his 57 years, said: “To many Germans, Gary is AFN,” adding, “whatever German-American historical event I work on, Gary is the first name organizers want as a master of ceremonies or guest speaker.”
In 2010 the Federation of German-American Clubs elected Bautell as the president of all of their clubs.
“Gary stands for everything positive in America. He’s a wonderful, friendly person, and has made a great impact on German-American relations,” said federation Vice President Dr. Elizabeth Wittig. Bautell is the only American out of nine members of the federation’s board of governors.
Bautell said one theme keeps coming up when he meets Germans.
“They constantly tell me how horrible 9/11 continues to be for them. Now Americans are behind walls and fences and it’s become very hard for Germans to meet them and make friends,” he said.
Before 9/11, many American installations were wide open and Germans could drive onto post.
“My advice is, if the Germans can’t easily go to you … go to them,” Bautell said.
Bautell, 70, shows no signs of slowing down, let alone retiring.
The last 30 years of his career have been as a supervisor as well as talent. He’s currently the chief of network radio for AFN Europe. He has guided and mentored more than 600 different military journalists. Many of them still work at CNN, ABC and other radio and TV stations across the United States.
“I feel half my age and at the top of my game,” he said. “If I wasn’t doing this I’d being doing it for free for somebody.”
So like the Autobahn and tasty beer, a tour in Germany will still include the familiar voice of Gary Bautell, the friend you know, but have never met.