With a relatively straight face and a moderately cocked eyebrow he describes the entertainment shows on American Forces Network (AFN) television as “the awkward gaps between news.”
You have to consider the source. Mike Roberts is the man who programs news on AFN television here at the AFN Broadcast Center on March Air Reserve Base, and he uses words like an artist uses paint.
Roberts scours ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and NBC News for programs to air on a 24/7 television service only seen by the American military communities overseas: AFN news. Networks provide news shows to the AFN Broadcast Center as a public service for the U.S. military.
Roberts is as methodical and systematic as his short-cropped hair, wire-rim glasses and “news guy” vocabulary indicates. When he chooses programs, he doesn’t guess or go with what he likes. He wades into the Nielsen ratings and other research to find out what Americans across the country are watching. “I replicate the Stateside viewing experience,” Roberts said. “I start out by programming the big three network newscasts: ABC, CBS and NBC. Twenty-one million Americans get their news from these newscasts. That’s more than double the number of Americans who get their news from the top 25 American newspapers.”
While the major American TV newscasts get more than seven times the viewers of cable news, 90 minutes daily from the “big three” isn’t enough to program a news channel. That’s why Roberts turns to CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for additional programming. He airs the most popular shows from all three cable news networks and factors in the overall popularity of the network. Roberts calls his free-of-censorship-and-manipulation selection process “proportional inclusivity.” It gives the overseas American military a mix of top news sources on a single channel. You can’t get that anywhere else in the world.
Roberts feels the military audience consumes more news than average Americans, perhaps because they are far from home and what happens in the world may directly affect them. “The American military values situational awareness,” Roberts said. “We need to ensure our troops and their leaders get to know why they do what they do. News is an important part of command information. Global events play into the US national conversation.”
Roberts is relatively new to AFN, joining the broadcast center in 2011 after stints as a reporter, news anchor, managing editor and news director for affiliates of ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. Roberts’ print work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. But he had never heard of AFN until one of his two daughters, married to an Air Force F16 pilot then serving in Spangdahlem, Germany, mentioned watching it. Tired of “creating, maintaining and growing audiences for advertisers,” Roberts decided that doing news with a more meaningful mission would be more satisfying.
“I find the job at AFN is enormously rewarding,” he said. “When it comes to the military audience, people get passionate about what they get to see and not see. You don’t see that level of audience involvement with other programs, except with sports.” AFN gets more questions about sports and news than any other programming.
When Roberts worked commercially, he was like a single ingredient in a bowl of “news soup” with others contributing equal parts to the recipe. Now, he’s the chef, choosing programs from all the major broadcast and cable networks. “Before I was used to one network, one story a day,” he said. “But news people are the biggest busybodies in the world. Here I can stick my nose into programs from all the networks. ”
Roberts’ curiosity and interest in the world led him to his avocation as a certified Master Wildlife Conservationist. His fascination with unusual species and vanishing habitats took him paddling in a dugout canoe up the Amazon, capturing venomous snakes in Central America and hiking the Inca trail.
That same intellectual curiosity led to him pursuing compelling stories in Vietnam, Thailand, Russia and Lithuania. Now, Mike Roberts channels those same qualities to bring the overseas American military community a unique service that blends top American programs into one channel: AFN news.