This week on American Routes Shortcuts, we speak with American G.I. Rik De Lisle, who spun records for the Armed Forces Network during the Cold War. He signed up for the military at 17 to escape life in Milwaukee, and in 1978 he was transferred to West Berlin. Rik’s rock broadcast made him a hero, especially among the East German audience who risked punishment to hear the electrifying sounds coming out of the West.
Rik De Lisle: They said, “Well, we have an opening in Berlin.” And I go, “Berlin, okay, that’s pretty cool. Yeah I’ll go there, let’s try it, let’s see what happens.” And so I like drove through East Germany, seeing a communist with an AK-47 behind every tree, and there were lots of them. And Berlin was populated by people who were looking for a place where they could live on the edge.
Nick Spitzer: So there’s a lot of hipsters and bohemians.
RDL: Oh, and the coolest thing was they all got along with each other. That means I could go into the slums of Berlin to see a concert in the basement of a bombed out building and nobody really cared. They knew I was a G.I. but now it’s like nighttime, let’s have a beer and watch David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
RDL: The AFN studios in Berlin were in a villa that used to belong to Von Ribbentrop, who was the finance minister for Hitler. When I got here in the late 70s, it still had the original furniture and stuff.
NS: A Third Reich furnished radio station.
RDL: Yeah absolutely.
NS: The idea of Armed Forces, or American Forces Radio Network was initially to entertain troops and keep them informed but it seems to me that you had an enormous effect on the consciousness of the Germans towards freedom, culture, America.
RDL: AFRTS refers to it as the shadow audience. It’s people who always listen, but you’re not broadcasting for them. I tend to meet a lot of people who used to listen to AFN, and they’d go, “Man you guys were really the voice of freedom. Life was hard all around me, but I could lock myself up in my room and turn on the radio.” It sort of smells like America, the thoughts of Highway 66, the idea that hey there’s something out there. Never thinking they’d ever get a chance to see it.
NS: What were your sentiments as we move towards the moment when the wall came down, and how did you feel when that happened?
RDL: When it came down? I was crying like everybody else. This was a monster, nobody, nobody ever thought this would ever happen. I mean we thought, at the radio station, we were broadcasting to people we would never see in our life. I watched on television in the news where Günter Schabowski, from the East German government said, “As of tomorrow, you’ll be able to go across the border.” I got to the radio station, and there were no parking spaces. And then I went, “Ah, those are East German cars, what the hell is going on here?” And I walked into the radio station and it was full of East Germans who when they came across the wall, didn’t go downtown Berlin, they came to the radio station.
NS: To meet the hosts.
NS: To meet the invisible people.
NS: Who had touched their lives with music.
NS: What’d they say to you? Did you sign autographs? I mean what was it like for you?
RDL: You bet! I mean you have to remember, if you got caught listening to us, you went to jail. So these people actually had to risk something to listen to us. Now that’s a commitment.
NS: Rik I want to thank you for speaking with me here on American Routes and being on the radio.
RDL: Hey thank you! An old guy like me loves to tell long stories.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.