As It Happens

'Good morning, Vietnam!': Remembering the late radio DJ Adrian Cronauer's air force days

Adrian Cronauer, the iconic Vietnam War radio personality and inspiration for Robin William's character in 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' died Wednesday. He was 79.

Cronauer spoke with former As It Happens host Michael Enright in 1987

Adrian Cronauer was a disc jockey on the Saigon-based Dawn Buster radio show from 1965-1966. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
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Adrian Cronauer, the former United States Air Force radio DJ stationed in Vietnam, died on Wednesday. He was 79.

The broadcaster was the loose inspiration for Robin Williams' Academy Award nominated performance in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam!

Cronauer volunteered to go to Vietnam just before war efforts in the country escalated. In 1987, he told then-As It Happens  host Michael Enright that Vietnam wasn't "much of a dangerous place" when he first signed up. 

Then, when it was too late to change assignments, the Vietcong blew up the radio station in Saigon.

From our archives, here's part of that conversation.

Did you go through a period after arriving in Saigon thinking of it as another posting? How long did it take for it to reach you that ... we were into something very big here and it was getting bigger by the day?

That was a gradual sort of thing. By the time I got there, there had been enough incidents in which Americans had been involved in bombings or some sort of ambush that I began to worry a little bit when I first got there.

I'd look and see a little old lady in black pyjamas carrying a basket over her arm and I think, 'Uh oh. She's the one that's got the hand grenade or the plastic explosive.' So I'd cross the street to get away from her, and then I find on the other side of the street, there was another little old lady with a hand basket.

Speaking with then-host Michael Enright on As It Happens in 1987, former Vietnam war radio DJ Adrian Cronauer described the opening of his morning show "Dawn Buster." 0:28

So pretty soon I stopped worrying about that and I just became fatalistic about it. I'd lived my life the way I had to.

As to the actual build-up itself, I saw it go from a sleepy little French colonial town to a nightmare in a period of a year. The influx of American troops, the influx of American materials and equipment, the influx of American money — the economy in Saigon was almost totally destroyed in a year's time.

Did any of that gradual enlightenment creep in to your radio broadcast? Did it go on to your show?

It did, in the sense of being concerned over what we were and were not allowed to put on by way of news broadcasts.

What did they tell you?

Basically the rules were, number one: nothing about in-country activities could be aired without prior approval from the MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] Office of Information. Secondly, nothing about the military at all could be aired again without approval from MACV.

This 1987 file photo released by Touchstone Pictures shows actor Robin Williams in character as DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. (Touchstone Pictures/Associated Press)

But this was going to military personnel, wasn't it?

Indeed. [I'll] give you an idea of how silly it seemed. If you recall back in 1965, the Air Force lost what they euphemistically referred to as a 'nuclear device' off the coast of Spain. We were not allowed to air a word of that.

It was carried in the Stars and Stripes which was the newspaper that served the military. It was carried in the English language newspaper that was published by civilians in Vietnam. It was carried on the Voice of America. It was carried on the BBC.

But Armed Forces radio could not carry a word of it. And despite my protests, the best answer I could get by way of a reason was that it might be embarrassing to the Air Force. Indeed, it would be.

Robin [Williams] purposely did not want to meet me before then because he was afraid that that would influence his development of the character.- Adrian Cronauer

Basically then you had to do what? Play music? Give folks the baseball scores back home? What was the format?

My main concern in terms of programming was to make the overall sound of the station as much like what the G.I.'s were used to listening to at home. And I think the best compliment I ever got was when an Air Force pilot told me that he had been flying in over the Gulf and picked me up on his ADF receiver, which is kind of a navigational radio that can also pick up broadcast signals.

He told me that until we'd done station identification, he actually thought that they had picked up, through some sort of weird electronic propagation in the atmosphere, that they had picked up a stateside station. And that made me feel very good because I felt that maybe I was achieving my goals.

Mr. Cronauer, have you met Robin Williams at all?

I did at the premiere of the movie. Until then, I did not, and Robin purposely did not want to meet me before then because he was afraid that that would influence his development of the character which he wanted to be all his own conception.

And I take it that the characterization he brings to the screen is nothing like the real Adrian Cronauer.

Well, aside from the fact that I was a disc jockey in Vietnam and he was playing a disc jockey in Vietnam, not too much like it at all.

Mr. Cronauer, just before we go, I would love to hear how you signed on.

OK. I'd be happy to if I can remember. There was music from an album called "Like Tweet" by Joe Puma and the Audiobon All-stars. That would play a signature riff and then I would go "Good morning Vietnam!"

I found out later on that out in the boondocks frequently, if it was a bad day, a G.I. would be prone to turn towards the radio and say the G.I. equivalent of "Get stuffed, Cronauer."

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