‘Lend me your ears’

Print edition : April 19, 2013

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the nation from the Delhi station of All India Radio on the night of September 7, 1946. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The transmission room of Colombo Radio, the precursor to Radio Ceylon and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. Undated photograph. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Ameen Sayani, the golden voice of radio, at the Red FM studio in Mumbai in 2003. Photo: SHASHI ASHIWAL

That would be the earnest tenor of the discourse on radio in a situation where private radio channels can carry news and AIR is a public rather than a government broadcaster.

IT was always, or so it was made out to be, a question of when, not if, private FM radio stations in India would be allowed to broadcast news. But then it has taken so long that one might be forgiven for asking, just when is when? Even as the government prepares for the third phase of auctions, later this year, for granting licences to private players, which will expand the independent FM radio market from the 86 cities now on air to another 227, it continues to demur and filibuster on this crucial issue. The halfway house offer now is that the private FM stations can draw on, and mind you only on, the news bulletins of All India Radio (AIR) for their own news, and—they are already doing this uninvited—throw in snippets of innocuous information like the weather, the traffic flow and pile-ups in the city at a given time, or some such locally useful disclosure, in their daily fare. The situation, to wit, presents itself as a ridiculous syllogism: no news was the good news on private FM; now it can use AIR news which, as many will argue, is no news or only the good news; so no news or only the good news is to be the news on private FM. Much like a little knowledge, in the matter of news, half a loaf can be worse than no bread.

Even more preposterous is the government’s pop psychological rationale for keeping independent news out of bounds for the FM licensee. Radio, seems the argument, unlike television or print, has a grass-roots reach that includes sensitive, vulnerable, least-common-denominator minds which can be swayed this way and that by anything they hear on it, particularly on religious and caste issues. Besides the point that this assumption seems to be a variation of the Katju-ism that 90 per cent of Indians are idiots, it is an affront to the democratic credo of universal adult suffrage, which places implicit faith in the capability of the people to choose their political condition. To deny them, on an easily accessible medium such as the radio, a broad spectrum of information to enable them to make considered choices is to take away from the sanctity and right of that exercise of franchise.

If anything, the government should have, from the outset, made news and current affairs a compulsory component of programming on FM channels so that they did not deteriorate into a regime of trivia talk and film songs administered ad nauseam. Imagine the saturating, lobotomising effect of the 245 private FM channels, and hundreds more to come after the third phase of licensing is complete, purveying film songs interspersed with the mindless chatter of radio jockeys (RJs) day in and day out.

What is worse, in the absence of news, you sometimes get a parody of news with RJs picking up tidbits of headlines that are current and incorporating them into their own flippant jargon to spruce up the show. In Chennai recently, one came across a channel running a vox pop, between film songs, on the very emotional issue of Indo-Sri Lankan relations in the wake of the disclosures of gross human rights violations by the Sinhala army. It came across as a travesty of both the gravity of the situation and its treatment as a news story because the RJ was, no doubt so as not to fall foul of the no-news rule, trying to make it sound like part of his usual light-hearted, quotidian banter.

The case for including news on private radio channels is not ipso facto one against film music, which will continue to be the mainstay of this service—like a background score, at home or on the road, to our everyday urban lives. Indeed, it is film music that saved radio from being slotted into a narrow, blighted cultural type in independent India. The first two Ministers of Information and Broadcasting, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel until 1950 and then B.V. Keskar until 1962, sought to zealously protect All India Radio from the ‘tawaifi’ Muslim music. This, coming against the backdrop of a concerted move to cleanse AIR of Muslim and Urdu influence, led to the resignation of its first Director General, Ahmed Shah Bukhari.

The Urdu-Hindi question dated back to pre-Partition times, and a committee set up by Bukhari to go into it in 1940 had come up with a syncretic lexicon by 1945; but this could not pre-empt separate broadcasts in Urdu and Hindi, which in a sense anticipated, in its religio-lingual dimension, political partition. Keskar, who became the Information and Broadcasting Minister in 1952, was bigoted against any Muslim influence on AIR, banning singers of the classical gharanas and even the harmonium from its studios. He pushed his puritanism to foolish limits when he banned film songs on AIR. Radio Ceylon moved into the vacuum and ‘Binaca Geetmala’ with the trademark coaxing voice of its iconic anchor Ameen Sayani became an instant hit. AIR was forced to restore film music through its Vividh Bhararti service in 1957 and, a decade later when transistorisation made radio pervasive, to launch commercial operations and accept advertisements.

Early history

Two brief strands in the history of radio broadcasting in India capture what the medium lost and what is missing in its cultural ethos to this day. One goes back to the beginning in the 1920s when J.C.W. Reith of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), perhaps the father figure for all times of public service broadcasting, proposed a service for India, was initially rebuffed by Lord Wellingdon, Viceroy of India, but subsequently, in 1926, struck a deal with the British government of India to start the Indian Broadcasting Company (IBC). Interestingly, it was the same year that the BBC under Reith was testing the waters to see how far it could bring in all points of view, including that of the trade union and the opposition Labour Party, in its coverage of the general strike in Britain—a definitive moment for the principle of impartiality and for the fairness doctrine in broadcasting.

The company became a public corporation the next year with daily broadcasts in Bombay and Calcutta. But the radio licence fees on which the service was dependent proved inadequate and the IBC folded up in 1930, and with it the possibility of a Reithian tradition continuing into the post-colonial present. The government took over the IBC and it became the IBS (Indian Broadcasting Service) under the Controller of Broadcasting, Lionel Fielden, and then, in 1935, was rechristened All India Radio. The Central News Organisation, to which the Indian Information Service (IIS), which controls the news content and output of the organisation today, can perhaps trace its antecedence, was set up in 1927 and the tradition of a command performance was cast in stone.

The second strand comes at the later period of the independence struggle and the Quit India Movement of 1942 when a clandestine radio operation by a couple of students became a bugbear for both the colonial government and its official broadcaster. Usha Mehta and Babubhai Vithalbhai set up their enigmatically, but for their guerilla mode appropriately, titled ‘ Voice of Freedom, speaking from somewhere in India’ in an apartment in Walkeshwar Road in Bombay and went on air on August 13, 1942, on the 42.34 metre band. They had to change their location every fortnight to evade detection and keep reinventing themselves as AIR jammed their signals. But they were able to keep at it and stay under the radar with two news bulletins, one in English in the morning and the other in Hindi in the evening, and transmit important news, including of the Chittagong bomb attack and the Jamshedpur strike.

Their first and foremost patron was Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, who, once he had heard them on air, sought them out and provided them financial assistance. Content was prepared by Sucheta Kripalani and Aruna Asaf Ali and talks were delivered by Lohia and Achyut Patwardhan. It was a dream run of about three months (until November 1942) before Usha Mehta was arrested and the operation had to be abandoned. The energy and nimbleness of this revolutionary broadcasting experiment did not, however, become an example of an alternative way forward for the medium even after independence because of the preponderant monolithic presence of AIR and its banyan-tree-like spread beneath which nothing else could grow.

The Indian experience in this regard has been in stark contrast to the vibrant and plural growth of the medium in a small neighbouring country like Nepal, where radio stations have proliferated like a cottage industry. The licensing of private FM stations has no doubt made a difference, but, unlike in the television sector where private channels are independent of, and have little to do with Doordarshan, there is still a strong sense of residual power over the radio dispensation in the country vesting with AIR largely because it continues to monopolise news and current affairs.

There is little doubt that AIR, much like Doordarshan, will have to call the bluff of its nominal autonomy behind the facade of the Prasar Bharati Corporation, cease being a cat’s paw of the government of the day, and reinvent itself as a genuine public service broadcaster with independent credentials if it is to have any meaningful future. In fact, a catacomb of committees and expert groups under Sam Pitroda’s supervision is currently going into the whole issue of how Prasar Bharati can be made truly free and creative.

Given the track record of action on committee recommendations—and there have been at least three on this one—there is understandably more scepticism than hope on the outcome of the Pitroda exercise. But the objective conditions have changed and put pressure on the government to summon the political will to abnegate its control over Prasar Bharati and do what it takes to transform it into an innovative public broadcaster that can stand its ground against the commercial channels.

A broadcast philosophy

The historic Supreme Court judgment of 1995 in the case between the Cricket Association of Bengal and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) versus the Union of India recognises in even measure the right of the citizen to airwaves which, the court held, “are a public property”, and the responsibility of the public authority to control and regulate the use of airwaves in the public interest. This sets the legal basis for a public interest broadcast philosophy that is people rather than market centric and programme rather than hierarchy driven and for a radical revamping and whittling down of the ossified and bureaucratised structure of AIR so that it becomes a creature of the public on the ground.

When the restrictions on private radio channels carrying news have been lifted and Prasar Bharati has become truly autonomous so that AIR is a public rather than a government broadcaster, there would be optimisation of installed resources, in the fulsome sense of the term, in the radio sector. AIR would address the public sphere and the private FM channels their respective market constituencies. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive and would overlap in good part, particularly in cities and urban agglomerations. The public broadcaster would have shed officialese in favour of a more people-friendly and relevant language rendered with restraint and dignity and the private players would, imaginably and much like their television counterparts, be breathlessly sensationalist. The public broadcaster would, of course, eschew the stridency and hard sell of the other. But it would not be a clinically distanced service provider with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It would be passionate and persuasive in winning the trust of its audience, to whom, and not to the political masters, it would owe its allegiance. In the process, the tenor of its discourse would have shifted from a magisterial “listen to me” to an honest and earnest “lend me your ears”.

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