Saturday, Jun 03, 2023

Transistor Bombs

Transistor Bombs

Despite its wide reach, television and neglect have played spoilsport for radio

Transistor Bombs Transistor Bombs
When the temblor rocked Gujarat on January 26, television beamed the images of death, debris and devastation round the clock. But in Bhuj, the Ground Zero, it was the humble talking box that worked overtime to keep people informed post-calamity. Radio broke the news of the quake and its special bulletins kept the information flowing every 10 minutes. It talked to the affected people, sent out their distress messages, stirred the government into rushing aid and lent a crucial link between the district administration and the state government when all other means of communication had collapsed.

In an age where the digital divide is creating an information gap between the rich and the poor, the quake revealed the tremendous power of the modest talking box—and its terrible neglect. It also showed it to be the most accessible medium to a majority of Indians. But as media analyst N. Bhaskar Rao of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies asks: "Who wrote or talked about the yeoman service air Bhuj and Rajkot did during those difficult days?"

Good question. Over the years, Akashvani, the voice from the sky, seems to be vanishing back into the blue. Well, almost. Listenership is plummeting and advertising drying up. There has been a steep decline in quality of programming as well.

But hark back to radio's glory days and you realise how much joy it brought to lives. A time when listeners had transistors glued to their ears to catch the adventures of Inspector Eagle and his bumbling sidekick Hawaldar Naik in the cult detective show of the '70s. Or regularly tuned in to programmes like S. Kumar Ka Filmi Muqadma, the Bournvita Quiz Contest and Modi Ke Matwale Raahi. A time when listeners were 'fans' of voices, not faces: like those of Devaki Nandan Pandey, Melville D'Mello, Ameen Sayani and Surajit Sen.

Radio also played a crucial role during wartime, ushered in the Green Revolution and popularised Indian music—film, classical or folk. Radio informed farmworkers about new technologies and new seeds—so much so that IR-8, a hybrid variety of rice introduced to farmers in Tamil Nadu through lessons came to be popularly known as 'radio rice'. It took a lead in the literacy and anti-arrack drive in Nellore and propagated the small family norm when talking about sex and procreation was taboo. Radio was also the first to convey the news of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination and Nehru's death in far-flung villages where newspapers took days, even weeks, to reach.

Clearly, today's new media—television and the Internet—cannot equal the communication revolution radio ushered in decades ago. "But no serious encouragement and support has been given to radio. It has been completely marginalised," laments Akhila Sivadas of Delhi's Centre for Advocacy and Research.

Radio's woes are inextricably linked to the fate of slothful state-controlled organisations. "The tragedy of radio is that it is in the hands of the government," says veteran TV and radio man, Mark Tully. The government policies have remained lopsided, a reason why the true potential of radio remains yet to be tapped. "The information and broadcasting ministry has always played a reactive than proactive role," says Bhaskar Rao. "There's ignorance and a lack of vision among our policymakers about radio's potential," says air's engineer-in-chief, K.M. Paul. Prasar Bharati has come to focus all its energy on Doordarshan with little time or thought for air.The latter doesn't even have a director-general right now. "Though both DD and air share a common institutional framework, there has been an inherent bias against radio," says Sivadas. Media critic Amita Malik once said radio's been neglected like the middle-aged first wife while TV has been mollycoddled like a young second wife.

TV's rise has affected radio's listenership and fortunes, both in cities and villages. Radio listenership picked up in cities some three years ago, riding on the back of private, stereo-quality FM radio. But that didn't translate into sustained money. Radio snares a paltry two per cent of the Rs 6,000-crore Indian advertising market, according to Arthur Andersen's survey of the entertainment industry. This is much lower than radio's fortunes worldwide: globally, radio still manages to account for 5-22 per cent of the total media adspend. Obviously TV's played spoilsport again: it accounts for 36 per cent of the ad revenues.

It's unfortunate that the market doesn't care for radio in India—air, after all, is one of the world's largest networks covering 90 per cent of the country and 98.8 per cent of its population with programmes in 24 languages and 146 dialects. air's coffers are getting drier by the day: gross revenues from commercials are down to Rs 80.84 crore last fiscal, from Rs 93.44 crore in 1997-98. On the other hand, DD's revenues were Rs 610 crore last fiscal, up from Rs 372 crore in 1997. "It's a historical inevitability, something that has happened across the world. Radio lost its earlier space and had to reinvent itself," says Sivadas.

But unlike TV, radio failed to market itself to advertisers. "It shied away from projecting itself," says Bhaskar Rao. Adds media critic Sudheesh Pachauri: "It couldn't forge a relationship with the new economy. While market forces rode piggyback on TV, radio couldn't emerge as a brand vehicle; it didn't push the entertainment economy. It delivered listeners, not consumers."

That failure led to the radio acquiring a reputation of being a soporific, dull medium. The quality of news broadcasters turned abysmal, women's programmes and once-popular rural folk shows like Braj Madhuri began to sound outdated. The slow news bulletin, begun for small newspapers which didn't have recording facilities, proved to be an anachronism. Hawa Mahal, a slot on Vividh Bharati for short radio plays, started airing more repeats than new productions. FM now beats air at reproduction and a shot at inventiveness through interactive chat-and-music programmes. But here too anchors copy the chatty style of Ameen Sayani. "It has not been in tune with the times," says Sivadas.

Blame it on TV again. The decline in quality began when creative radio producers shifted base to the more challenging, and happening television. The infiltration of bureaucrats in the '50s to manage an essentially creative medium also affected the quality of programming. The professional qualification clause which required a D-G to have 18 years of experience in a cultural or educational institution was also done away with.

Compare this with the time when a special Farm and Home Unit was created for agricultural programming, headed by a graduate in agriculture and farm officers on deputation from the agriculture department. "The idea now is to just air shows on time. Earlier a lot of effort went into making them," adds former radio newsreader, Devaki Nandan Pandey.The neglect and marginalisation has come from being treated as just another government department. "You cannot get a creative artist to work on the same level as a clerk or an accountant," argues Bangalore-based former radio professional Indu Ramesh.

Is there hope at all? "You have to revive the interest of production people and creative professionals," says Tully. India needs a three-tier system of broadcasting: a state-owned public service network, commercial private broadcasting and non-profit community radio stations owned and managed by the people. "It has to be both market and reform-friendly," says Pachauri.

Towards which end, the Arthur Andersen survey advocates a privatisation move for radio. That would accelerate radio's revenues. Sri Lanka's radio share jumped from 7 per cent in 1992 to 15 per cent in 1999 after privatisation created more than 15 FM channels in Colombo alone. FM privatisation is expected to give radio a boost: the state broadcaster earns from FM licence fees and a share of its revenues. Big broadcast players like ndtv and Star are evincing keen interest, but with skewed government policies, are uncertain over its long-run viability.

Radio also has to fulfil its critical role as a public service broadcaster. "Market forces are providing the latest mantra; radio is falling victim to that. The policies are displaying a strong urban bias," says Ashish Sen of voices, a Bangalore-based communications ngo. In 1995, the Supreme Court declared the airwaves as public property to be utilised for promoting public good and ventilating plurality of opinions and ideas. While FM privatisation has happened, that too has been done half-heartedly. Though it has meant an end to government's monopoly in entertainment, news continues to remain under state control. That is farcical given the proliferation of private TV news channels. Besides, FM doesn't reach out to the vast, rural populace. "If things are determined by market forces, it won't allow the medium to flower," says Sen.

While FM stations are currently being set up by the private sector, the rules for non-profit stations are yet to be framed. The airwaves have not been opened to well-meaning ngos, or such educational institutions and campaigners of community radio as ignou, Shantiniketan and Jamia Milia. "The government is too slow to respond. It needs to move from talking to doing things," says Sen. This is particularly galling given that even our smaller neighbours have taken a lead in radio service run by local communities. Nepal boasts of Radio Sagarmatha run by a group of environmental journalists in Nepal while Kotmale community broadcasting has been a big success in Sri Lanka. A Unesco-sponsored workshop in India last year pointed out that "a truly people's radio should perceive listeners not just as receivers and consumers but also as active citizens and creative producers of media content". Says Ramesh: "Every taluka should have a radio of its own, run by the people, giving expression to their aspirations, solving their problems, encouraging their culture and fine arts. When people have a say in running the organisation, they feel proud and use the medium for their betterment."

Running out of steam and ideas, radio in India seems to have forgotten this at the wrong time.