All India Radio---75 years of wasted opportunity

IN Community Media | 02/11/2002
Between its early hijacking by government and its imminent hijacking by commercial interests can we still create a relevant public space on Indian radio?


In Western Europe, Britain evolved its own strong public broadcasting system which was popularly known as the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) model.  This system became so popular; many European countries emulated it.   In 1980 when Thacherism swept the Europe, this model became victim of that ideology.  The public broadcasting legacy  was partly destroyed.

From the beginning, All Indian Radio did not suffer any such dilemma as American broadcasting did, but fell victim to over-ambitious politicians, visionless bureaucrats and  an unskilled working force.  The Congress party saw every expansion of the radio as strengthening of its propaganda machinery.

The misuse of the medium reached its peak during Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s regime as Prime Minister.  Its credibility reached its lowest ebb during emergency.  Akashavani Bhavan, (the term Akashavani was coined by Prof.Gopalaswamy, a psychology professor at Mysore University when he started a low powered transmitting station at Mysore, a unique  contribution   from Karnataka to radio broadcasting in India of  which many are not aware of)  the headquarters of All India Radio in New Delhi became an  extension of 1, Safdarjung Road where the prime minister lived.  Her Information minister V.C.Shukla and son Sanjay Gandhi kept a vigil over the day to day  functioning of  All India Radio.  The minister and his chosen officials directly handled the news desk.  The way  this medium was misused by the Congress party prompted its critics to dub All India Radio as All Indira Radio.  That was the pathetic state of affairs of All India Radio during emergency.  

After the emergency, the demand for autonomy was intensified.  It was not for the first time the opposition was making  such a demand for lesser control of government over All India Radio.  Earlier several committees were appointed to look into this aspect; an  important  one being A.K.Chanda Committee.  It strongly recommended   autonomy for AIR  on the model of BBC.  However, manipulation of the medium by Mrs. Gandhi and her coterie gave a new edge to the demand.  During the 1977 election,  the Janata party made autonomy to broadcasting a part of its manifesto.   In its brief period  in power the party did appoint a committee under the chairmanship of B.G.Verghese.  The committee  recommended creation of an autonomous institution Aakash Bharati, but the government showed no urgency in implementing the recommendations. 

With the failure of Janata experiment, the Verghese Committee report was also forgotten.  This is the tragedy of the political parties.  When they are in opposition, they  talk in a different language.   Once they come to power, their true color emerges.  No political party wants to part with a broadcasting medium, which has tremendous reach in the country.  The sad part was  neither they have showed genuine concern in improving the quality of the broadcasting and converting it into a catalyst for change nor freeing it from the strangle hold of the government.  However, but for the 1995 Supreme Court verdict, Prasar Bharati would not have been in place.  I have discussed this  in detail towards the end of this essay.

In America and Europe, radio  never performed the role of change agent, but politicians used the medium to further the national interest.  It played a positive role in World War II.  The firesides chat over radio of president F.D.Roosevelt during the years of  Great Depression were very popular. In America although radio grew as an entertainment medium with commercial interests, its contribution in creating political awareness was significant.  Radio was used the way the television is being exploited these days in presidential election campaigns.

Any medium has to reflect the culture, heritage, socio-economic and political concerns of a society.  Hence, it varies from nation to nation.  Scholars  have identified certain unique qualities of radio for development communication.  In the Indian situation, unlike the press, radio reaches an illiterate population.  Compared to television or film, radio is relatively cheap and portable, so radio broadcast can be localized to each community, thus appealing to local people.  Radio can also effectively reach individuals with less formal education and lower socio-economic status, these individuals are usually the priority audience segment for rural development; family planning and public health, it is still the most effective channel for reaching the vast audience of the rural and urban poor.  Nevertheless, unfortunately the strength or versatility of radio was under-utilized.  The 75 years have become wasted years. 

Apart from the fact of the government monopoly, the problem with the managers of AIR was that they were easily satisfied with small achievements and also failed to carry forward the lessons they learned from certain experiments. 

In 1956, UNESCO selected India for a unique experiment known as ‘Radio Rural Forums Project’, which was earlier successfully implemented in Canada.  Pune was the site of this experiment.  Village radio forums were created and made to listen to half-hour radio program broadcast by AIR and then discussed the content of the program.  The theme of the experiment was, "listen, discuss and act".  The research evaluation showed that, "the Pune radio forums helped to unify the villagers around common decisions and common acts, widening the influence of gram panchayat and broadening the scope of its action."

The radio forums continued to do some good work.  In fact, credit for the success of  the Green Revolution and the attaining of self-sufficiency in food production was partly given to radio.  With the advent of the transistor, radio receiver sets became cheap and reach of radio was enlarged.  The farmers of the Thanjavur paddy growing belt in Tamil Nadu, named the hybrid variety of paddy they grew after listening about it over transistor radio as "Transistor paddy." 

UNESCO considered the Pune experiment a successful model of development communication and it was repeated in several developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.  However, AIR failed to draw more lessons from the experiment and apply it broadly to other areas of rural development.  By the 1970’s, the radio farm forums were defunct. 

Another rare experiment was the starting of local stations.  The concept had its origin in Chanda Committee report, which had suggested decentralization of radio to give local content and flavor to its programs.  The committee had suggested starting of radio transmitting stations in all the 400 districts of the country.  But on an experimental basis, local stations were started with low power transmitters at selected rural areas on FM band from 1989-90.  In Karnataka, Hospet and Chitradurga got local stations.  Although the experiments proved to be successful in certain centers where the station directors were dynamic, creative and innovative, it was abandoned after sometime due to paucity of funds.

Some centers did make use of interactive nature of the medium and began  several innovative programs.  AIR Bangalore was  one among them.  However, it was too little in comparison with the great expectations people had of the medium.

The arrival of television in 1959 and flourishing of satellite television channels by 90’s came as a deathblow to already tired radio broadcasting in India.  Radio found it difficult to attract the attention of the listeners.  It looked pale and dull before the glamour of the ‘idiot box’.  The hope of the admirers of radio that it would have a healthy growth in the competitive environment created by television proved wrong.  Although radio remained as popular medium, it never saw drastic transformation in its content and approach.  It started languishing. 

However, certain developments towards the second half of  the 1990s offered one more chance to radio to remain  a significant player in the  media scene. The most significant development among them was the landmark judgment of Supreme Court in the ‘Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v/s Cricket Association of Bengal’ writ petition.  In its historic pronouncement the Supreme Court ruled that air waves constitute public property which must be utilized for advancing public good.  In two separate judgments, the court said "the right of free speech guaranteed  under article 19(1)(a) did not include the right to use air waves which were public property. 

Being public property, it was the duty of the state to see that air waves were so utilized as to advance the free speech right of the citizen which was served by ensuring plurality and diversity of use, opinion and ideas.  This could not be ensured by a medium controlled by a monopoly, whether the monopoly was of state or any other individual, groups or organizations".  The court further ruled that "(t)he broadcasting media should be under the control of the public as distinct from government.  This is the command implicit in article 19(1)(a).  It should be operated by a public statutory corporation or corporations."


In addition, the court felt that  broadcasting could not be administered under the 1985 Telegraphic Act.  The judgment gave a new dimension to the discourse on status of broadcast in India.  It  was no more confined to mere giving autonomy to broadcast medium, it went beyond that. The court’s observation hastened the creation of Prasar Bharati.  Nevertheless, broadcasting itself was in for revolutionary change.


In 1999 the government approved the establishment of 150 private FM radio stations in 40 Indian cities, and in principle allowed non governmental organizations, educational institutions and citizens groups to establish community radio stations.  All India Radio services is gradually being broken.


The Breaking of a monopoly was fine but what next?  Indian broadcasting experienced same dilemma experienced  by European countries in 1980;s where public broadcasting system had taken deep roots.  Allowing the private sector into  broadcasting, particularly in radio was like throwing the medium open to pure, commercial exploitation.  But there was little option. Then what should be the level of control?  Moreover, in developing societies like India what is the guarantee that the radio remains socially committed and responsible?  These questions persist.


Looking at the program content of FM channels that have already sprang up in big cities one gets the feeling that they are more market oriented than socially concerned.  There is a need for empirical studies to find out the damage caused by these channels for local language and culture.  In this situation, it calls for having dual system of public and private broadcasting systems and  the strengthening of the former.


The entire structure of radio broadcasting will have to be revamped.  It has to become more professional by adopting recent and sophisticated technology.  As the Chanda Committee pointed out almost three decades ago, reversing the top-down model, bringing more decentralization, there has to be perfect mix of development and commercial programs.  More and more soap operas with developmental messages will have to be devised.  Thailand should become the  model where radio has withstood the competition from television and continues to be the most popular medium.  Professionalism not only at the content creation level, but also at the managerial level will have to be introduced.  Well-qualified marketing managers can help in raising the revenue without sacrificing the public interest.  The major problem with Indian broadcasting is the mindset of people who are used to a set of ‘broadcasting ‘values’ and who have continued over the years with the feeling that they are working for another government department  like revenue and social welfare.  This has to be radically changed.  There is a need for fresh thinking in the changed circumstances.  Innovation and dynamism should match the fast changing media scenario.  If they fail this time, we will never be left with public broadcasting at all in this country.   This will prove a costly mistake.  Time has come to take the challenge head on. 


Also, it is a challenge to the  non-government sector.  There was a cry for long to set up community radio transmitting stations by non-government organizations and universities.  Now that the government is getting ready to give community radio licenses to the educational sector, the  time has come for them to build alliances with neighbouring institutions and use the medium for education and socio-economic revolution at the grassroots level.


Technology is so well advanced, handy and cheaper transmission equipment are available in the market. The Bangalore-based NGO; Madhyam has taken up community broadcasting experiments in Kolar district.  Their equipment is so compact; it can be carried in a suitcase.  Even NGOs should gear up for new innovations of combining information technology with broadcasting.  And should not be shy of combining entertainment with developmental messages. 


Universities can set up campus stations and they should not confine only for distance education to earn extra revenue to universities.  Departments like communication, rural development, social work and also departments of pure science can be benefited by the stations, they can adopt villages around campuses and help to create new socio-political and economic order.          

Agricultural universities should come forward to have their own transmitting stations.  It will provide an excellent opportunity to their extension departments to take new innovations in agriculture to the farmers directly.  They can reach large audience at low cost.  With new technology they can provide vital information on weather, pesticides and educate farmers on crop and water management.  They can establish regular inter-active sessions with them.   Two-way communication channels between university and farmers could be established effectively.

If all this happens then the country can put 75 years of insipid radio broadcasting in India behind it  and celebrate the revival and Second Coming of this great mass medium.   If we fail, then commercial interests will hijack the medium and that is the end of our experiments with the Fifth Estate.


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