The hills are alive with the sound of FM

BY TERESA REHMAN| IN Media Practice | 28/02/2010
In a region mired in bloody conflict, the magic of radio is back and has struck an emotional chord with the music loving populace of the region.
TERESA REHMAN describes how Private FM radio is rocking Shillong, Agartala and Itanagar

Shillongites have a new watchdog now. Reckless taxi drivers, public smokers, those urinating in public in Shillong are wary of Kong Lor, a character in an "on air special" show on Red FM. Kong is an endearing term in Khasi language used to address a lady.

In fact, Kong Lor, a fictitious character, who takes up a pertinent social issue on her very popular show has become the talk of the town. Listeners call her up and urge her to take up issues such as  certain outdated customs, red tapism and civic problems.

With the tagline "Its Rocking", this 24x7 FM station in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya which was launched only on June 2009 is literally rocking the state with its unique shows. Their star is a 70-year-old RJ Leslie Hardinge Pde better known as Bah Besbha who has a droll interactive show full of wisecracks. The channel has a range of 120 kms and all its RJs are local as the programmes is mostly in the Khasi language and in the Jyantia dialect.

Denizens of small towns and cities of the Northeast are literally rubbing the dust off their radio sets as private FM channels are ushering in a new interactive radio culture. Before the advent of FM, radio meant only the national news and programmes produced and broadcast by the government-owned All India Radio (AIR) and over amplitude modulated (AM) signals. After the initial phase I of the expansion of FM radio broadcasting services through private agencies in May 2000, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting formulated the Phase II of the expansion and 336 radio stations spread over 91 towns/cities of A+, A, B, C and D categories across the country have been given to private players in 2005.

Guwahatians got their first taste of FM radio when the first FM station of the northeast, Radio Ooo La La 91.9 FM was launched in April 2007. The station now has over 18 RJs and 37 different programmes. Their very own jargon and colloquial speech and cultural nuances are adding a local tang to radio communication. "Our programmes airing social messages are so natty that many ngos have asked us to do their promotional packages," says Bhupesh Saikia, its station head. The Ooo La La network belongs to the group which owns NE Television.

The FM train has also touched Agartala in Tripura after the first and only private FM station was launched in August, 2007. On air from 6 am in the morning to 1 pm at night, Radio Ooo La La here also broadcasts entertainment programmes apart from talk shows on certain pertinent issues.  Apart from playing Hindi, Bengali and sometimes English songs, there is a one-hour show in Kokborok, a tribal language of the state. The station also plays a play by local artistes every week.

Sanjib Deb, its station head says, "The response has been overwhelming. We cover almost two-third of Tripura and an aerial distance of 50 km. Commercially too, it has been viable and within one year, we are in a break-even position. We hope to go live 24 hours soon."

The FM story in the Northeast is incomplete without its share of quaint tales. For instance, Radio Ooo La La in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, launched in August 2008, is actually running on a generator. Its general manager Anurag Singh says, "We have electricity in the main station but not on the transmission site. But we hope to get it soon." There are 10 young local RJs in the station and they have been given a crash course in RJing. Compared to the big metros which have so many FM stations, they play a very important role in communication. "Once we had broadcast some messages from the district administration of Arunachal Pradesh on possible landslides which helped in cautioning the people in advance," Singh adds.

RJs, the public face of any FM station, take a proactive role in social activities such as  flood relief campaigns and spending time in the cancer hospital. RJ Hansraj of Big 92.7 FM says, "Its no work at all. I enjoy every moment." Paranjit Borkotoky, promo producer and sound engineer of Big 92.7 FM feels that every FM station tries to beat their rivals by incorporating innovative shows in the local flavour.


And for a place like Shillong which has rock bands in almost every street, the FM channels are literally taking them back to their roots. Ian Khongmen, Station Head, Red FM, Shillong claims, "Our station is unique as we play superhit music from the 60s to the present generation including the local Khasi bands. We get calls from 6 am in the morning to 12 midnight, which is quite remarkable for a sleepy town like Shillong."

One of their innovative shows feature local folk singers playing English hit numbers in their own traditional instruments and singing the same song in their native tongue. Khongmen adds that inspite of their office being located on the fourth floor, their fans regularly visit them, congratulate them and even send them cards. "We have a certain kind of formatting and we follow the international standard. We play more music," he adds.

As the famous Bob Marley number goes, "One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain". In a region mired in bloody conflict, the magic of radio is refreshingly back and has struck an emotional chord with the music loving populace of the region. And going by the number of FM stations increasing day by the day, one can easily claim that radio is here to stay.





RJ Leslie Hardinge Pde popularly known as Bah Besbha


"I am not 70. I am 70 years and five months. I am the oldest man in the station. I am older than the station head," he chuckles. Brimming with energy, Besbha has become a household name in Meghalaya after his popular weekly show "Kylli Na U Besbha" (Ask your questions to Besbha) on SFM was launched in July last year. His show is full of wisecracks for listeners and the character that Besbha is, listeners don’t expect grim answers to their queries.

His is quite an unconventional ingress into the realm of RJs which is usually the domain of the young and the restless, making him probably the oldest RJ in India. A retired bureaucrat with the Meghalaya government, Besbha is not a novice in the entertainment industry. Oozing with confidence, it did not take long for Besbha, a veteran stage performer and actor, to pick up the nuances of his new vocation as an RJ.

A lovable grandfather, Besbha is a darling of his nine grandchildren. They enjoy it when people call their grandpa Besbha. Besbha says, "Young people like to be with me. I forget to get old as I am always running short of time. I enjoy anything that entertains people and adds to my knowledge. And because of my experience and knowledge, my fellow RJs respect me. I am literally a trouble-shooter for them." He had evolved the character of Besbha on a 70-episode comedy serial, Ki Kam U Bah Besbha on Shillong Doordarshan Kendra.

Besbha unearths humour in little things in life and he tries to address grave issues through humour and even satire. He is also the founder-member of Khasi Humour Society and has done several humourous plays and skits. He sums it all, "A man who doesn’t have a sense of humour is not a man at all."

FM radio is literally ushering in a revolution and is heard by both young and old and Besbha is proud to be a part of the bandwagon. "I am amazed at the callers who call from as far as Bangladesh border. I also try to ensure that I do 99 and half percent of the show in Khasi as I want to cultivate and keep the language alive among the masses," adds Besbha, who is also the author of several books in Khasi language. Some of his books and translations have also been prescribed in the curriculum of North Eastern Hill University.

He feels that radio will even take over television because of its portable nature. He recalls one such interactive session when a young boy from a remote village asked a funny question. The question was – "What type of a plant has no seed?" The boy gave 10 seconds to Besbha to ponder. And when Besbha failed, the boy answered that it’s a mushroom. Besbha says, "I literally fell from my seat. They learn from me and I learn from them. What I enjoy most is the immediacy of the reaction of the listeners."

But for Besbha RJing is just an extra-curricular activity in his hectic roles as a writer of books, a columnist, a live performer and some oen who tends to his kitchen garden. "I try to divide my time and devote time to all these activities," he adds. But this "young 70-year-old" is definitely an example for the elderly and he hopes to make it to the Limca Book of Records someday. For the time being, he’s enjoying his celebrity status even in remote hamlets across Meghalaya. He’s happy RJing and yes, being just Besbha.




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