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T.K. Thomas
Opinion

Broadcasting Blues!

Broadcasting in India with the coming of the Prasar Bharati in the name of autonomy[established on 28th November, 1987] has gone through vicissitudes of rank political interference, misuse and the motley crowd of non professionals at the helm of affairs have completely destroyed the concept of autonomy for which it was created. Firstly granting of autonomy to All India Radio and Doordarshan itself by a minority government was a half hearted measure lacking even a semblance of resoluteness essential for strong institution building. Secondly, even a casual reading of the Prasar Bharati Act,1990 in its final incarnation would prove that the Act does not even sufficiently mention the term autonomy; instead the conditions of deputation to the corporation fills many pages.

Autonomy was a lofty idea mooted by a beleaguered opposition immediately after the rank misuse of radio and television during the infamous emergency. It was thought of as a panacea for misuse and abuse of radio and television by any future despotic government. The then ‘Mahaghatbandhan’ of almost all opposition parties in the ‘avatar’ of the Janata Party in its manifesto for the 1977 general elections had promised in its manifesto, autonomy for the electronic media. But the rainbow coalition government fell after a little over two years. Though their intentions were well meant in the appointment of the Vargheese Committee, the ensuing election saw the Indian National Congress under Indira Gandhi coming back to power and the autonomy issue was back in the cold storage. One’s intention is not to give the entire history of the birth of Prasar Bharati, the autonomous corporation but to submit that since its establishment AIR and Doordarshan instead of enjoying autonomy became a fertile field for vested interests and bureaucrats to have their own interpretation of autonomy. Of course, on paper Prasar Bharati was autonomous, AIR and Doordarshan never could be truly autonomous. Absolute power was wielded by political and bureaucratic representatives of successive governments.

Even Lionel Fielden, considered the maverick first Controller of Broadcasting had to face serious hurdles from the British steel frame who could not appreciate the needs and demands of a new medium. History repeated after India became free with the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting continued to act like their colonial predecessors. Real autonomy eluded the broadcasting professionals with non professionals occupying senior positions in decision making. The post of the Director General [DG] itself became a bone of contention with controversies clouding the broadcasting scenario with frequent appointments as DG of IAS officers. The professionals in broadcasting challenged the appointment of an IAS officer as DG and the Central Administrative Tribunal decided that the IAS officer was not qualified and therefore not to fit to occupy the post of DG. The Supreme Court however annulled the verdict of the Tribunal.

With the granting of the so-called “autonomy “ with the implementation of the Prasar Bharati Act there was a total eclipse of the professionals in AIR and Doordarshan with the complete take over of autonomy by political appointees and bureaucrats. It was alleged that even a few in house professionals who periodically headed AIR and Doordarshan were ineffective and almost completely subservient to the Prasar Bharati bosses. An old broadcaster in his late eighties laments the virtual incapacitation of an entire cadre of professionals who were relegated to a position of support staff. He further points out how some of the most astute professional Directors General of AIR like the late P C Chatterji who could stand up to the bureaucrats were taken seriously and the lesser mortals were treated like hangers on and loyal subordinates. The Chatterjis could stand their ground and resist any imposition of unprofessional broadcasting decisions.

Political interference has been the bane of broadcasting. Broadcasting stations were set up on demands by powerful politicians not based on the actual needs of the audiences. Fancy ideas of those in power were implemented by way of starting of new channels to face premature closing down. The problem was total absence of any planning, effective leadership, clear objectives and insufficient staffing. In fact, training of staff became a major handicap and was not considered a priority. It is worth mentioning that the first edition of the late D M Silvera’s book on successful management practices in HRD had carried a chapter on training in AIR but a couple of years later when the revised edition was published did not carry the chapter on AIR. No wonder the Prasar Bharati decision makers, late last month found it expedient to close down five of what were earlier known as Regional Training Centers[RTCs] rechristened as Regional Academies of Broadcasting and Multimedia [RABMs] under the new Prasar Bharati dispensation. Change from RTCs to RABMs for the so called five academies in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad Lucknow, Shillong and Thiruvanthapuram could not ensure their longevity! It may be added that according to the official web site only “three well equipped regional academies are [also] functioning” in Bhuvaneshwar, Shillong and Mumbai which were earlier known as Staff Training Institute [Technical]. So, were the other centers which have been closed down different from the three mentioned in the website?

The decision was presumably taken as a measure for cost cutting and rationalization. For a skill oriented public service broadcasting, training is an integral part and only shortsightedness on the part of the management would prompt closure of its regional training centers, however ineffective its training programmes may be or however incompetent the trainers may be. It is indeed irrational to treat training in such a cavalier manner. Training function in any progressive professional organization may often be considered a wasteful expenditure subjected to cost cutting; actually they should be considered as investments in human resource development.

It may be pointed out that All India Radio had started its training division of the Staff Training School way back in March1948, later renamed as Staff Training Institute. The NABM [National Academy of Broadcasting and Multimedia] according to the home page of its website claims, ”was established in 1948”! What was established in 1948 was the Staff Training School of All India Radio with veteran broadcaster and musicologist Dr. V K Narayana Menon as its Director; Dr. Menon later became the Director General of All India Radio. The web page also states that NABM “was earlier known as Staff Training Institute [Technical]”. The contents and claims of the web page of NABM, one feels is incongruous if not patently incorrect. Such claims on its own history show the organization in very poor light.

Along with the five regional academies Prasar Bharati has also reportedly asked [on 24th December ]Director General, AIR to close down the National Channel of All India Radio. The National Channel according to AIR’s website was started on May 18, 1988 to make AIR a three tire system of broadcasting. The National channel was on air from a megawatt terrestrial transmitter from Nagpur and had very attractive programming from a national perspective with a national audience and coverage from the whole country. That the statement by Prasar Bharati mentions ‘’rich repository” of programmes of the channel being sent to the archives and digitization and for the benefit of the future generation is an admission of the channel’s quality of content by Prasar Bharati. Closing the channel for ‘‘cost cutting and rationalization’’ is a typical bureaucratic alibi. Institutions are planned and built not to be shut down; may be because its maintenance, production and content development were becoming difficult for an organization ailing from inadequate staff and resources.

Amidst all these talks about shutting down well established centers and channel, cost cutting and rationalization, Prasar Bharati has shown tremendous ‘magnanimity’ in allowing private FM channels to carry English and Hindi news of All India Radio. Ever since the starting of private FM channels across the country, these channels have been demanding to allow them to originate and broadcast their own radio news bulletins. Incidentally some of these channels are owned by major media houses. Successive governments never agreed to this demand on the ground of ‘national security’. Is it not ironic that the government had no problem in allowing private television news channels, while radio news by private FM channels were considered a threat to national security? Is radio unlike television such a dangerous medium that can affect national security? Well that is another major question that may need a major debate.

Coming back to the government decision to allow private FM channels to broadcast AIR news bulletins free of cost till 31st of May, and with a simple process of registration, media experts feel it is a clever ploy. They point out that the news bulletins of AIR are highly biased, propagandist and lack objectivity and balance. Information and Broadcasting Minister, according to www.newsonair.com had said that “this step is a collaborative effort of bringing together all the Radio Stations of India to inform, educate and empower people”. Well, a veteran journalist questioned the motive of the government at a time the general elections are about 80 days away and asked whether this would be yet another propaganda tool for the government in ‘’empowering and educating” the public for the impending elections. It is not yet clear how many private FM stations would carry AIR news.