Current socio-political and cultural developments are triggers for writing this column. Last week indeed was momentous for someone who lives in the national capital. Political leaders, expert political commentators have already written and spoken about the acrimonious Assembly Elections and the results. Being apolitical, who grew up in ‘outdated’ concepts of yesteryears and with strong Gandhian influence and convictions, what is discussed on the social media today, to say the least, is disquieting. A dear friend and old colleague forwarded a Whats App video- a Delhi resident’s reaction to the outcome of Delhi elections. It was an unadulterated communal rant, not worth quoting. I wondered how someone could use such language which was so vicious and vituperative. After watching it I was really disturbed and for a bit of relief decided to listen to some music. Dear old Vividh Bharati with an assortment of old time Hindi songs by Mukesh, Lata, Rafi and Jesudas did the trick of calming my nerves.
It was a coincidence that the presenter of one of the programmes, a request programme, started the show in the well established formal style of Akashvani pointing out that the day was being observed as World Radio Day [13th February] with the theme, ”Radio and Diversity”! My two decade long association with All India Radio [AIR] had taught me the need to assimilate and appreciate the diversity of our wonderful country. “Hello Farmaish”,was a pre-recorded request programme of songs based on SMS from listeners from all over the country. People who requested for their favourite songs were from different states of the country who chatted with the presenter in Hindi with diverse accents- people from Kashmir, Maharashtra and other parts of India reflecting the wonderful diversity we have.
13th February was “proclaimed in 2011 by Member States of UNESCO, and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012 as World Radio Day. The day reminds people of the world about radio as a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic discourse. UNESCO advocates pluralism in radio including a mix of public, private and community broadcasters, says the UN, “Radio is uniquely positioned to bring communities together and foster positive dialogue for change. By listening to its audiences and responding to their needs, radio services provide the diversity of views and voices needed to address the challenges we all face”.
The theme for this year’s World Radio Day is Diversity. In his message on the occasion the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Gutterres exhorted member countries to recognize the enduring power of radio to promote diversity and help build a more peaceful and inclusive world.
Such UN international observance of a World Radio Day is an opportunity to take stock of the position of radio as a medium of Mass Communication in India. AIR, now part of Prasar Bharati, an autonomous corporation, despite constraints of alleged governmental control and biased news broadcasts has lived up to its avowed objectives of information, education and entertainment. It has been a major contributor to nation building as an inclusive medium, preserving the wonderful diversity of our country and has succeeded in preserving the cultural heritage of our ancient civilization. AIR has also been one of the major catalysts in development which played a seminal role in the Green Revolution that led to food security continuing to live up to its objectives.
Due to the compulsions of the changing tastes of the audiences, ever changing revolutionary advances in technology and the stiff competition and challenges posed by television and commercial broadcasting stations have negatively impacted the importance and primacy of AIR. However, AIR continues to provide diverse educative, informative and entertaining programmes succeeding to a great measure, to maintain and preserve our great heritage of literature, culture, and especially Indian classical, light, folk and devotional music traditions. Compared to this, hundreds of private commercial FM broadcasting stations sustain on a staple of popular film songs, almost avoiding the more serious genres of programmes and music. Of course, they are not supposed to broadcast news and current affairs. More peppy and sometimes frivolous presentation and unending yapping and chats with audiences seem to have appealed to the gen next. They are seen everywhere with mobiles and headphones listening to such channels and downloaded music; the channels seem to be interested mainly on profit making and ratings. Incidentally, there are 370 such stations in over 100 cities.
AIR’s role in popularizing music of all kinds including Indian and Western classical music has been seminal. By introducing weekly National Programmes of Music and the annual Radio Sangeet Sammelan during the Navaratri season have popularized both Hindustani and Karnatik classical music. Of course during the national broadcaster’s long history, AIR did face difficulties due to whimsical decisions by certain ministers. For example, by drastically restricting the time devoted to broadcast Hindi film music and even banning it, B V Keskar when he took over as the Information and Broadcasting minister in 1952. This resulted in a tricky situation as there was large scale migration of audiences from AIR to the then Radio Ceylon, which increased its quantum of Hindi film songs. Finally the decision had to be withdrawn in February 1955 to wean back the audiences and AIR also decided to introduce the All India Variety Programme[AIVP], more popularly known as Vividh Bharati on 3rd October, 1957. With an all India presence Vividh Bharati continues to have a committed listenership, though the numbers have considerably dwindled since the advent of private commercial FM stations.
Then there are an estimated 272 Community and Campus Radio stations in India run by Universities, NGOs and a few by Krishi Vigyan Kendras. These stations are entirely people centered and cater to specific audiences and their communication needs. There was a front page story in the Shimla / Solan city edition on 13th February of Jagaran, the leading Hindi daily under the title,[ translated into English] “Technology has Changed But the Craze for Radio Hasn’t”. The story is about a decade old Hamara MSPICM Solan Radio, a Community Radio station in Solan, Himachal Pradesh run by M S Panwar Institute of Communication and Media, an initiative of my old friend and associate, Dr. B.S. Panwar. Sensitive to the needs of the local community in agriculture, health and sanitation, education, livelihood and sustainable development, this Community Radio Station broadcast relevant programmes in Hindi and the local Pahadi dialect. The station has an estimated audience of 1.5 lakh. The station is on air for 12 hours every day with transmissions in the morning and evening.
Besides popularizing Indian classical music, AIR has also popularized light, folk, tribal and devotional music with its broadcasts from over 420 stations on AM or medium wave, short wave and FM modes.
If you have watched on television, the swearing in of the AAP government in Delhi headed by Aravind Kejeriwal last Sunday you would have heard the new Chief Minister leading a mammoth crowd in the national capital’s Ram Lila grounds in singing a song known to almost everyone in the country. The song, “Hum Honge Kamyab” is the Hindi version or adaptation of a gospel hymn, “We Shall Overcome’’ attributed as being lyrically descended from “I’ll Overcome Some Day” by Charles Albert Tindley, first published in 1900. “We Shall Overcome” was used as a protest song by leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King during the Black American rights movement in the US. In the 1980s as part of the Community Singing programme, AIR popularized “Hum Honge Kamyab” translated by veteran broadcaster, the late Girija Kumar Mathur.
At times of wars and national / man -made disasters, long before the advent of television in India AIR served the country playing an inspirational and integrating role. Who would forget the coverage of the 1971 Bangladesh War with Pakistan? Lata Mangeshkar singing “Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo”, written by Kavi Pradeep and composed by C. Ramchandra at a public meeting in Delhi on 27th January 1963 shortly after the 1962 Indo-China War had driven Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to tears. AIR carried it live and popularized the emotionally surcharged song.
Radio New Zealand, a publically funded non commercial organization, announced plans to axe all 17 at their classical music station, Concert- the country’s ‘fine music network’. Concert, currently plays classical music, live performance, world music and jazz. Radio New Zealand decided to take off the network from FM frequency and make it “a fully automated, presenter-less play-out available only on AM and digital platforms”. The chief executive of Radio New Zealand said earlier this month that he wanted to start connecting with younger New Zealanders by replacing the classical music station with a new “youth” music brand. Interestingly, the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who is also minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage has questioned the decision and emphasized the need for retaining classical music broadcasting and reprimanded Radio New Zealand for announcing the cuts without taking in her government’s concerns!