Opinion

How All India Radio lost its way on its 80-year journey

Why isn’t India’s public radio as good as BBC or NPR? And what does the future hold?

In the 20-odd years I have been associated with radio, hundreds of people have asked me the same question: Why doesn’t India have something like the British Broadcasting Corporation or the National Public Radio? My reply, while boring, has been the same. We do, it’s called All India Radio.

It may sound amusing to some. In its 80th year now, AIR has enviable geographical coverage and rural reach, but it fails miserably in engaging with an entire generation of potential urban listeners. This is an audience that has never listened to anything but popular songs on the radio.

Compare this to the BBC, which has a 53% share of all UK radio listening, with people tuning in for over 15 hours a week. Across the pond, NPR has 26 million weekly listeners, an average listening duration of over 18 hours a week, and an audience profile that would match that of the New Yorker or Wall Street Journal.

Of course, statistics alone don’t define the true purpose of public television or radio. State-owned public media exists because society acknowledges that free market is not best placed to deliver certain public goods (primary healthcare is another example). Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, famously said that its purpose was to “inform, educate and entertain”, in that order.

Government funding for public stations ensures they don’t have to depend on advertising for survival. It saves them from having to chase ratings with popular or cheaper-to-produce formats, such as back-to-back hit songs, and focus energies on broadcasting documentaries, news analysis, culture, etc.

It’s unfortunate that AIR has fluffed on this front too. You may know AIR, or Akashvani (voice from the sky), as the primary carrier of the other voice from the sky, a fortnightly (or thereabouts) show called Mann ki Baat. To be fair, every government in power uses state-owned media as its propaganda-spreading plaything. During the Emergency, for instance, the Congress banned Kishore Kumar songs from AIR because he refused to sing at a rally of the party in Bombay.

Protective tendencies

One of AIR’s biggest failings was its inability to attract those who have a choice – the urban listener. It should worry a media network when its most impressive statistics are built on the backs of those who listen because they have no choice.

As television arrived in India in the 1980s and grew rapidly in the early 1990s, AIR fiddled with the DD Metro-inspired sponsored-programme formats for its metro stations instead of having a clear offering for urban listeners. Yet, it never quite decided whether it wanted to offer unique and differentiated radio using its humongous budgets or play hit film songs in order to sell toothpaste.

A sample schedule of an AIR service would go from a classical music show to a Jim Reeves or Elvis Presley special, followed by a regional language show. The bureaucracy and the sponsored-programme machinery may think in disconnected half-hour slots, the listener doesn’t.

AIR launched its first FM station in 1977 but did little to roll it out rapidly or popularise it until the 1990s. Unable to make it work themselves, they reluctantly, and with some suspicion, brought in private players such as Times FM (now Radio Mirchi) and Radio Mid Day (now Radio One) to operate hourly slots, before proceeding to throw them out in 1998. The government was also slow and tentative with the rollout of private FM stations. The first private 24-hour FM station appeared in India in 2002, years after major TV players were operating here with minimal restrictions. How is that for a handicap?

The Indian government was less concerned about building a flourishing private FM industry than it was about protecting AIR. Instead of making AIR different from the private players – by becoming a good public radio service like the BBC or NPR – the government resorted to protectionism. And it continues to till today. It is ridiculous that private FM stations still cannot broadcast news though the Indian audiences have access to hundreds of online and TV news services.

There was even a proposal suggesting that FM stations carry news bulletins produced by India Today, reinforcing the idea that the only way you will listen to AIR is if you don’t have any other choice. Depressing, isn’t it?

The way forward

Around the world, young audiences are tuning out from traditional media at an alarming rate. Radio and newspapers are losing audiences to Facebook, YouTube and Buzzfeed. None of this is news. The ray of light for radio in the West has come in the form of podcasts.

Freed of the burden of the expensive infrastructure that terrestrial broadcasts need, podcasts can digitally carry forward the work of good public radio to deliver interesting and unique audio stories to young, digital audiences. Iconic shows such as This American Life and Radiolab have expanded their reach as podcasts and there are several new podcast-only shows and networks in the US. I’m sure some of you have heard of Serial.

Closer home, podcast networks are slowly making inroads into India with respected researchers and writers creating podcasts on science, culture, food history, genealogy, current affairs, religion, etc. By the time AIR celebrates its 90th birthday, it’s likely that the gap left open by public radio will be comprehensively filled by a few dozen homegrown podcast networks.

The writer is the co-founder of Audiomatic, India’s first podcast network.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Movies can make you leap beyond what is possible

Movies have the power to inspire us like nothing else.

Why do we love watching movies? The question might be elementary, but one that generates a range of responses. If you had to visualise the world of movies on a spectrum, it would reflect vivid shades of human emotions like inspiration, thrill, fantasy, adventure, love, motivation and empathy - generating a universal appeal bigger than of any other art form.

“I distinctly remember when I first watched Mission Impossible I. The scene where Tom Cruise suspends himself from a ventilator to steal a hard drive is probably the first time I saw special effects, stunts and suspense combined so brilliantly.”  

— Shristi, 30

Beyond the vibe of a movie theatre and the smell of fresh popcorn, there is a deeply personal relationship one creates with films. And with increased access to movies on television channels like &flix, Zee Entertainment’s brand-new English movie channel, we can experience the magic of movies easily, in the comforts of our home.

The channel’s tagline ‘Leap Forth’ is a nod to the exciting and inspiring role that English cinema plays in our lives. Comparable to the pizazz of the movie premieres, the channel launched its logo and tagline through a big reveal on a billboard with Spider-Man in Mumbai, activated by 10,000 tweets from English movies buffs. Their impressive line-up of movies was also shown as part of the launch, enticing fans with new releases such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Life.

“Edgar Wright is my favourite writer and director. I got interested in film-making because of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead. I love his unique style of storytelling, especially in his latest movie Baby Driver.”

— Siddhant, 26

Indeed, movies can inspire us to ‘leap forth’ in our lives. They give us an out-of-this-world experience by showing us fantasy worlds full of magic and wonder, while being relatable through stories of love, kindness and courage. These movies help us escape the sameness of our everyday lives; expanding our imagination and inspiring us in different ways. The movie world is a window to a universe that is full of people’s imaginations and dreams. It’s vast, vivid and populated with space creatures, superheroes, dragons, mutants and artificial intelligence – making us root for the impossible. Speaking of which, the American science fiction blockbuster, Ghost in the Shell will be premiering on the 24th of June at 1:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M, only on &flix.

“I relate a lot to Peter Parker. I identified with his shy, dorky nature as well as his loyalty towards his friends. With great power, comes great responsibility is a killer line, one that I would remember for life. Of all the superheroes, I will always root for Spiderman”

— Apoorv, 21

There are a whole lot of movies between the ones that leave a lasting impression and ones that take us through an exhilarating two-hour-long ride. This wide range of movies is available on &flix. The channel’s extensive movie library includes over 450 great titles bringing one hit movie premiere every week. To get a taste of the exciting movies available on &flix, watch the video below:

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of &flix and not by the Scroll editorial team.