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.

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