Published in Moneylife
Dated: 20 June 2019 (View)

Decades back, most people shared their moments of solitude with a faithful radio. Grey-haired listeners can tell myriad tales of how the most dismal days and darkest nights were made bearable by the presence of a radio. So also, how many a rainbow evening and moonlit night were given an ethereal halo by the radio’s sprawling bouquets of love ballads and melodies. Kindling a million images in listeners, the radio gave wings to people’s tranquil thoughts, enhancing the happiness quotient of life even in the most mundane corners of existence.

Unlike television, radio was always an unobtrusive companion that never craved for attention but made the heart sing while drenching the sub-conscious with droplets of poetic wisdom. Apart from never curbing one’s freedom of movement, what made the radio a perfect companion of privacy was, that like fragrant air, it filled your constitution with a joie-de-vivre through its elaborate servings of aural delicacies! Its portability ensured it never forsook you in either an arid desert or a gigantic forest, providing an endearing and humane touch everywhere from a rural countryside to an urban metropolis and ocean beaches to sylvan mountains. In short, radio was a dependable partner that calmed the nerves while living within a person’s crafted imagination.

There are millions like me who still prefer the radio to television for the simple reason that it is non-intrusive and does not hinder life’s numerous functions. Dissimilar to “big brother” television that kills curiosity and desire with its “factual presentations”, radio does not aid stagnation or exhaustion but rather improves the output of creative faculties and logical reasoning with its subtle stirrings of the sub-conscious.

To most, radio is a cherished object of entertainment as it interacts with life without distracting from the strategic actions of day-to-day life. Though garrulous, motor mouth anchors and radio jockeys of FM Radio channels have certainly increased the cacophony of the airwaves and added to the present-day pollution, yet radio does not dwarf human senses like streaming platforms nowadays do. While television makes you immobile and dumb with its onslaught and surfeit of images and sounds, radio transacts its “business of entertainment” with remarkable ease without restricting or disturbing the equilibrium or life.

After the advent of television, internet and mobile streaming services, many had been predicting the death of radio. But astonishingly, it grew with greater vigour through the introduction of FM technology. Apart from improved clarity of signal, what has furthered the popularity of FM channels is not just its availability in transport vehicles but also on portable platforms like mobile and computers. The young age of high spending consumers, aided by a new generational change in language and presentation, has allowed the radio to make a dramatic impact on the national scenario. However, despite its immense popularity and coverage of the Indian population, it is depressing that all our administrative dispensations have given step-motherly treatment to All India Radio (AIR).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have milked AIR’s reach for his “Mann Ki Baat” program, yet the systems and infrastructure of the government radio stations remain in such a pathetic state of despair and deprivation that they cannot compare with any national radio services of western nations.

The PM understands the penetrative reach of the government’s radio service but does not understand how, like the telecom sector, government apathy is leading our national radio’s revenue and structure to doom. According to available information, AIR’s 470 broadcasting stations cover nearly 92% of the country’s geographical area whereby almost 99.19 percent of India’s population tunes into AIR programming in 23 languages and 179 dialects.

But what is diabolical is that despite huge amounts of mandatory advertising spend granted to AIR by the government institutions, AIR garnered a meagre Rs455 crore in FY 2016-17 (last available results in the public domain) whereas in contrast, Entertainment Network (India) Ltd, the operator of India’s No.1 FM radio channel Radio Mirchi has ended March 2019 with a gross revenue earning of Rs620.5 crore (with EBITDA of Rs139 crore) from just 38 stations!

This lone comparison is enough to prove that decision-making in the hands of the bureaucracy is leading to mismanagement of technical issues. Lethargy and lack of innovation are key factors for the dismal state and a small pointer is the fragmented manner in which AIR’s much-loved service as well as chief cash cow Vividh Bharati (VBS) is being broadcast on different FM Channels in various regions, thus damaging its identity, credibility and retention in public memory.

Instead of providing it a unique brand identity with a single recognisable frequency in the entire country that it deserved in view of its exalted and reverend status, VBS has been pilloried even though its presentation and programming are far superior to any private radio station in the country.

AIR’s efficiency is being compromised with low range transmitters in most regions, lack of latest technology as well as placing huge restrictions on the deployment of talented and skilled people. This leads to sloppy programming as well as the rotting of huge invaluable archives of historical recordings.

Recently, the government announced plans to spend around Rs 850 crore to improve the infrastructure and programming content of Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR). While this is a welcome step, if the national radio service is to compete with private radio stations, the quantum is to be used with diligence.

Unless there is a concerted effort to improve by the government as well as AIR employees, such expenses would lead nowhere. It may well be mentioned that according to the 2018 FICCI-EY report on media and entertainment, around 60% of the radio segment revenues are generated only by the Top Ten Indian Cities.

If policy planners do not take corrective actions immediately, not just an immense unchartered territory may also go the private way but it may cart another important public sector institution to the funeral pyre.

(Deepak Mahaan is a well-known Documentary Film Maker, Writer and Commentator)

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