The invention of the radio is a gift to humanity. There is no patch of land and no piece of ocean surface that remains untouched by electromagnetic signals beamed from thousands of radio stations across the world.
It is said that the world’s first radio station came on air in 1921 in Pittsburg, California in the United States of America. India is among the earliest countries in the world to adopt broadcasting. In 1923-24 amateur radio clubs came on air in Bombay, Calcutta and Mardas. In 1930, broadcasting in India came under the direct control of the British-led Government of India. In 1936, it was renamed as All India Radio (AIR). Back then, radio was a rare commodity. It was considered prestigious to have a radio set. People used to be curious to see and listen to it. In 1935, a professor at Mysore University, who had gone abroad for higher studies, brought back a small radio transmitter along with him. He established that 30-watt Philips transmitter on the first floor of his house and started broadcasting on September 10, 1935. That adventurous person was psychology professor MV Gopalaswamy. He worked day and night to make his dream a reality, and had the rare distinction of being the first, private radio station of India, established by an individual.
In the 20th century, radio brought about a revolution in the field of communication and development. “Radio is a miraculous power. I see shakti, the miraculous power of God, in it,” was the opinion of MK Gandhi, expressed exactly 70 years ago. After independence, AIR made significant contribution to national development and regeneration efforts and to bring about national integration.
Around the time of independence, we had just six AIR stations. Today, we have more than 750 radio stations, including 250 private FM stations and 206 community radio stations. The radio stations cover 99 per cent of the country’s population; with nearly 40-45 crore radio sets (including mobile radios), India has 35 crore radio listeners on any given day. This speaks of the strength and reach of radio in our country. Taking into account India’s staggering population, geographical, economic, social, cultural conditions and diversities, radio is the real mass media in our country.
In 1995, a historical court judgement declaried airwaves as public property, which prompted the Indian government to open the skies to private radio and television channels. Since then, a lot of water has flown under the Ganga and the Cauvery. Today, AIR has lost its monopoly. It has been unable to adopt to the changing conditions and take on the severe competition from private radio and television channels. It is a conundrum about whether it should continue with public service broadcast or change to commercial broadcast. There is no doubt that private radio channels have been successful in bringing back lost listeners to radio, particularly the youngsters. Average radio listenership crossed two hours in major cities particularly due to the presence of private radio channels. But private channels are governed by market forces and sale-able concept of entertainment.
Still, India does not have an exact plan and broadcast policy. Not much research has gone into radio listening, programme planning, production and training. It is one of the major aspects that has resulted in the decline of radio listenership. We don’t find any serious debates to make the best use of the tremendous potential of radio in our country. Neither the broadcasters nor the listeners evince interest in this regard. This has resulted in terrible neglect of the modest and intimate talking box in our country. Radio power has remained underutilised, and we are yet to witness the potential of radio in its full bloom.
It is interesting to note that radio listening is higher in western countries than in India. On an average, it is more than three hours internationally, while it is around one hour in India. The Prime Minister’s Mann ki Baat programme is broadcast on AIR every month. Such broadcasts, called 'Fireside chat', were first started in the US by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1933, and continue till today. Even smaller countries are ahead of India in disseminating information, education and awareness through the radio, especially during disaster management. Nations like Nepal, Thailand, and countries in South America have made notable progress in community radio broadcasting. Nepal has 276 community radio stations while Thailand has more than 7,000 community radio stations. In Latin America, there are more than 10,000 community radio stations, whereas, in India, we have just 206 community radio stations so far.
Eight decades ago, Professor Gopalaswamy single-handedly brought radio revolution to Karnataka and to the country. His aim was to inform educate and entertain the listeners through intimate media i.e. radio. While the medium has grown tremendously, we must realise that it is not just the responsibility of the government and radio stations, but also of the millions of listeners across the country to make the best use of radio. We should make the fullest use of the radio's tremendous power. It should be my radio, your radio and everybody’s radio.
(CU Bellakki is a writer and retired director of All India Radio's Dharwad station. He can be reached at email@example.com)