The archival recordings of All India Radio and Doordarshan represent a significant part of India’s collective memory of the last hundred years. Will they be able to safeguard and disseminate it, asks S. Ravi

All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD) established in 1936 and 1976 respectively have an enviable collection of voice recordings of eminent personalities, award-winning radio dramas, features, documentaries, etc. as well as memorial lectures. The AIR library boasts the first and the last prayer speeches of Mahatma Gandhi recorded on May 11, 1947 at Sodepur Ashram, Calcutta and January 29, 1948 at Birla House, Delhi respectively and also the only broadcast by Gandhiji from AIR Delhi on November 12, 1947. The question is how many are aware of it and know how to access them?

In an age when information and content rule the market why is that AIR and DD have not been able to exploit the treasure trove? In fact the uniqueness of this collection has been clearly underlined by the Expert Group on Archiving (EGA) headed by Sam Pitroda and consisting of 10 experts and one research associate. Recognising the significance of creating a world class archive and the criticality of the task, EGA states that this “should be approached and implemented in a mission mode with a clear vision and strategy, earmarked budgets, dedicated human resources, specific milestones/targets and within a definite time frame.”

Back in the old days, radio programmes were beamed live, and later reusable tapes were used for recordings. These, however, were regularly overwritten due to prohibitive cost. Reduction in prices allowed preservation of recordings in analogue format (the spool tape technology) which deteriorate over time and cannot be kept indefinitely. Hence the primary task of archiving was to convert analogue material (known as legacy tapes) into digital form, so that preservation became more secure, easier and permanent.

Archiving commenced at AIR and DD after 2001 even though other broadcasters had started much earlier despite India emerging as an information technology hub. Not surprisingly, even after 13 years there is a huge backlog which will take quite some time to clear though Raghu Menon, Principal Adviser, Prasar Bharati (PB) (Archives), who was also convenor of EGA, says, in his response to questions by email “A global Expression of Interest has been issued to elicit responses from prospective bidders who could undertake this task of digitisation using the latest technologies in the shortest possible time.”

It is reassuring to know from him that “all current programmes of AIR and DD are being archived.”

Asked about lack of marketing of the archival material to ensure monetisation, Menon says, “A small group has been set up to work out a comprehensive marketing strategy for content from AIR and DD archives.” He adds that a separate website for PB Archives is also on the anvil, so that listeners/viewers can download both free and paid content.

Menon states, “Though currently people prefer the downloading option than buying hard copies, the sale of CDs/DVDs, etc. through tie-ups with reputed retail and on-line marketing agencies is also being worked out.” Incidentally, it was recently announced that PB was considering putting up famous speeches of Indian leaders, like Nehru’s iconic “Freedom at Midnight” oration online.

As the business of archiving is expensive considering the technology and specialists involved, a single entity for this purpose could have harnessed synergy and economies of scale. Menon discloses that “the Central Prasar Bharati (PB) Archives would be common for preserving content of both AIR and DD, though at the zonal level it would be separately maintained”. To enable the stations/kendras to use archived content they will be linked with Central and zonal archives by optic fibre.

For all the work that has undoubtedly gone into digitising the archives so far, PB still does not have a separate archives cadre. However it is working to towards having full-time trained personnel based on the recommendations of the EGA. As an immediate measure, it has already set up dedicated groups in each zone from its existing personnel to facilitate archiving.

AIR started selling archival material under “Akashvani Sangeet” in 2004 and has so far released 83 albums. Commencing sales a year earlier, DD has released 39 ACDs, 39 VCDs and 91 DVDs till now. These could have been sold in large numbers but lack of marketing has not allowed this. Educational and fine art institutions could have been tapped. Similarly, the leading Government outlets like Cottage Emporium, State emporiums could have been alternate sales outlets. Further, the vast network of AIR and DD could have leveraged to create awareness about the recordings.

Both AIR and DD are way ahead of their competitors in the sphere of archives and this advantage will continue, as AIR — with 216 stations with studios — and DD with 67 kendras — will constantly add more material for archiving. Together they represent a significant part of India’s collective memory and knowledge inheritance of the last hundred years. Will they be able to safeguard and disseminate it is the moot question.