It isn't an April fool's day joke on over nine million listeners, mostly in rural north India. After seven decades of broadcasting, the BBC will shut down its Hindi radio service from April 1, 2011, as part of its global cost-cutting effort.
For dozens of angry people who called up the BBC's office here on Thursday, the only hope for the return of the suave voices of the BBC Hindi anchors could be the easing of the rules that prevent private news and current affairs FM channels.
The ruthless cuts announced by the BBC World Service will affect at least 17 international language services, from Albanian and Azeri to Mandarin and Russian. About 30 million listeners will be lost, while 650 jobs will be axed in an effort to reduce expenditure before the British Foreign Office ends its funding in 2014.
The Hindi radio service will account for 23 of those lost jobs. Many of the remaining 29 employees will continue to run the BBC Hindi website, now available on mobile phones as well.
“We are considering the option of some radio programming on the website as well,” said BBC Hindi Editor Amit Baruah. That is little consolation for the vast majority of rural listeners who have little access to high-speed Internet.
However, sources in the BBC indicate that the organisation would jump at the chance to set up an FM channel of its own, to continue providing radio services in the same way as it is doing in several other countries where short and medium wave services are being cut.
India is the only South Asian nation that does not allow private FM news channels. In fact, sources say the BBC launched its preliminary FM initiative, providing entertainment and non-news content to partner channels reaching 52 cities, in the hope that the government would soon agree to allow news content as well.
Launched in May 1940 in the midst of World War II and the freedom struggle, the BBC Hindi service was religiously followed by generations of listeners, who considered it the most credible source of news. Listeners still remember that the BBC Hindi was the first to announce Indira Gandhi's assassination to both India and the world, even before the government broadcasters made the announcement. Reports suggest that even Maoists in the isolated jungles of eastern India tune in for the BBC Hindi.
However, from an estimated listener base of 30 million a decade ago, the BBC Hindi has seen its audience decline to just over nine million today, hit by the poor reception of short and medium wave radio and the rising popularity of television and FM.
While the BBC continues to provide short-wave services in India in Tamil, Urdu, Bengali and Nepali, sources suggest that all short wave services will ultimately be shut down. Unless they are allowed to broadcast news on FM, The BBC radio's era in India may soon be over.