Finding something worth listening to on medium wave in the broadcasts of an All India Radio station in any part of the country is like looking for life in a drought-hit landscape.

It is nice to know that Prasar Bharati can now hope to get some financial autonomy as well as funds to buy new equipment (The Hindu, December 16). However, autonomy and funds will need a matching increase in spirit and imagination if Prasar Bharati wants to save its radio services from a final surrender at the altar of market values. Finding something worth listening to on medium wave in the broadcasts of an All India Radio (AIR) station in any part of the country is like looking for life in a drought-hit landscape. Tuning in to AIR's overseas service is worse. Nowadays when AIR is vigorously advertising its DTH service, it needs to reflect on how its philosophy and functioning have changed over the last three decades. A deeper examination is required to determine AIR's relationship with India's people in the emerging social order.

Unique technology

In the global history of modern communications, radio grew as a unique technology which combined the use of sound with narrative without recourse to visual or graphic imagery. Its appeal came from humanity's long experience of spoken language as the primary means of communication. Every civilisation was originally nourished by words uttered by familiar voices in the course of story telling or singing. The great thing about the radio was that human voice could now cover long distances and thereby create large communities of listeners. The radio's characteristics as a medium redefined education, creating the possibility of learning long after childhood had passed. It opened up a new world of creative expression in familiar genres like story, drama and poetry. Radio added a new dimension to music and discursive prose. New genres like reportage that were specific to radio arose. As a medium of mass communication, radio found a congenial climate in India's vast geography and varied cultural terrain. Its role in bringing India together is yet to be fully appreciated, and if its current crisis continues, we may never realise what all it could have accomplished in the socio-political and cultural spheres, had it been nurtured on a sustained basis.

Intellectual & creative interaction

During the first two decades following independence, All India Radio was perceived primarily as an educative medium. The few stations there were served as centres of intellectual and creative interaction. With basic technological aids, the early generation of producers was able to achieve a high standard of rigour and grace in a remarkable range of forms and subjects. Despite the internal struggle between bureaucrats and producers that one hears about, AIR remained an attractive source of employment for talented young people. In Hindi, for instance, a stint with Akashvani made a palpable impact on the creative trajectory of a substantial number of major poets and writers of the post-independence generation. The same can be said of musicians and singers. The Emergency cast its shadow on AIR, making it a prime vehicle of dissemination of a culture of chicanery and sycophancy. Before AIR could recover from this misuse, it was demoted to the status of a poor cousin of Doordarshan. And shortly thereafter, the policy of drastic reduction in the size of the state apparatus silently crept in. Like all other Ministries and departments of the Central government, AIR too lost hundreds, perhaps thousands, of posts. Perhaps some pruning was justified, but the government pursued an extremist line, showing limited patience or insight in distinguishing office staff from jobs requiring specific skills and knowledge. In any case, the new office technology had blurred this distinction, making support services an obsolete concept. Machines replaced people, and the culture of collective thinking was replaced by connectivity among the isolated. Contractual arrangements became the norm and planning acquired a visionless, ad hoc character. Outsourcing of tasks emerged as yet another attractive instrument of reducing institutional liability. A vast number of institutions fell victim to these policies, incurring irreparable damage to their internal capacities and pride. This is what seems to have happened to AIR too.

Lack of spirit or vision

Its medium wave coverage now lacks any semblance of spirit or vision. Medium wave transmission is now treated as a preserve of the rural listeners: those living in cities have the privilege of FM listening. Barring short insertions in news bulletins or a few sponsored programmes, AIR's FM frequencies are now fully devoted to entertainment which essentially means film music. FM broadcasts supposedly dedicated to young listeners desperately compete with private channels by using crude strategies of attention seeking. As for AIR's rural audience, it is now treated as a stereotype of backwardness. Messages —paid for by different Ministries — intercept news to remind villagers about the importance of cleanliness and contraception. Both in content and style, these messages treat India's rural population as a mindless mass. The magnitude and complexity of their existential challenges are set aside when the innocent voice of a village girl sings the wonders wrought by a pit for throwing garbage. A rugged male voice claims victory over his relatives who were pressuring him to marry off his daughter before the legally permissible age. Patriarchy is thus happily reinforced; how the girl fared later becomes an unnecessary detail.

The formation of Prasar Bharati coincided with the full-scale operation of the neo-liberal regime. One expected that Prasar Bharati would offer AIR greater intellectual autonomy by giving it a breathing distance from the government. This was not an unreasonable hope, but who had imagined that the new era would subject every decision and idea to scrutiny on the basis of market considerations? Instead of expanding the space available for creative use of the medium, neo-liberal policies have diminished that space. As a listener, one notices an all-round decline in quality. A medium dependent on voice, radio requires people who are competent speakers of a language. Today, reports included in news bulletins are replete with mistakes of pronunciation, syntax and word choice in both English and Hindi. It seems there is no provision for training even in the purely technical matters involved in delivery, let alone more professional matters like collection of relevant details, their analysis and editing. Apparently, the task of sending news from State capitals and other towns carries meagre monetary value and no serious investment is made in initial training or later upgradation.

A disgrace

I wonder if anyone serving in AIR listens to BBC or even to China Radio International (CRI). If someone did, he or she would find that the difference is not merely that of resources or equipment. The urge to excel and innovate is missing too. AIR's overseas service is a disgrace to a nation claiming to have become a global economic power. Even if the policy is to use it for propaganda, its quality is so poor that the propaganda makes one laugh. Now when India's democracy has matured sufficiently to allow state-published textbooks to eschew propaganda, one expects radio to arouse interest and ideas rather than regurgitate platitudes. In its domestic broadcasts too, the quotient and quality of propaganda remain alarming. Debate and discussion in AIR continue to be rare and subdued, not just because the participants feel uneasy and cautious, but also because the anchor has no background knowledge. In-house research support is just not available to a moderator or an interviewer. Not surprisingly, the expert invited to comment on a specialised issue does not feel sufficiently challenged. Commentators who take an independent line go out of favour and more accommodative voices are ushered in.

Prasar Bharati was ostensibly created to change this culture, both in radio and television. To an extent, Doordarshan has improved over the recent past, but AIR has continued to decline. An imaginative policy for AIR would have assigned it a major role in all areas of social policy, especially in education and health. A flagship programme like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan would have achieved far greater success if AIR had provided sustained support to it by giving time to teachers and experts to analyse new curricular and pedagogic policies. The Right to Education (RTE) Act has posed several radical issues which need to be publicly discussed on a daily or weekly basis. As a national system of public education, AIR can play a vital role over the coming years in the implementation of RTE. For this to happen, its masters will have to stop chanting the market mantra.

(The author teaches education at Delhi University and is a former director of NCERT.)

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