Music, interviews, news…with five channels on air, the broadcasters are on their toes 24/7. PRINCE FREDERICK tunes in

I blow my big chance to go on air. I have tagged along with Vasanth who is gathering sound bytes from visitors to the beach for “Melodies From Marina”, a song-based evening programme on FM Rainbow. Programme executive for the channel, A.W. Flora Rani has directed the compere to hold up the receiver to me. I, however, wimp out of it. Having spent a day at the sprawling All India Radio office on Beach Road and listened to sweet-voiced announcers and anchors, I am suffering from a sense of inferiority. They are masters in an area that will forever be barred for me, but I certainly can identify with a horde of other employees at AIR.

A section of this radio station parallels the newsroom of a daily publication. The ability to think on the feet is not an added advantage, but a quality absolutely essential for the job. T.M. Sankaran, programme executive for sports, has just caught Sharad Kamal in the nick of time. The table tennis player is in New Delhi, all set to fly to Austria. If Sankaran lets go of this opportunity, he has to wait for another three months when Sharad will be away playing tournaments in Austria, France and Germany. He does a quick-fire telephonic interview and during the editing, rerecords the questions and lops off portions that jut out of the overall structure of the story.

S. Palanichamy sits hunched over a sheet of paper, writing an intro for a talk given in the late 1970s by comedian Thangavelu. This old record has been fished out for an archival programme, “Sethuvaitha Selvam”. Palanichamy’s beat is health and once he is through with the intro, he has to shift his attention to finding a doctor for the next day’s “Manai Mangalam” (a daily health programme on Chennai A).

Research and planning

A good number of the staff can’t be tied down to the desk. They are news-gatherers who have to keep their ears down to the ground. Every other day, R. Rajagopal, who handles the farm and home section (Chennai A), is on a visit to some district to unearth an agriculture-related story. When I ask him if his family feels neglected, he smiles in a manner that conveys that he has been asked this question many times. “I have an understanding wife,” is the reply. Just like a columnist, he has regular listeners who value his words. Our dialogue is constantly interrupted by farmers seeking his advice. One ‘Melathangal’ M. Jayaraman from Thiruvanamalai district announces the happy news that he has got a yield of 17 bags of groundnut (40 kg each) and now seeks guidance on black gram cultivation. With such responsibilities, the AIR team can’t afford to play by the ear. Research and planning can’t be dispensed with. A day at AIR is in fact approached with a clear-cut plan of action. With five channels (Chennai A, Chennai B, FM Rainbow, FM Gold and Vividh Bharati) in operation and special broadcasts on short-wave for listeners in the South-East Asian region and round- the-clock programmes for DTH listeners on air, the volume of work is huge.

The day begins with the station director K. Srinivasaraghavan closeted in an hour-long meeting with the key personnel. In the presence of the programme executives (who number close to 30), programmes are reviewed, previewed and modified. Inputs from duty officers are valuable to this exercise. Ganesh makes entries in a notebook, while listening to an AIR channel. He typifies the duty officer who has to keep a log of songs played and jot down a detailed commentary of the programmes. This is a routine which can’t get mechanical. Watchfulness can’t be lowered. Because, royalty has to paid based on this record. As part of quality control exercise, duty officers note down glitches in transmission and slip-ups in performance.

Many AIR personnel come across as having a good grounding in the arts and I am inclined to believe that they can notice chinks in performances. In fact, the radio station boasts a huge number of well-known musicians among its personnel. I meet T.V. Vasan (ghatam), Uma Rajagopal (violin) and Durga Prasad (chitraveena) and watch K.V. Prasad (mridangam) walk by. I witness a classical music performance at the auditorium adjoining the multi-track studio. While the programme is being recorded, an audience enjoys the privilege of listening from close quarters.

The AIR staff sometimes balance routine and special work. At the time of my visit, assistant station director K. Ramamurthi is up to his ears coordinating the preparatory work for a Sangeeth Sammelan in Kancheepuram. Having to attend to a variety of complaints from the invited artistes, he admits he feels more like an assistant head master than an assistant station director.

Treasure trove

The biggest attractions at the AIR office are the two sound libraries and a wide matrix of recording studios. One library contains over 20,000 tapes (in sizes 5, 7 and 10 inches). Just like the AIR, which has been in Chennai in various forms for over 70 years, this library evokes a strong sense of history. The collection includes pearls from the past such as a speech given by Jawarharlal Nehru during a meeting at Kannapar Thidal.

The other library is reserved for LP records and CDs. The former number 25,000, covering a mind-boggling range of English and regional language songs. Slowly but steadily, the sounds on the vinyl and tapes are being copied on to CDs. I assume that RJs would get all their music from here, but I am told they sometimes bring their own CDs. Senior announcer Kumaradevan says they are, however, allowed to play their own music only after a screening. RJ Maverick nods, “If an RJ plays a black-listed song, he will be booted out.” “Kalyanam Tha Kattikitu Odi Polama” from the film “Sami” is under a ban order.

I suddenly realise that time has sped past and that I have to keep the studios for another day at AIR.