All India Radio

Samar Halarnkar is pissed off that Indian FM radio stations only play Bollywood songs and puerile PJs (a sentiment I share to some extent) and proposes a solution in the Hindustan Times – putting AIR on steroids.

AIR has found fans like me — though let me confess that before I ‘discovered’ AIR, I was quite addicted to a radio spot in Mumbai called ‘Kamla ka hamla’, the random outpourings of a fast-talking transvestite — not because of a grand plan to counter the explosion of private radio but because it is a public broadcaster that is not beholden to the demands of the mass market.

Ideally, public-service radio must give voice to and reflect the needs of democracy’s silent majorities and minorities. It cannot be left entirely to the whimsical flick of a few hundred million wrists. “Broadcasting,” as Tony Benn, a British socialist politician once observed, “is really too important to be left to the broadcasters.”

An AIR with vision and verve could lead India’s radio revival. Imagine if it became a National Public Radio, the wonderful public-radio network in the US. There are many like us, waiting for lively, intelligent radio.

So because Samar Halarnkar is too cheap to buy an iPod and download podcasts (or a Worldspace receiver for that matter), the taxpayers of India must shell out their money to revamp AIR and the brightest people in government must go build a vision and verve for public radio instead of, oh I dunno, fixing the university system or conducting police reform or something.

For this he gets paid to be a columnist?

8 Responses to All India Radio

  1. Ashwin says:


    If his view is narrow and put across badly, yours is worse. Your post has an air of arrogance about it, eat cake level thing. The tags pull a better humorous stunt than the post itself.

    Doordarshan of which I know quite a bit and AIR, are hung between good content programming and commercial programming, which brings money. There is an eternal divide and pressure between factions within these organizations as to what should theie focus be. The natural result of which is observable in the low IQ stuff which you see / hear.

    There was a plea recently to the Information and Broadcasting minister recently in a literary festival in Chennai to drift away from ‘cinema programming’ as people put it and start a dedicated channel to intellectual pursuits (which sounds dubious I agree)

    I wholeheartedly agree that we should have a channel on the lines of NPR/Radio 4. (ownership I care hell)

    iPod and Worldspace aren’t affordable to the majority of people. And what exactly is the “instead of” argument. I agree that the prioritization of activities and individual ministries can have their own mandates. i.e. I & B minister needn’t be flustered about fixing the education and do a Kapil Sibal.

    The problem has been to with regulating the flow of money and not allow siphoning and not necessarily in deciding how to channel it.

    My argument isn’t structured well, I agree but considering your thought level, you can understand my Point of View, of which I have no doubt.

    I however agree that pricks shouldn’t get paid for a pseudo-scientia random rants and a critique of that needn’t stoop to the same level.

    When I saw this film, ‘Ballada o soldate”, I had a major deja-vu, realized a bit later that Doordarshan has screened the same a few years earlier, the days when there were people who mattered at the helm, who had good tastes and consumerism hadn’t crept in. Now the national media isn’t concerned with enlightening the commoners. 10% of the people having other avenues to fulfill their cravings/outlets is no excuse for shift to cretin level programming.


    • Aadisht says:

      OK, here’s a snark-free response:

      1. You may not care about ownership, but I do. And not only from the taxpayer perspective, but because of the Indian reality. If we have a channel for “intellectual pursuits” then during BJP governments it will run documentaries about how the Saraswati is in Haryana and Sanskrit is the mother of all languages, during Kaangresi governments it’ll run documentaries about the greatness of the Family, and at no time will it ever play anything that could cause offense to any religious group. If NPR works in the US, it does so on the basis of a tradition of freedom of speech and institutional autonomy. If Samar Halarnkar thinks that an Indian government-owned radio channel can run free of political interference then he is either naive (unlikely, considering his background), hopelessly optimistic (possible), or just phoning a column in without thinking about its implications.

      2. OK, individual ministries is a fair point and I dislike the argument myself when Sainath abuses the Finance Minister for talking about the Sensex instead of India’s HDI ranking. But my objection is more basic – why the hell do we even have an I&B ministry. The I&B ministry was set up in Nehru/ Indira times to push propaganda to the “gullible masses”. As a democracy isn’t it time we moved past that?

      3. The problem of Bollywood and nothing else isn’t only because the people running FM channels want to cater to philistines. It’s also because the license fees for FM spectrum are so damn high that catering to niches isn’t feasible. This is a problem created *by* the I&B Ministry, the owners of AIR, who extract rent from private FM operators. The I&B ministry also forbids private FM channels to broadcast news because it could lead to spreading rumours and panic (and these are the chaps who Samar Halarnkar thinks can cater to intelligent minorities). Despite these restrictions Worldspace and Radio Indigo have made a pretty good go of catering to niche audiences. Hell, the limited sort of news the FM stations do sneak under the radar – traffic updates, advertisements for events, public interest interviews – is arguably a lot more intelligent and useful than the crap TV news channels are shoveling.

      4. Again, fair point about the affordability of iPods and Worldspace receivers, but how long is that going to last? 3G mobile services (incidentally, another area where government owned companies (MTNL and BSNL) get the sole right to provide services while private operators get shafted) and plunging handset prices mean that within five years a 7 or 8K rupee handset will be able to download any podcast you may want.

      5. Arnab’s point about taxpayer money – in the article he pretty firmly mentions the joy of a publicy funded station.

      6. Arnab’s point about vision and verve coming free – not if you consider the cost of that vision and verve not being applied elsewhere.

  2. Ashwin says:

    Sick, I just read my comment. Sorry for the worasht grammar and punctuation.

  3. Arnab says:

    No one mentioned taxpayer money. Vision and verve usually come free, and occur more often when money is scarce.

    That being said, to my knowledge, the distributed service that is NPR exists largely because of the donations and grants from the intellectual minority in the U.S., and not the government.

  4. Ashwin says:

    Political parties running channels is nothing new at a regional level. Sun TV and Jaya TV being prime examples. Citizens of TN are already aware of the political agends of these channels and they follow the ones which they believe in. What has that got to do with the rest of the crap which they dish out? (Primarily driven by commercial motives) I don’t think that they are put in this position by the demands (license and otherwise) to relay such shit.

    The corporate driven channel in media is already existing; with the sole agenda of making MONEY, which is quite fair because of the shareholder bleh.

    “As a democracy isn’t it time we moved past that?”

    Are you handling the ‘Indian Reality’ a bit conveniently here?, we are not naive enough to assume that the I&B Ministry with its agends will be disposed *poof* , how much ever we wish to, in the same way that we want government to let run channels with 0 interference.

    Back to FM, controversial free “Intellectual programs”, Imn’t talking about news here (not ideal but still fine considering the things that Indians can get upset about) can still be aired by AIR isn’t it?

    This doesn’t demand a major overhaul of the channel itself/ they anyway get their money by issuing licenses, why bother about ratings?

    Say “life and times of Sarvajna” (Seriously)

    The programming head takes a call.
    Why do they themselves function pseudo-corporate and go for ratings by airing programmes with major assumptions about ‘what people want to hear’?

    I agree with the rest of your points.

  5. Anand says:

    Monopolistic, arm-twisted or otherwise, I do believe that DD & AIR have the best content available, tho’ you’d never know it.

    The idea of a product having “quality” only when it matches one’s sensibilities is a dangerous one indeed ( Ballade..)

    Cannot be such a difficult move to delink propaganda from content, if that address 1) of Aadisht.

    Can we have numbers totting up payables for pvt and public media across various heads ? If they turn out similar,then 3) is a futile argument.

    Radio Indigo was one of the more high-profile channel closures of WorldSpace ( cos’ of not being diffferentiated enough, and of course more money elsewhere)

    NPR may be all that you claim it to be, though the veneer of independence from a political angle is a thin one.

    So is one to wait till the 3G revolution makes it handy to truly decide ?

  6. Vaibhav says:

    Working for the largest Private FM Radio Network in India, and having some clue as to how the nascent Private FM Radio industry survives in this country, it is disappointing to see how stereotypes, such as ‘Bollywood’, are built and fed by people who have no idea about what the industry is doing.

    ‘Bollywood’, by itself, is a large body of music, ranging from 40s to the Latest Hits. On top of that is non-Bollywood Indipop, Devotional, Remixes, Regional Music and suchlike. Huge research goes into synchronizing the music played with the time of the day, the day of the week, and special occasions. Thus, you have latest hits in morning and evening, retro in night, club music and countdowns on weekends, devotional in early hours etc.

    Also, as Mr. Harlankar himself cites the example of a ‘radio spot’ (this is not a spot as it does not endorse a brand, but a sparkler), radio is as much about RJs, city-connect and sparklers, as it is about music.

    As for niche, please understand that FM Radio is a highly regulated industry. So much so that no network is allowed to operate multiple stations/ frequencies in a city. This is equivalent of saying that STAR, Zee, Viacom, NDTV and SET can run just one channel. Obviously, you will see only STAR Plus, Sony, Imagine, Colors and Zee. STAR will not waste the opportunity on STAR World/Movies, nor will Viacom run MTV/Nick/VH1 and Sony run PIX.

    Given these regulations, only the Mai Baap Govt can look after silent majorities and minorities, as AIR is not shackled with such regulations. However, it is illustrative to note that since the time Private FM Radio industry has opened up and reached the top-100 towns of the country, AIR has lost revenues steadily. By next year, Private FM Radio will reach nearly 250 cities, thus posing a challenge to AIR, even as the palyground will be anything but level.

  7. Vatun says:

    “So because Samar Halarnkar is too cheap to buy an iPod and download podcasts (or a Worldspace receiver for that matter), the taxpayers of India must shell out their money to revamp AIR and the brightest people in government must go build a vision and verve for public radio instead of, oh I dunno, fixing the university system or conducting police reform or something.”

    that’s a hilariously mediocre quality argument

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