PM Modi knows the power of radio, let's enjoy it too

  • Mark Tully
  • Updated: Feb 01, 2015 00:27 IST

PM Narendra Modi has another feather in his turban. The management of the Obama visit was superb. Inevitably one or two questions were raised but they were comparatively minor matters. It is accepted that politics involves self-promotion, and that Modi's success depends on his promotion of himself as a man of action, a man who can deliver, but was it perhaps taking self-promotion too far to appear in a suit neatly pin-striped with his own name? Then there is the question of whether in his effort to promote himself as the friend of the most powerful man in the world Modi breached protocol and was unduly familiar in addressing the President as Barack during their joint radio broadcast.

The fact that Modi chose to talk to Obama on radio rather than television is a recognition of the power of that medium. Whenever I have been invited to speak to students studying media in India I always tell them of the immense pleasure a career in radio journalism has given me and the impact radio can have. The students all too often reply "but surely television has killed radio". New media come along but I don't believe any media is ever killed. The printing press has still not killed the bush telegraph, the mysterious transmission of information by word of mouth and more often misinformation in the form of rumours. We often hear that television is killing books and the reading habit but this year in spite of the weather, which was not always friendly, the crowds attending the Jaipur literary festival were larger than ever before. As for radio wherever it is free, it flourishes. Ninety per cent of the population of Britain and the USA listen to radio.

In his broadcast with Obama, Modi suggested one reason for choosing radio - its reach. He said "radio reaches every home and every lane of India". That cannot be said for television or the internet. He hinted at another reason when he talked of "questions that touch the heart." He went on to say "if we touch those questions we will be able to reach out to the common man". Discussing those questions is clearly the aim of all Modi's radio broadcasts, called Maan ki Baat, or Words from the Heart. Radio can touch on matters of the heart because it is a very intimate medium. Franklin Roosevelt, who was President of America from 1933 to 1945, chose the homely title of A Fireside Chat for his radio addresses to the nation. Homely though their title may have been, the broadcasts counteracted the might of the American press, most of which was controlled by his opponents.

Radio scores because you can listen while doing other things. It is a medium that leaves a lasting impression because listening to the spoken word without the aid of pictures requires imagination. The pictures listeners create in their own minds last.

A broadcaster who stirs the imagination needs to speak conversationally. Modi is a pugnacious orator who revels in his power to sway massive audiences. He delights in punching a point home, pouring scathing scorn on his opponents, while making grandiose commitments himself - I will bring development, I will bring change. Yet he recognises that his oratorical style would be a disaster in a radio broadcast discussing "questions which touch the heart". I was highly impressed by the way the bruiser on the campaign trail became the conversationalist when in front of the radio microphone.

But there is an anomaly about Modi's commitment to radio. During his conversation with Modi, Obama spoke of "the shared values of an open society". But the one media in India which is not open is radio. While television channels pounce on the most controversial news and hold heated debates about the government's version of events, radio listeners can just hear the government version. Private radio channels are still allowed only to broadcast All India Radio's news and current affairs programmes. This is, I suppose, a backhanded compliment to radio, indicating that the government is more worried about its impact than the impact of television. Will the PM allow radio listeners to join in the national debate or, now that he has discovered its power, will he keep radio as his private medium?

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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