Those who had dismissed prime minister Narendra Modi's Mann Ki Baat on All India Radio (AIR) as mere government propaganda on state-run media were in for a surprise when it went on air last year.
This February, a newspaper report said AIR was selling advertisement slots before and after the PM's speech at the approximate rate of Rs 2 lakh for 10 seconds - up from an average of Rs 500 to Rs 1000 for such a slot. The popularity of the show, as indicated by the hiked ad rates, is testimony not just of Modi's popularity but also of AIR's reach and capability in carrying his voice to homes across the country. Once enjoying a complete monopoly over radio and television, for years now state-aided media in India have been dismissed as 'old men's media' or 'poor men's media'. For the youth and urban population with access to private FM channels, cable TV, the internet and social media, AIR and DD are little more than a chapter in the history of mass communication.
Except for those times when, like that heirloom silk sari worn to a wedding, they serve as a link in a tradition.
"Even today, most Bengalis across the country begin their Durga Puja countdown with the old AIR show by Birendra Krishna Bhadra on Mahalaya, though most private television channels now telecast a more colourful retelling of the Hindu goddess's battle with the Asura king. Till his dying day, my father was an AIR and Doordarshan loyalist," says Kolkata homemaker Anuradha Banerjee, 58. With its mission of balancing information and education with entertainment, AIR and DD, also aim to serve and reach out to specific communities, such as farmers or the rural population, with shows like Krishi Darshan and Gaon Vikas Ki Ore.
Simply in terms of reach, no foreign or private radio or TV channel in India can compete. From six radio stations at the time of Independence and a coverage of 2.5% of the area and 11% of the population, AIR now has a network of 262 radio stations and is accessible to almost the entire population of the country.
It broadcasts in 23 languages and 146 dialects. More than 90% of the country's population can receive Doordarshan programmes. "While it is relatively easy to start an FM station or TV channel from a small studio with some modern equipment, it is far more difficult to maintain towers and transmissions from every corner of India," points out Prasar Bharati chief executive officer Jawhar Sircar.
Content and presentation are another matter, though, and this is where DD and AIR have been losing out since the 1990s. Serials such as Baywatch, The Bold and The Beautiful and later the saas-bahu sagas offer more chutzpah than good old Buniyad.
State control, a reputation for biased coverage, awkward presentation and bungling anchors add to the list of grievances. In June, DD News aired a special programme to mark four decades of the Emergency declared by former PM Indira Gandhi in 1975. It is doubtful that this would have been possible under Congress rule.
Meanwhile, earlier this week there were reports that AIR was in trouble for broadcasting a story which reported that the Editors' Guild of India had criticised the government for issuing notices to three TV channels over their coverage of the execution of terror convict Yakub Memon.
And last September, a DD News anchor made the channel a subject of ridicule after she referred to Chinese president Xi Jinping as 'Eleven' Jinping. "DD and AIR have to modernise at a faster rate than they have done in the last two decades," Sircar admits. "The 'fallback' is a result not just of unimaginative leadership, but more so because no fresh blood was allowed to join this organisation for over 20 years.
Prasar Bharati has bounced back with the first new recruits of some 1,000 young enterprising professionals, so it would be wrong to write off AIR and DD. According to Broadcasting Audience Research Council [BARC] data, DD's viewership is 1% of total viewership. The topmost channels get between 2% and 3% or a little above that. And the BARC figures only consider rural viewership at present."
Last week, the ministry of information and broadcasting spoke of a Rs 400 crore upgradation plan for AIR to counter the intrusion of Chinese radio programmes in Indian homes, especially in border areas. DD is also going in for a revamp. Were AIR and DD to look for inspiration in how to make state media relevant, they would have the perfect role model in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). While Sircar is not in favour of such comparisons, given BBC's far greater spending power, we would vote for anchors who, if unable to avoid a gaffe, have the panache to turn it to a joke. Think Bill Turnbull.