With the closure of BBC’s Hindi radio, an era ends | Opinion
As the curtain finally came down on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Hindi radio after 80 years, millions of listeners living in conflict zones, and on the margins of society in rural India, lost their only credible and easily accessible source of accurate information.
The crackling yet hugely-trusted voice that informed, educated and entertained many generations of Indians fell silent after its last transmission on January 31.
It has been an incredible journey for a service that began in 1940 with the limited purpose of passing messages via battery-operated radio to the Indian soldiers fighting in the trenches in faraway lands to serve the British Empire during World War II. Over the years, it transformed itself into a trustworthy source of information and knowledge.
After all these years, the decision to shut down shortwave Hindi radio was announced by the BBC bosses a few weeks ago, citing dwindling numbers of radio listeners and the need to divert more resources to digital platforms.
After the announcement, we were inundated with e-mails, letters, text messages and phone calls from anxious listeners. Each one of them had a story to share, an anecdote to narrate and fond memories associated with the BBC to cherish.
Visually-impaired listeners sent emotional messages, saying that they were going to lose their best companion that brought light to their world of darkness. Several individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, now holding important positions in government, universities, judiciary and politics, said they owed their success to the BBC radio.
Despite the huge goodwill enjoyed by Hindi radio service, the BBC had once before attempted to stop its transmissions in 2011,only to withdraw the decision following a massive push-back from the listeners, and supported by several eminent authors and journalists such as Sir Mark Tully, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy.
Ironically, only a few months before the axe finally fell on Hindi radio, BBC World Service actually extended the transmission time of its Hindi flagship programme “Dinbhar” to beat the strict communication restrictions imposed by the Narendra Modi government in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
In August, Parliament effectively nullified Article 370, cut off the Internet and mobile services (now partially-eased), and detained many Opposition leaders (several of whom have been released now). Suddenly, free and independent journalism in J&K looked rather impossible.
In this context, Jamie Angus, the director of the BBC World Service, decided to circumvent the restrictions to serve the information-starved audiences in J&K. And shortwave radio was the only means to reach out to them. Angus acknowledged in a statement that audiences turn to the BBC during moments of crisis when tensions are highest.
Radio listenership, no doubt, has dwindled over the years, but as the American media scholar, Jeff Jarvis once said, the success of journalism shouldn’t always be measured on the “old mass media metrics” of the number of eyeballs that watched our message. Instead, it should be based on whether journalism helped people meet their goals, improve their lives and communities.
The BBC did help at least four generations of Indians to meet their goals, improve their lives, and find their place in the world.
While I am proud to have been associated with BBC Hindi radio, it is not easy for me to carry the dubious distinction of being the last radio editor of such an illustrious service.
Rajesh Joshi is a print and broadcast journalist and editor based in the New Delhi. He led the BBC Hindi radio team in its last phase
The views expressed are personal