The music is back | columns | Hindustan Times
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The music is back

Let’s be clear about this: AIR is not an ideal public service broadcaster. Those of us who tune in today do so because it is the only option to the mind-numbing prattle of private FM radio, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 13:08 IST
Samar Halarnkar

‘Saturdays feel like Sundays, and Sunday feels like Monday…” It’s a warm Delhi September day, overcast and humid. Perfect weather to hear Dean Martin warbling his way through the 1944 American pop standard ‘Baby it’s cold outside’ on the radio.

“Did you know he was born in India? I felt very happy to hear this…”

Cliff Richard sings sweetly about “being true until the leaves turn blue on the evergreen tree”, and I remember playing his 45 rpm records growing up in rainy Belgaum in the early 1970s.

“What a lovely, fantastic-type mausam…”

The morning goes into screaming overdrive as AC/DC slam into 1979’s ‘Highway to Hell’, one of the most popular songs in rock history.

Really, I don’t mind the restrained banter because the music is so good on my favourite radio station, All India Radio (AIR) Rainbow FM. In this age of Bollywood nonsense played by FM stations financially locked into urban, young India, it’s a relief to have a publicly funded broadcaster that can safely cater to niche audiences like myself.

It also helps that AIR’s radio jockeys don’t try to be perfect, don’t force us to hear fake laughter, don’t make funny noises and sound like what they are — happy, young people who fumble a bit.

Last week in Mumbai, I got a ride with Rajiv Anand, CEO of a financial services company, and, to my delight, he tuned into, what else, AIR. “I want to break free,” declared the soaring voice of Freddie Mercury (yes, our man, aapro Freddie Balsara, formerly of Zanzibar and Bombay).

Why AIR, I asked Rajiv. His answer: “Because it’s the only channel that plays great English music when I am driving to office. And the RJs are not shrill. And there are fewer ads. And I am fed up of Bollywood trash. That’s why.”

No one really knows, but many people from my generation are tuning their dials back to AIR. The main reason is music, not just Western but also old Hindi film songs. The other reason, I hear, is the lack of advertisements (thus the AIR jingle: “Oh, we got to let the music play, all the time, on Aaaa-l India Radioooooo!”).

I also like the news on AIR. It’s old-fashioned, from the Indian-news-reel era, shorn of the perspective that we (this paper included) now try to provide to our busy readers and address their tell-me-why-I-should-care attitude.

So, of course, that means hearing about the President’s greetings to teachers on Teachers’ Day, her greetings to the people of Moscow and her ‘useful talks’ with the Russian president. But the headlines also talk about the Nato airstrike on fuel trucks hijacked by the Taliban in Afghanistan. When the Afghan elections were on, I heard a daily first-hand report from AIR’s man in Kabul, never mind his unrefined Tamilian (or Bihari) accent and his successful massacres of syntax and grammar. Last week, AIR’s man in Tokyo also assaulted the English language but managed to convey the importance of elections in Japan, where (I hope you know this), the ruling party has been kicked out of office after 45 years.

On one of Delhi’s ubiquitous FM radio stations, I hear a caller gush about the new buildings and malls in Noida, the strange suburb that straddles the decrepit cow belt and the endlessly acquisitive new India.

The RJ burbles: “Oh, the development is going higher and higher in Noida, na…dhan-te-dan!”

If you want something more cerebral, tune in to fake caller Ghanta Singh, who recently ambushed a receptionist at a computer centre.

Ghanta: “Agar main course join karoon, to job milega? (Will I get a job if I join the course?)”

Receptionist: “Haan, internship ke baad. (Yes, after internship.)”

Ghanta: “Hain? Mujhe ship pe nahin jaana hain. Huh? (I don’t want to go on a ship.)”

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.”

Let’s be clear about this: AIR is not an ideal public service broadcaster. Those of us who tune in today do so because it is the only option to the mind-numbing prattle of private FM radio. Bolstered by those warm feelings for AIR, I tried to see if I could get its eclectic choice of music on my computer. I found AIR’s website, and clicked on the links to live audio and audio programs (why do they use an American spelling?). “The audio programs are currently not available.” There’s a madly interesting top link that reads: “Filling up post of DDG (security) on deputation basis in Directorate General: All India Radio.”

Does no one care?

As I write this, I am listening to a gravel-voiced man dish out an AIR English tutorial. “Marred.” intones the gravel-voiced tutor. “Koi cheez jo kharab ho jaati hain, jaise English mein ispoiled kehte hain (A thing that is spoilt, as they say in English, ispoiled).”

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.

Until that happens, there’s always Ghanta Singh.