Radio, someone still loves you
The prestige of All India Radio commentary does not exist any longer but even in world where data is cheap, it still has its own charm.
At the World Cup final, Sanjay Banerjee and Prakash Wakankar will find themselves in the Akashwani commentary box doing non-stop radio commentary for 100 overs. Theirs will be the combined English-Hindi feed going out to those who can’t watch the CWC final on a screen, their numbers also in millions, outside the attention of the TV suits.
Banerjee and Wakankar almost eight decades in the business between them, have witnessed Indian radio commentary shriveling into insignificance, TV taking over public attention and mindspace. On finals day, they will pull through commentary, like true pros; doffing hats in tribute to their great predecessor AFS Talyarkhan who often commentated solo through a day’s cricket without a break.
In between innings, Banerjee-Wakankar could also bump into BBC’s Test Match Special (TMS) crew, who are going through what their game-changing producer Adam Mountford calls, “a renaissance, a bit of a golden period” for cricket on UK radio. Last year, TMS produced record figures for the men’s and women’s Ashes, in one instance the second-highest audience ever for Radio5 Sports Extra.
Cricket on television in UK has gone off free to air and given TMS a chance to reach out to the audience shut out from expensive cable costs. Over the last 15 years, TMS, the first broadcasters of live cricket commentary in 1957 have been on the frontline of substantial changes in sports broadcasting. Mountford took over as TMS producer in 2007 and its commentary box opened up to diverse, younger voices, including the introduction of women commentators, summarisers, experts.
TMS commentator Henry Moeran says BBC cricket has transformed the landscape of broadcasting in terms of the range of voices it includes, “now actually it's unusual to find any broadcast in the world game that doesn’t include the female voice.” TMS has also understood Moeran says, “that a radio programme doesn’t work purely in a linear way.”
TMS has active engagement with its listeners on social media, built an app called Sounds (which has led to a 20% increase in listeners) and launched a series of podcasts. Including the award-winning ‘No Balls’ with featuring women cricketers Kate Cross and Alex Hartley and ‘Tailenders’ with Jimmy Anderson and Izzy Wong among others. BBC now has also acquired clip rights, Mountford saying, “so you can get the full experience without having to stare at the TV all day.” Listen to TMS on radio or read text comms on one screen and look at the clips of the action.
At the CWC2023, Mountford was glad to see Akashwani teams at every venue, their absence on his previous trips over the last decade noticeable. For more than ten years now, cricket has come through on Indian radio with commentators sitting in studios working not off a clean feed with ambient sound but off the commercial feed off TV.
Akashwani has 120 accreditations off this world cup, with 40 people in circulation and local staffers doing commentary at different venues. For the final, however, they have called in the A-team. Wakankar is also part of TMS at the World Cup, working with any of the three TMS teams (four or five each) at various matches. TMS is in a joint production with Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) at the World Cup, live commentary available on the ABC website.
Have a listen. On radio, cricket’s rah-rah hyper-volume TV pitch evaporates and along with the cricket, there’s conversation, open critique, discussion. I hear the word “piratanical” to describe Ravinder Jadeja’s headband-wearing, sword-waving, wicked-grin persona. Plus a discussion about whether bowling part-timers is “insulting” to the Netherlands. And how absence of Pakistani fans at the Modi Stadium on October 14, took away from what could have been a special occasion. Or the switching of the semi-final match strip being called “unacceptable.” Such sackable TV thoughts become points of civil discussion on radio.
In India, cricket commentary has been dehydrated of relevance, partly due to indifference at the top of Prasar Bharti post the Delhi 2010CWG, rising production costs and financial unsustainability. Prasar Bharti have been talks with the BCCI for a new tripartite deal using a sales and marketing team for monetization through a three-year cycle and currently await a decision. But TV/ digital rights holders have also made clear to the BCCI that they would prefer theirs is the only way India consumes cricket.
Wakankar has felt the impact of the change in the profession he loves and seen it in his household. His mother-in-law still listens to Akashwani radio commentary but his daughter will not. “The prestige of All India Radio commentary does not exist any longer… Data becoming cheap has effectively killed radio commentary for the urban middle class.”
He notes however, that more than a dozen times, taxi drivers have recognized his voice and refuse to charge him, saying they’ve picked up English words from listening to him describe matches.He says, “We forget that even if data is cheap today, a lot of people want to listen to radio - a lot of people do on their mobile, they watch the TV image but listen to radio and it is generally it in the interiors of the country.”
BBC and Akashwani are both public broadcasters in two very different cricketing countries on different paths. One of the BBC’s big changes was, Moeran says, “to focus on many more types of cricket.” In the last 15 years, every single ball of every single game of domestic cricekt goes on the radio in the UK.” Men’s and women’s international cricket are covered, “with exactly the same production resources.” TMS commentates on the Hundred as well and cover the IPL and the BBL off TV in London or Manchester studios.
It is not as if radio has no role to play in expanding the reach of Indian cricket to an even greater degree. It’s all about being broad minded and open-hearted.