News on radio: About time the government relents
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Jan 21, 2019-Monday
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News on radio: About time the government relents

Newspapers, radio and TV today are getting increasingly subservient to internet-driven digital platforms and mobile telephony as medium of mass communication.

mumbai Updated: May 25, 2018 01:07 IST
Ayaz Memom
Ayaz Memom
Hindustan Times
mumbai news,radio,BJP
Journalist and author Mark Tully.(HT Photo)

Meeting Sir Mark Tully when he came down to Mumbai to receive the Lifetime Achievement honour at the annual RedInk Awards instituted by the Mumbai Press Club last week took me back almost quarter of a century when we were first introduced.

I was then editing a city eveninger; Tully had recently resigned from his job at the BBC for 30-odd years, 20 of these as chief of bureau in India. Differences of opinion with John Birt, the Beeb’s Director General, had brought his long stint to a sudden halt.

Subsequently, of course, Tully was given knighthood for a compelling body of work, largely radio despatches covering armed conflicts, political developments, social issues et al across the subcontinent which became the staple diet of news junkies.

When we met in the mid-1990s, I remember asking Tully whether the fast growth of newspapers and even more rapid expansion of cable TV then was not a serious threat to radio. “It’s a big challenge,” he had replied, “but we don’t know what else technological advances will bring.”

Nobody knew what lay in store, but Tully’s ambivalence turned out to be prescience. Newspapers, radio and TV today are getting increasingly subservient to internet-driven digital platforms and mobile telephony as medium of mass communication.

There’s a twist to the tale however. While the platform is changing, media – text, radio and TV – is growing exponentially. Consumers are now partaking in what, for ease of understanding, is called the ‘multimedia experience’.

Interestingly, radio, which seemed the most vulnerable 25 years back, seems to be seeing a strong return to relevance. It is flourishing worldwide: on the web by leaps and bounds, but terrestrially too.

Some data pertaining to the US highlights this point: 99% of homes have radios as do 95 % cars driven.

The second mentioned aspect is becoming important even in developing countries like India where the influence of radio can only expand with growing car sales.

The appeal of radio transcends where you hear it, of course. It strikes up a personalised connect with the listener(s), and can be a magical experience. Newspapers lack this as they are impersonal, and TV is fast abdicating the space because it is so contrived.

In this happy scenario, however, Tully still has a grievance about news radio in India as he revealed at the RedInk awards. Actually he had two misgivings, the other being ‘fake news’. But this complex monster seems insurmountable for the present, so I’ll restrict myself to the first where immediate relief is possible.

Tully agonises that radio in India is still not permitted to broadcast news. That remains the prerogative of the government and the Information and Broadcasting ministry, operating through its arm, Prasar Bharati.

News on radio being government-controlled was always a bad idea, borrowed from post-World War II socialist ideology. But why this should be the case even now, more than seven decades after Independence is inexplicable.

There is also absence of parity with other mediums purveying news. Like newspapers and news TV channels (with restrictions on Foreign Direct Investment participation), private FM radio stations too have proliferated, but without sanction to provide news. They can only repeat what All India Radio has already broadcast.

A blind eye is turned towards sports updates or weather reports, but breaking hard news is disallowed. Which is why all FM stations in India are entertainment driven, forced to blaze away with film music and primarily escapist programming, 24x365.

This is not only terribly restrictive, but also asinine in a world interconnected by the Internet, and more so now when social media has in any case demolished barriers on flow of information.

News has emerged as the biggest attraction on any media platform and all over the world, news radio is at its crest: except in India where repeated petitions to successive governments on relaxing the rules for have fallen on deaf ears.

There can only be three reasons for this. One, the government wants to remain monopolistic.

Two the government doesn’t believe it is the right of people to know.

Three, the government wants people to know only what it wants to tell them.

In all three cases, the government needs to be challenged.

First Published: May 25, 2018 01:07 IST