How Akashvani continues to stay relevant since its inception to the era of internet

Broadcasting house and the office of the All India Radio

The outstanding programmes recognized at the Akashvani Annual Awards function held at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, last week renew one’s faith in the power of the spoken word at a time when television networks seem to be in news all the time – for trivializing both news and views and skipping somber analysis of complex issues.

Akashvani – the poor cousin of Doordarshan – continues to surprise us with its range and innovative programming and yet remaining committed to fulfilling its mandate of informing, educating and entertaining its listeners.

The good news is that Akashvani is increasingly attracting new listenership in urban TV-owning homes – at least for its News/ Samachar segments – an area ceded by TV news networks busy in shouting each other down very successfully.

The awarded shows were broadcast in all languages across various stations of Akashvani and the categories include science, wildlife, musicals, news features, plays etc….
If the credit for extending the G.T.Road from Kabul in the far northwest of the country to Chittagong in the frontiers of Bengal touching Burma – thus linking two extremes of India – goes to Sher Shah Suri ( 1486 -1547), it is the Indian Railways first inaugurated in mid 1850s between Bori Bunder in Bombay to Thane – a distance of 34 km – that enabled the larger masses of undivided India to travel across the country.

However, credit must be given to Akashavani that helped us forge an identity as an Indian and introduced masses to the varied religions, cultures, and people of this great nation- apart from preserving our traditions particularly in the area of classical music and folk.
Aakshvani has also managed to rally the people behind various major socio-economic programs launched by the then governments and helped create a bridge between the rulers and the ruled, the policy makers and its beneficiaries.

It was on Akashvani that Nehru announced the death of Gandhi ji in a voice choked with emotions: “Bapu is no more. Light has gone out from our lives….”

What is less known is the use of Akashvani stations by the Election Commission to educate the electorate during the first general elections held in 1952? It was a massive exercise – something that we take for granted now with average Indian having got used to exercising the franchise.

Who can forget the pioneering role Akashvani played during the ‘Green Revolution’ – so much so that farmers came to name the hybrid variety as ‘Radio Rice’?
News readers, Devki Nandan Pandey and Melville De Mellow, interpreted the nation and the world for us, and we believed in what they had to say.
No considerations for TRPs!!!

We hope the current leadership of Prasar Bharti / All India Radio – Dr.A.Surya Prakash, Shashi S Vempati and Feyyaz Sheheryar- and many hundreds of unsung heroes of Akashvani will continue taking the organization to new heights despite severe resource crunch and a shortage of personnel, and realize the great potential of radio as a medium for social change and integration. The truth is that images cannot say even one tenth of what spoken word or the written word can. They cannot define the simplest concept.

The story of Akashvani is the story of independent India – starting from 23 July 1927 when first regular radio broadcast commenced from Bombay and on August 26 same year from Calcutta. These stations were started by the Indian Broadcasting Company (IBC) that had received the license from Post Master General.

The remarks of Lord Irvin who inaugurated the first radio service remain valid and relevant even today:

“India offers special opportunities for the development of broadcasting. Its distances and wide spaces along make it promising field. ….. Both for entertainment and for education its possibilities are great, and as yet we perhaps scarcely release how great they are.”
Sadly, Indian Broadcasting Company did not live up to its initial mandate. It catered to the small European community and Westernized Indians. There was little effort made to reach out to the vast majority of the people. No wonder by the end of 1930 the total number of radio receivers was only 7000 ( approx). IBC started incurring losses and Lionel Fielden who was then working for BBC, in London, proposed to the government to acquire Indian Broadcasting Company and have broadcasting re-designated the Indian State Broadcasting Service from April 1930. But this change in nomenclature did not improve the financial health of broadcasting though we must give credit to Lionel Fielden for ensuring that the service did not close down.

And it was not until 1935 when the government acquired the services of Fielden and made him Controller of Broadcasting. The central station at Delhi was inaugurated on Jan 1, 1936.
The most momentous decision taken in June 1935 was the re-designation of Indian State Broadcasting Service (ISBS) as All India Radio.
How this name All India Radio came about is best described by Fielden in his autobiography, The Natural Bent:

“ I had never liked the title ISBS which to me seemed not only unwieldy but also tainted with officialdom. After a great deal of cogitation – which may seem ridiculous now, but these apparently simple and obvious things do not always appear easily – I had concluded that All India Radio would give me not only protection from the clauses which I most feared in the 1935 Act but would also have the suitable initials AIR……… But when I mooted this point, I found that there was immense opposition in the Secretariat to any such change….. I cornered Lord Linlithgow at a Vicegeral banquet and said that Indian State Broadcasting Service was a clumsy title and that since all Indians had to say ‘broadcasting’ – ‘broad’ for them an unpronounceable word, could he help me with another title.

After some thought, Lord Linlithgow suggested ‘radio’? Splendid, I said – what beautiful initials. The Viceroy concluded that he had invented it and there was no more trouble. His pet name must be adopted. Thus All India Radio was born.”

During his tenure that lasted till 1940, Fielden established the Central News organization in 1937, and in response to the gains made by the Japanese forces in East Asia during WW II, External Services Division was set-up in 1939 with the first broadcast in Pushtu directed at those living in and around Afghanistan.

Vividh Bharti Service has an interesting origin: In 1952 the then Minister of Information & Broadcasting, B.V.Keskar, who was an ardent admirer of classical music, banned film music on the pretext of being cheap and not reflecting Indian culture and ethos. Radio Ceylon ( now Sri Lanka) took advantage of this void and started broadcasting Hindi film songs directed at Indian listeners. This made Radio Ceylon very popular in the entire sub-continent. Yielding to the public pressure and to combat this competition, Vividh Bharti service commenced from 1957…. broadcasting film music, regional and folk bulletins…

The decision to introduce Yuva Vani Service must have been influenced by the events of the 1960s, appropriately called the ‘Age of Youth’. During this period youth around the world became increasingly aware of social issues such as war and starvation. They found many causes such as anti-poverty, anti-war (Vietnam), anti-censorship … to rally behind. The emergence of hippies gave youth power a prominence that no government could ignore.
Launched on July 23, 1969 – the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon – Yuva Vani saw the creativity of Indian youth burst on the scene like an asteroid. A large number of young persons and students produced outstanding programmes. One such programme ‘Echoes of Generation’ won the prestigious Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) award in 1976.

This post would be incomplete unless I mention Radio Kashmir, Srinagar and its daily program ‘ZOONA DAB (Moon on the Courtyard). It started in the mid-1960s and dealt mainly with public grievances mainly of the inhabitants of Srinagar city brought to the notice of the policy makers through the station.

This is perhaps the only Radio program till date that has been conferred with Padma Shri award in 1974, thus acknowledging the contribution of three key artists comprising a family in the said program: Pushkar Bhan as ‘Mama’ ( domestic help), Som Nath Sadhu as ‘Agha Saheb’ ( head of family) and Mariam Begum as ‘Agha Bhai’ (mother).
In the new media landscape Akashvani comprising 420 stations, broadcasting in 23 languages and in 146 dialects, is the ideal medium to attend to our innate appetite to be Informed, Educated and Entertained in a manner that is Inspiring, Engaging and Enriching.
To do that, Aakshvani has to restore the SOVERNITY of the SPOKEN WORD – as was the case when AIR was born

This article is written by Prof. Ashok Ogra, Director, Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication and former Vice President ( South Asia) at Discovery Channel. Views are personal