Radio days

One of my greatest pleasures when I’m visiting the US is listening to National Public Radio, or NPR. Through the day it plays news from around the world and the country, accompanied by analysis with studio guests and listeners who call in. New music, film, art, books of every conceivable kind are showcased. This week, I listened to Anna Quinlan, quite unconvincingy, defending her minor plastic surgery, an investigative story about an unknown entity calledy F8 (Fate) who donated two million dollars to Mitt Romney’s campaign and heard Jack Black talk about his role in Richard Linklater’s new film, Bernie.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

There are even word games for nerds. Or the brothers Click and Clack on Car Talk. Although I can’t tell a Maruti Zen from a Scorpio, I find myself listening and laughing at their absurdist advice to callers, smiling at this great American love affair with the automobile, while washing dishes or doing laundry. It was on NPR that I discovered a new British singer called Amy Winehouse before she was huge and first heard about the death of Jagjit Singh. It’s impossible to imagine such wide concerns on our radio.

Radio in India is mostly for promoting the music of new films. I remember, as a teenager hopefully reading the newspaper listings for AIR’s “Radio B”, occasionally listening in to some interview or the other, the dramatic exclamations of Hawa Mahal. AIR at least plays different kinds of music — but it’s musty government issue programming is hardly something to praise, despite the diversity. But with TV and radio going commercial, we seem to be in the other extreme. Our radio is so homogenous that it hardly matters what station you listen to.

Very little distinguishes the basic structure of radio stations from Bengaluru or Delhi or Mumbai, except the flavour of how their RJs talk and occasional humourous spots like Sharmaji se Poocho, featuring the droll Haryanvi poet Surendra Sharma on a Delhi station. It’s a matter of continuing surprise that in a country as diverse as India, our popular media has such limited bandwidth — that too in radio, which is a relatively cheap medium and should therefore allow for more experimentation.

Much of this narrowness stems from government policy which operates by a caste system of social upliftment or entertainment as if there can be no mixing of interests in audiences. The limited experiments with community radio in India have been successful, but they exist within the NGO paradigm and so, serve to underline these divisions of the commercial and the high-minded, and prevent us from having a truly diverse and vibrant popular media.

NPR is funded by federal money, but this has to be matched by listener subscriptions. This mixed model seems to be key to the fact that their programming mixes the popular with the serious. The relationship of programming with the audience is more direct and not managed by a third party with abstract marketing notions.

What I love about radio is the way it can intertwine with our everyday routines, allowing us to listen and think without brashly demanding our attention. It is a potentially gentle but strong medium, allowing for a meditative connection with the content, which could create greater confidence in audiences who have been treated like herds so far.
The government will begin its third phase of radio allocations soon — so there could be 4,000-5000 new community radio stations in the coming years. Let’s hope these will not go down the tubes of other people’s ideas of what we want (which is really what they want) as so much media that’s gone before.

The author is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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