As someone who grew up with the ubiquitous transistor set, I find World Radio Day especially appropriate to reflect on what it meant to have a new world of personalised listening that the radio provided.
Radio was simultaneously an agent in producing a community of listeners and in consolidating registers of taste and aesthetic judgment. Over time, radio became a site where the politics of language and music was fought out. It turned out to be a tool of pedagogy and a conduit for an aural imagination to cohere.
How and why did this happen?
Was it the novelty of technology that produced a simultaneity of experience for the first time?
Was it the radio announcer whose voice carried the magic for young and old?
Was it clever programme structuring that had listeners hooked to the radio?
It was all of this and more.
The 1920’s saw the beginning of amateur broadcasting and the setting up of small radio clubs in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta Subsequently, the Indian Broadcasting Company sponsored the establishment of regular broadcasting stations in 1927. These relied on a meagre capital base and revenue from licenses, the number and sale of which was also small. Not surprisingly the company went into liquidation.
The sustained pressure by Indians persuaded the British Government to initiate the Indian State Broadcasting Service (ISBS). In 1935, the ISBS acquired the services of Lionel Felden of the BBC who, among other things, rechristened the service as All India Radio. Moreover, he got the controversial Verrier Elwin, the English anthropologist-missionary and a fierce critique of the Raj to speak on the radio. This step alienated Felden's immediate superiors but helped him to win Indian sympathies.
By 1940 when Felden left India, a network of stations had been set up, a news service put into operation and external broadcasts made possible. The core of the broadcasting program was news, music and commentaries and it remained for Felden’s successors to carry this forward.
Between 1940 and 1947, the AIR network had expanded to consist of six stations in addition to five stations in the princely states, the number of licenses had gone up to 248000. The middle class’ enthusiasm for using the radio to consolidate their new sensibilities and preference for music and other forms of aural practices (plays, reports, commentaries) was evident.
One perceptible tendency in broadcasting policies and politics was to emphasise the regional imagination and this was played out in different ways
In all these, the regional dimension became increasingly important as local radio stations played a key role in harnessing children’s talent, developing genres of music, collaborating with local clubs, amateur and professional musicians to feed programme schedules.
One perceptible tendency in broadcasting policies and politics was to emphasise the regional imagination and this was played out in different ways. In the Calcutta Radio Station, there was a strong tendency, for instance, to push general music and privilege it over classical music or baithak sangeet; in Madras the votaries of Tamil isai insisted that more time be allotted to the singing of Tamil songs, and not to Telugu and Sanskrit compositions that formed the core repertoire in South Indian classical music.
These local and regional aspirations also formed part of new recruitment policies of artists who were recruited from a designated territorial circle allotted to each station. The regional bias was obvious even as early as in the choice of the name Vanoli Nilayam that Madras opted for in place of Akashvani.
The Minister of Broadcasting and Information, S.V.Kerkar was especially dogged in his efforts to weed out what he saw as undesirable elements in India music, and reinforced the emerging binaries of classical and non-classical music
The decades after independence saw the Indian State intervene quite emphatically in matters of broadcasting, one aspect of which was the projection of the country’s cultural strength and heritage. The Minister of Broadcasting and Information, S.V.Kerkar was especially dogged in his efforts to weed out what he saw as undesirable elements in India music, and reinforced the emerging binaries of classical and non-classical music. The latter being a catch-all phrase for film music that he considered downright vulgar. Then there were the other genres that were identified as light classical and performed by what he saw as the not so respectable tawaif communities.
Kerkar’s idiosyncrasy did not go down well with listeners or the Film Producers Association. The result was the unprecedented popularity of Radio Ceylon that drew away the listeners until AIR brought them back with some innovative reprogramming. Of course, the pedagogic predilections of the nation-state did never disappear entirely. For instance, film music programmes were often prefaced by brief didactic snatches of classical music (Sangit Sarita for instance) presented by eminent artists.
For well-known performers, the AIR and the radio stations in Calcutta and Delhi were important sites of patronage and sociability in independent India. The stations gave them the opportunity to not merely relay their music to a large audience but also to serve as a space where they met, talked, tuned their instruments and developed personal relations with the station master, the recording engineer and the new staff that were assembled.
The Radio in independent India embodied a new economy for the performing musician
Thus, the Radio in independent India embodied a new economy for the performing musician whose participation in the Radio Sangeet Sammelan and the National programme of Music became a particular marker of aesthetics and musical standards.
Radio magazines also played a huge role in developing and expanding the musical publics; Betar Jagat and Vanoli (Calcutta and Madras) besides the Indian Listener carried programme schedules, impressive notes of musicians and lists of compositions and even notations as guides to learning music.
Besides music, it was children’s programmes and sports commentaries that made the radio especially seductive for listeners. It is difficult to explain the craze without reference to the individuals who were announcers and first-time radio jockeys and who in some cases drew from a broader network of theatre practice.
Take the case of Vanoli Anna, a hugely popular figure who ran children’s programmes in Madras radio Station (Pappa malar, Siruvar Solai, Mazhalai Amudam) was a theatre enthusiast, particularly keen in working with children and who relied on a large network of amateur drama clubs. Pappa Malar was a roaring success with Vanoli Anna like his counterpart Galpo Dadu in Calcutta, who was able to draw children’s confidence in a way that was unprecedented.
It is difficult to explain the popularity in terms only of theatricality and vocalisation which evidently was part of the appeal. The craze could also have been the very novelty of the medium that gave a measure of simultaneity to the experience of listening and participating, even if many of the later shows were pre-recorded.
This was, perhaps, especially true of cricket commentaries that captured the magic of a remote location crackles and sound disturbances, notwithstanding.
Times have changed but it is not my intention to write this as a requiem for the radio. Rather, reflect on the rich past and potential the radio commands, and how it continues to speak to us and to enable us to speak back without the over-powering baggage of images that accompanies television and the Internet.