On February 24, Chris Gayle played a thundering innings to set the record for the highest score in a World Cup match. The next morning, on one of Radio Mirchi’s phone-in contests, listeners were asked what reward they would give him for his fantastic innings. A caller offered: “I would give Chris Gayle money for surgery so that he gets his face changed… viewers, especially children, get scared. Also, I will give him lots of ‘Fair and Lovely’ to apply to his whole body… legs, so that he doesn’t look so dark”. The RJ, who found this hilarious, declared him to be the winner because of the clever guess about the colour of Gayle’s legs without actually having seen them. The caller, the RJ and perhaps countless listeners viewed this as harmless humour, oblivious to the vicious racism being spewed out so casually on a public platform. Instead of celebrating a great sporting achievement, the discussion stereotypically and remorselessly ridiculed Gayle’s phenotype.
Radio’s democratic potential has not yet been fully unleashed in India due to the fact that either the state or large private companies control radio stations, and community radio is still embryonic. However, with the spread of FM radio, programmes with live caller interactions are very common. As an avid and regular listener, I find several examples of astute, intelligent hosts who engage people through a combination of youthful exuberance and sharp wit, repartee and humour imbued with healthy irreverence, very refreshing in this day and age of moral umbrage.
The competition between radio stations to attract listeners rests on the popularity of its radio jockeys. RJs innovate to capture attention and many come up with entertaining segments, like Mausam Mausi (discontinued inexplicably, in spite of how brilliant it was). Some RJs use their musical talents to compose parodies on current events, the most notable examples being RJ Nitin and RJs Anant and Saurabh.
However, the quest for popularity also has a flip side. While radio listenership is very diverse, callers are almost always from the relatively better off middle class. Delhi’s RJs often end up providing a platform for the public display of the basest, meanest instincts of the city’s middle class. This is most apparent in the prank-call segment, which solicits listeners’ inputs on whom they would like publicly roasted.
A few minutes after the Gayle-related call, the same radio station replayed the previous evening’s prank call. A young Bihari man had uploaded his profile on a matrimonial site. The RJ, pretending to be a staffer of the site, was asking him to pay more. The young man spoke agitatedly, in Bhojpuri/ Hindi with the unmistakable, much-lampooned Bihari lilt. The RJ, who spoke with the same accent, knew this intonation would invite laughter. He also proceeded to ridicule this person’s looks by insulting each individual feature. This continued till he managed to enrage and infuriate the person to the point where he turned violently abusive.
A young woman was roasted for attending a wedding reception of someone she undoubtedly considered a friend, with her family of four, but giving only Rs 500 as a gift. Clearly the “friend” believed this warranted her to be humiliated publicly. Another man was told that the recent DDA lottery had some errors; that he did actually win a flat. He was overjoyed for a minute, after which the RJ gleefully punctured his dreams and laughed heartily as the person was crushed with disappointment all over again. This, in a city where housing is woefully inadequate and being a homeowner is everybody’s dream. Prank calls can be done differently without compromising on humour; RJ Nitin’s hilarious pranks demonstrate how this segment can actually be utilised to expose intransigence.
Some RJs are completely unaware of the cosmopolitan nature of the city’s population. For them, it is a city consisting of middle-class Punjabi Hindus alone. Lapsing into Punjabi repeatedly, they articulate what they presume to be their listeners’ thoughts, and all references to “our” food, ritual, customs are confined to one state, one language and one religion. Stereotyping listeners works in other ways as well. I have long admired Andaaz-e-Bayan on AIR-FM Gold, devoted to non-film ghazals and nazms, for its choice of music and the commentary of its hosts, which is often knowledgeable. Thus, I was distressed the other evening to hear an old presenter speaking as if the bulk of her audience was Muslim: a lazy equation of language with religion.
Contrast this with two shows currently on air, hosted by the inimitable Ameen Sayani and veteran Annu Kapoor. Both are charming, actually witty and their hosting style, of which the use of language is a critical part, is set to appeal to all, regardless of linguistic origin, religion, class or age. They demonstrate how radio could be a medium of universal appeal, and not a vehicle for airing majoritarian, bigoted social beliefs or for showing off our intrinsic meanness.
RJs are actually trained in basic broadcasting norms. For instance, they are not allowed to use cuss words or mention brand names. It would be a good idea for radio stations to be self-regulatory and to sensitise their RJs to racist, misogynist, casteist, communal content. Otherwise, they could end up providing the perfect opportunity to the state to impose censorship, which would be yet another nail in the coffin of freedom of expression.
The writer is professor of economics, Delhi University