Few people may be aware that the United Nations has declared February 13 World Radio Day. It was on this day in 1946 that the United Nations Radio was established, and though belated, the humble radio has finally been given its pride of place. It was Guglielmo Marconi who obtained the first patent on radio sets in March 1897. That very year, Charles Herrold constructed the first operational radio station. Radio soon became the lifeline for ships, more so during distress, and the technology was developed in World War I to communicate with troops on the battlefront.
As soon as the war ended, civilian use picked up. Detroit, Michigan issued the first known news broadcast. KDKA in Pittsburgh went on air on November 2, 1920, with the presidential election results, heralding commercial broadcasting. Several broadcasters in the US followed, but the BBC would take two more years for its first broadcast: on November 14, 1922. The sudden newspaper strike of 1926 gave it unprecedented popularity as the sole medium available, and the radio finally arrived.
India did not lag behind. Bombay started its own Radio Club in 1923, while the Presidency Club of Madras set up its own radio facility in 1924. By 1926, some enterprising businessmen got together in Bombay and formed the Indian Broadcasting Company (IBC). The IBC installed the first proper radio station in Bombay on July 23, 1927 and followed it up with another in Calcutta on August 26. The number of licensed radio owners was, however, just 3,000 and by March 1930, the company had to wind up. By then, the British Indian government had got its act together and followed the advice of BBC’s founding director general John Reith, who had been trying in vain from 1923 to convince successive viceroys on the merits of public service broadcasting.
In December 1932, the BBC’s Empire Service was extended to India, but matters would greatly improve when Reith sent Lionel Fielden to assume charge in August 1935 of the newly created office of Controller of Broadcasting. Described as “brilliant but impetuous… very highly creative” and someone the “system looks on with disfavour”, Fielden proved these epithets as he went about his job like a man possessed. By January 1936, he gave Delhi its radio station, at Kingsway Camp, ruffling many feathers as he went about in his brusque “must do” style. “I quarrel frightfully with all the secretaries and deputy secretaries,” he bemoaned to Lord Keith, “and I don’t see how I can do anything else”. The establishment wanted a bland, officious media, but Fielden tried hard to air the voice of India, as he heard it. When he invited a noted critic of the Raj, Verrier Elwin, to speak on the radio on Empire Day, he won strong enemies but several friends among Indians. On June 8 that year, the Indian State Broadcasting Service (ISBS) was renamed All India Radio, Rabindranath Tagore rechristened it as Akashvani, the voice that comes over from the skies, through a poem penned in 1938 for the inauguration of Calcutta’s shortwave service.
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Within a year, World War II broke out and Britain had to act fast in India as Nazi propaganda was reaching over shortwave radio. News bulletins had already been centralised and even the regional services were given their “ready scripts”: a practice that continues till today. We may recall an interesting episode when a “Congress Radio” was set up on September 3, 1942, just a few days after the Quit India Movement. It claimed to be from “somewhere in India” and played a cat and mouse game with the police, as the portable radio station shifted location.
After the British left, AIR had only a handful of radio stations for the metros and princely states. There were just two and a half lakh receiver sets for a population that exceeded 325 million. This would soon change, as Nehru made radio one of his priorities for uniting the new India. By 1961, the number of stations trebled and by 1981, nearly a hundred centres catered to an estimated 90 million receivers.
Among AIR’s most remarkable achievements was its Vividh Bharati service, which began in October 1957 — five years after Radio Ceylon had begun to garner a huge following of Hindi film-song lovers, all because AIR was stopped by then I&B minister B.V. Keskar. Vividh Bharati could, however, overtake Radio Ceylon within just a few years. To the man in street, Akashvani began to stand for filmi geet and sombre news bulletins.
But AIR is or was more than that: it had radio plays, feature shows,classical music, quiz and poetry competitions and school-based programmes. The agricultural revolution in India owes an enormous debt to the broadcasts of AIR. By the late 1960s, the problem of power and batteries that valve-based radios had faced would be over, as the transistor revolution transformed India.
The two wars in the 1960s provided Akashvani a unique opportunity to galvanise the nation as never before. The India that appeared fragmented in 1947 stood like a rock in 1962 — behind her soldiers fighting on icy high altitudes. Vividh Bharati started its Jayamala programme to cheer the armed forces with popular film stars supporting it.
We may also remember that All India Radio actually lived up to its name, for it never discriminated against singers and artistes like Shamshad Begum, Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan, Nusrat and Rahat Fateh Ali, Mohsin Khan, Mira, Monalisa, Shafqat Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Adnan Sami and others who were Pakistanis. Its radio waves united souls in music and a shared history that the politics of a “Two Nation” theory had rendered asunder.
The writer is chief executive officer, Prasar Bharati