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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 continued…