If you heard it on the radio, it must be true

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radio_1Most of those who came to listen to Sir Mark Tully at the launch of Left Arm Spin, a collection of writings by Pradyot Lal, were driven by nostalgia for the good old days when radio ruled the airwaves. Until 1970, the year when black & white TV came to India and glued everyone to their sofas. In our childhood, All India Radio’s Yuva Vani, Radio Ceylon’s Hindi film music, Voice of America’s pop music and BBC’s World Service provided both education and entertainment. You tuned in at the appointed hour and tuned out an hour later. It didn’t need to be 24×7, it didn’t require you to sit transfixed in one place, and we had lives beyond the media.

BBC World Service used to command respect for its reportage from hot spots around the world, including full-fledged wars. The fiercely autonomous media organisation is grappling with the same challenge faced by media companies in India — the need to cater to a young demographic that has no time for the news. A report commissioned by the BBC recommended that all content be made available on mobile first. It also found that non-serious news was more popular. What went viral were video clips like ‘Bear rescues cub with roadside lift’. In 2006, the most popular story was about a Sudanese man marrying a goat. Still, the Beeb has no plans to dumb down.

Radio has miraculously survived the digital deluge. You listen to it in your car, enjoying the cheerful chatter of RJs such as Sunil ‘Sud’ Grover with his Hansi Ke Phavvare, on Radio Mirchi and Disha Oberoi on Red FM, with their gift of the gab and repertoire of jokes and stories. However, FM is a feature that has not proved popular with urban folk on mobiles, perhaps because cellphones have so many more enticing features. World Radio, though aggressively marketed, also did not have much of an impact, and finally wound up.

However, radio has its own niche following, as Khurafati Nitin said during Readomania’s Talkfest at India Habitat Centre the other day. India’s most awarded Radio Jockey (RJ) brought prank calls to radio, his programme becoming as popular as Cyrus Broacha’s Bakra programme on TV, where you basically fool random people to get a few laughs.

However, Nitin also has his serious side, which he revealed in a choking voice. After 10 years on radio, starting with All India Radio, he found himself jobless. In desperation, he and his brother set up a samosa stall in Gurgaon, which wasn’t much of a success. Then came the call from Fever 104 FM that put him back in the game. Even so, he insisted that the company employing him should remember its corporate social responsibility (CSR) and allow him to do what he could for society.

The results were amazing. When a girl rang up to say her brother was in jail even after serving his four months in jail for theft, just because he couldn’t pay the fine, Nitin appealed to listeners to send donations. The funds that poured in helped them locate other such poor prisoners to pay their fines. He was also able to gather funds for reconstructive surgery for acid attack victims.

One of the great things about radio is that it can reach out to large sections of illiterate people — and the barely literate, for our schools are churning out any number of them. Radio can speak to you in your own regional language, at very little cost. It is a ‘background medium’, meaning it doesn’t stop you from doing your work while tuned in. It’s the most interactive: all you need is the ubiquitous phone to be on the air.

Still, radio and TV have their own dedicated fan bases, as does print journalism. We in the capital were fortunate to see Mark Tully and Khurafati Nitin in person, in an age when you are used to putting a face to the name. The gift of the gab will never lose its value, even in this age of Facebook.