IF we in Pakistan have reason to regret the passing of the glory days of radio, we’re hardly the only ones.

Back in the late ’70s, Woolley and the Camera Club recorded the song ‘Video killed the radio star’, lamenting the end of the golden days of the radio and celebrating singers whose stardom was cut short by the growing popularity of television in the ’50s and earlier ’60s.

The song was more famously re-recorded by the British New Wave group The Buggles and went on to top the music charts in several countries.

“Pictures came and broke your heart,” sang Trevor Horn in an initially digitally altered voice that gave the ‘telephone’ effect of early television broadcasts. “We hear the playback and it seems so long ago. You were the first one, you’ll be the last one.”

In Pakistan, too, we hear the playback and it does seem so very long ago. There are several clips on YouTube — before the poor thing was stopped in its tracks, of course — of old Malika Pukhraaj and Noor Jehan recordings off Radio Pakistan broadcasts, just as those most unabashedly nostalgic amongst us remember them: voices slightly tinny and crackling, floating on the air just as they used to all those decades ago.

Listening to them in an age when one is surrounded by all sorts of new music technology, then unimaginable, was quite an experience. (And can I take this opportunity to once again plead for the restoration of YouTube access? I promise, we’ll only listen to the music.)

In recent years, what used to be primarily the domain of the Radio Pakistan behemoth has in many instances, particularly in urban areas, been overtaken by FM channels. To their credit goes the fact that they managed to revive a flagging radio listenership and bring new, young audiences into the net.

But in terms of many people, what the radio has achieved over the past decade has gone unremarked, with the possible exception of the young men and women who are avid listeners of the music programmes. Yet there’s plenty worthy of remark.

Since this is an arbitrary list of work that I subjectively consider meaningful, begin with Radio Pakistan (and its sister, Pakistan Television). During the ’60s and the ’70s, these showcased the best of the talent for writing, acting and music, with a special focus on classical music. (It can, in fact, be argued that they are a significant reason why interest in classical music did not altogether die out in this country in the days when it was under pressure.)

Even today, Radio Pakistan is where you are most likely to find programmes of classical music in any appreciable quantity, and where you’ll find the folk and country musicians that, though far away from big-budget (and admirable) focus of undertakings such as Coke Studio or Cornetto Music Icons, are equally deserving of a listenership.

Between the public-owned and the independent or otherwise funded radio channels, there is a fair amount of awareness-raising programming.

For the rural areas, there have been several efforts to create programming that mixes entertainment with real and vital information. Scripts have been written that weave in hard information on subjects from animal husbandry to health and hygiene, or the existence of basic health units. In my village in the hills, I know several men and women who tune in.

On the other side of the coin, in the north-western parts of the country, there have been a handful of radio shows seeking to open minds up to different views on topics from militancy and polio vaccination to tradition.

These shows, a mixture of reports and live debates with listeners calling in and commenting, not only initiate a critical discourse about the issues that plague the region but also provide a voice to those that are the primary victims of the violence.

During one episode, a woman spoke of losing her son in a bombing. In another, more than 80 people called in to comment on whether the religious leaders of their area were doing enough to promote peace.

All this amounts to a praiseworthy body of work. And yet, there is one dimension of radio programming that still remains to be achieved.

There is little happening any longer by way of the true radio drama, and while in recent years formats have been reimagined to produce shows that mix scripting with music, for example, or fact with entertainment content, there is little that focuses exclusively on dramatic entertainment content.

With ennui of sorts beginning to kick in vis-à-vis (entertainment) television programming, this is an area that simply cries out for attention. There are several advantages to the radio drama format: costs are relatively lower and the reach is very wide.

Further, the format could constitute a launching pad for new actors, but more importantly, for sound technicians and scriptwriters who could then feed into the television and film industries too.

At the moment, unless a script idea is so solid as to be a predictable success, as a broad guideline television channels tend to not take risks on the untested writers and ideas because of cost concerns. But radio provides a comparatively simple bridge, and a chance to start talking about issues that television shies away from, including extremism or conservatism.

In earlier decades, Radio Pakistan broadcast many such dramas; many of the dramas written by persons such as Imtiaz Ali Taj were originally written for radio. But now they’re all in some archive somewhere, gathering dust. If nothing else, can those be re-mastered if required and broadcast again? Can the managers of radio stations look into this niche too?

‘Video killed the radio star’ says, “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” But that needn’t necessarily be the case.

The writer is a member of staff.




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