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The quirky, sometimes sad tales from Radio Pakistan

Updated July 11, 2015

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In 1950s, US Vice-President Richard Nixon signs a guestbook at Radio Pakistan, Karachi, as Z.A. Bukhari looks on. —Creative commons
In 1950s, US Vice-President Richard Nixon signs a guestbook at Radio Pakistan, Karachi, as Z.A. Bukhari looks on. —Creative commons

“Darling, just today, I have recorded three songs at the Karachi radio station. Tune in at eight o’clock to listen to them.”

It was the Queen of Melody, Noor Jehan, on the phone with then President of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan. Her informal tone was not out of place – the two maintained some level of intimacy.

Veteran broadcaster Jamil Zubairi, recounting his 25 years with Radio Pakistan, narrates this exchange between the president and the legendary female singer of country on page 222 of his book Yaad-i-Khazana: Radio Pakistan mein 25 saal (Treasure of Memories: 25 Years with Radio Pakistan).

The front-cover of Zubairi’s book.
The front-cover of Zubairi’s book.

He also provides background to the conversation:

“As the [1971 Indo-Pak] war raged on, we were busy recording patriotic songs. One day, Madam Noor Jehan landed in Karachi from London and arrived at Radio Pakistan's Karachi station for recording. Seizing the opportunity, the radio hastily made some arrangements and recorded three tracks by her.

“After the recording, she stepped out of the studio and joined the Station Director Tahir Shah in his room. She asked him to ring up Yahya Khan for her. Now, whatever the situation was, Yahya Khan was the president of the country. The Station Director hesitated. Noor Jehan told him not to worry. She suggested he only dial the phone number and hand over the receiver to her. When she pressed hard, Tahir Shah gave in. I was in the same room, an eyewitness to the whole episode. The call was made; perhaps first the secretary took it and then the president came on line. Madam Noor Jehan then spoke those words to the president.

“We were flabbergasted. Madam Noor Jehan had not only picked the time for her songs to go on air, but she had also communicated that to the president. Our only concern: at 8 o’clock, Radio Pakistan used to air a news bulletin, which was very important for the general public in the days of the war. The scheduled bulletin could not be delayed. Madam Noor Jehan was sent to another room for dinner and an irritated Tahir Shah made a telephone call to the Director General Radio Pakistan, who was based in Islamabad, to explain the rocky situation. The DG reassured him that he would talk to the secretary to the president. He ordered the songs to be aired after the news broadcast.”

Right from its inception, Radio Pakistan has been the government's mouthpiece – though in the early years, Z.A. Bukhari, the first director-general of Radio Pakistan, and others had tried to cater to the public’s taste, and were quite successful. Gradually, though, things changed. The officials tasked with running the radio were handpicked by the rulers, who detested the well-educated and confident lot of candidates who could think for themselves.

Z.A. Bukhari was the first one to fall prey to their whims. Burhanuddin Hassan, on page 38 of his book Pas-i-Pardah (Behind the Scene) writes:

“When Ayub Khan arrived at the broadcasting house for his first address to the nation, he immediately showed his disapproval for Z.A. Bukhari. Perhaps, he had found Bukhari overconfident or perhaps the latter had unwittingly offended him. Soon afterwards, Bukhari was sent into forced early retirement. His old friend, Syed Rashid Ahmed, who had succeeded him, could not survive either. Radio Pakistan was soon controlled by a bunch of civil servants who could live up to government’s expectation in running its affairs.

“Thus, Radio Pakistan, hitherto a centre for excellence of art and culture, was reduced to a subsidiary division of the information ministry. The news bulletins carried speeches and statements by government officials, and press notes from the PID (Press Information Department).”

Back then, the future of radio employees constantly hung in the balance, particularly when the country was ruled by dictators. Radio officials ran the risk of offending the ruler or his henchmen. A single misplaced word could warrant censures and show-cause notices to the employees. And if the offenders happened to be writers or intellectuals – rather than permanent employees – they would be blacklisted and barred from entering radio stations.

Many a times, these drastic measures created faux pas, one of which is narrated by Jamil Zubairi on page 287 of his book:

“We used to broadcast a programme 'Kalaam-i-Shair Ba Zaban-i-Shair' (Poetry as recited by the poet) from our World Service. One day, a poet showed up at my office with his work. His name was Ziaul Haq.

“I read his ghazal. It was good enough for the radio. I directed him to go upstairs, where the studios were located. By my sheer luck, on that particular day, Agha Jan, a very discreet man, was acting as duty officer. He telephoned me to say that the poet wished his ghazal must go on air with his name, as well as nom de plume, both of which combined read: Ziaul Haq fitna (Ziaul Haq the troublemaker)!

“I was horrified. Such a thing, if broadcasted, could have ended my career and that of the duty officer. I asked Agha Jan to send the poet downstairs where we had another studio. His ghazal was recorded, and he was asked not to recite the last two lines, one of which carried his troublemaking nom de plume.”

With the advent of FM radio stations in Pakistan, the traditionalism at the AM radio stations was threatened. The FM radios attracted audiences by speaking to them in their language and then the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) followed suit by setting up FM radio stations across the country. One of them was established in Hyderabad.

My friends Ahmed Raza and Junaid Naseer Faruqi were selected to host some programmes. FM101 earned them not only recognition but also lasting fame. Now, Raza is a producer with the BBC and Faruqi hosts shows on various FM radio stations in Karachi.

The duo had coaxed me into an audition for the post of radio presenter. Thanks to their mentorship, I was among the three people selected for the job from the original 45 who had shown up for the auditions.

The romance did not last long though.

Pervez Musharraf was the ruler then. On International Women's Day, I played a track, “hum mayein, hum behnein, hum betian, qaumon ki izzat hum se hey” (we mothers, we sisters, we daughters; it is we who build nations). The song, both a tribute to women and a battle cry for their rights, was still on air when duty officer Mujahid Aziz ran into the studio, out of breath. He made strange signs to the sound engineer.

The signs were strange to me, not to the sound engineer. Suddenly the song was replaced by background music. I was dumbfounded. Aziz asked me to play another track. I followed his instruction by going on air, apologising for the “technical fault” and offering a new song. Later, I came to know that the manager of the FM radio station declared the song objectionable. He believed it had a strong association with the government of Benazir Bhutto who was living in exile at the time and Musharraf’s government, I was told, monitored all radio programmes.

Speaking to some radio workers, the radio station's manager had predicted my downfall. The prophecy was soon fulfilled. Ever since, I came to believe that the so-called song debacle was a mere pretext to get rid of me, until I read Jamil Zubairi’s book in the year 2015. Now, it appears that the panic at FM101 Hyderabad was not unfounded.

Zubairi recounts a similar incident (from General Ziaul Haq's era) on page 287 of his book:

“Next year, the Pakistan Peoples Party was to celebrate the birth anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The World Service [of Radio Pakistan], in one of its programmes, used to play tracks requested by its listeners. It’s a coincidence that on Bhutto’s birthday, the same programme went on air and a movie song, *“Salgirah ka din aya hay” (It is the return of the birthday), hit the waves. Dozens of listeners had sent in letters requesting the song to be aired and we happened to respond to those requests on the day of Bhutto’s birth anniversary! I too was caught off-guard.*

“To compound the situation, as the song was in high demand, an announcer at the Karachi station also copied it from the World Service and aired the song. A catastrophe ensued: Telephones rang from Karachi to Islamabad and an inquiry was ordered. It focused on the question as to how and why the song was aired on Bhutto’s birthday.”

Zubairi, in his book, says that the next day Daily Jasarat, a mouthpiece of Jamat-i-Islami, carried the news of the infamous birthday song underneath a bold headline. It also spiced up things a bit, claiming that the World Service’s employees had celebrated Bhutto’s birthday in one of the rooms at the radio station.

Zubairi and two other radio employees were reprimanded and punished. He was given a written warning, a producer was declared ineligible for promotion and an announcer/presenter was suspended. Thought they were later pardoned.

Radio Pakistan has a rich history of similar episodes that span over seven decades. The few narrated here can vouchsafe that if the institution were allowed to function independently, it would have undoubtedly ranked amongst the top radio services of the world.

Notwithstanding the political manhandling, Radio Pakistan has managed to set its own standards of professional excellence. Its presenters are able to deliver their content with the correct pronunciation of Urdu, something wanting in many media outlets of the country. Several bigwigs of journalism owe much to Radio Pakistan, where they had begun their careers and learnt their craft.

Translated by Arif Anjum from the original in Urdu here.


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