BBC Urdu’s flagship radio programme about current affairs Sairbeen will fall silent on Dec 31 this year and will not see the New Year after having been on air for 51 years.
BBC Urdu Service head Mehvish Hussain has attributed the decision to falling short wave and medium wave audiences and the “migration” of younger media users and women to digital platforms including television. The BBC says its decision is based on audience research conducted last year.
The nostalgia around Sairbeen is very strong among a generation of listeners who tuned in each evening at or around 8pm in Pakistan, half an hour later in occupied Kashmir and at 7pm in the United Arab Emirates over several decades.
Through years of dictatorship and censorship in Pakistan, Sairbeen provided a lifeline to the audience, as it was perhaps their only means of understanding what was happening in their own backyard. Its current affairs content was carefully compiled to meet their needs.
The audience responded with equal commitment. From events in 1970-71 when people in West Pakistan were told all was well in the eastern wing to the coup in 1999, Sairbeen had a devoted listenership, with some 20 million people tuning in each week.
Programme to be faded out on New Year’s eve
It was also the programme that turned accomplished broadcasters and journalists such as Athar Ali, Viqar Ahmad, Raza Ali Abidi and Asaf Jilani, among others, into household names in the subcontinent. These broadcasting giants and their colleagues ensured their output was credible and the listener showered them with adulation, and took their word as gospel.
Later the programme was to be hosted by Shafi Naqi Jamie, Ali Ahmed Khan, Obaid Siddiqui, Wusatullah Khan, Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor, Mahpara Safdar, Mohammed Hanif, Zubair Ahmad, Nusrat Jahan, Eilya Haidar and Javed Soomro.
My own relationship with it morphed into something new with the passing years. It started when I was a college student and Gen Ziaul Haq overthrew an elected government and imposed martial law, and continued till the judicial farce that led to the sentencing and execution of then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
I remember all through that period, then the formation of the MRD, the PIA hijacking to the launch of the MRD movement in 1983, one tuned in before dinner to get a sense of what was happening in our own country. Kashmiri friends in Srinagar and in the rest of the occupied valley talk of a similar experience.
If the MRD movement pressured Zia to move from outright autocratic rule to a watered down, non-party democratic order, one journalist chronicled that movement. Iqbal Jafri’s despatches from Sindh, which were at the heart of the resistance, kept the listeners abreast of the developments daily.
With the Soviets marching into Afghanistan in 1979, Rahimullah Yousufzai was to become the go-to man for any information on what was happening as the Pakistan- and CIA-trained and Saudi-funded ‘mujahideen’ took the battle to the Red Army. His voice became synonymous with credible reports on the landlocked, strife-torn country.
Zaffar Abbas, Idrees Bakhtiyar, Shahid Malik, Ali Hassan, Haroon Rashid, Azizullah Khan, Shakil Akhtar, Omar Farooq, Ram Dutt Tripathi, Yusuf Jamil and Altaf Hussain were other journalists whose voice reports from across the subcontinent were a source of credible information for a generation of Sairbeen listeners.
As a journalist I was asked to join the reporting team that was covering the elections in 1993. The following year the BBC offered me a job in London and I cut my teeth on Sairbeen under the stewardship of Viqar Ahmad (working weekends) after having been trained in the basics of broadcasting by Rashid Ashraf.
I worked on the programme when it went from half an hour to an hour. And then a year later as Service Editor integrated the whole 60 minutes into a rolling news and current affairs programme with a dedicated editor, by and large dispensing with translated despatches and relying on voice reports, interviews and radio packages.
The days such as the one I now recall must have happened innumerable times during Sairbeen’s life but I must share this personal experience. When we went on air on Oct 12, 1999, Gen Pervez Musharraf had been sacked as the army chief and by the time we concluded the programme an hour later, Musharraf was the country’s new ruler. Journalism does not get any more exciting and challenging.
A listener once wrote in from Drigh Colony, just across from the Karachi airport, to say that when his TV transmission was interrupted he sent his son running to get battery cells for his transistor radio. “From so many miles away you told me what was happening in my own neighbourhood. Can’t thank you enough.”
In a week’s time, the presenter will say: Aur iske saath he Sairbeen ka yeh Ikkeyavun  saala silsila ikhtetam ko pohncha. Khuda hafiz aur shab bakher.
The writer is a former head of the BBC Urdu Service
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2019