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A giant in decline

April 08, 2012

MUCH like the trains, there is a romance to the radio that newer technologies simply do not have.

Coincidentally, both were firsts in their fields. The train was the first automated vehicle to be able to transport goods and people on any meaningful scale, while the radio was the first method of mass communication to be invented.

In Pakistan, both sectors can be taken as examples of the manner in which the state lights upon wrong-headed and muddled policies that result in the golden goose being killed.

The once-proud Pakistan Railways has been brought to its knees by decades of mismanagement and neglect. And Radio Pakistan too is in poor shape, with the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation driven to suggesting in February that a ‘broadcast cess’ be levied on cellphone users to generate much-needed funds.

The argument appeared to be that since most cellphones these days can give radio access, which consumers may be using, they should be taxed for it. On that occasion, PBC head Murtaza Solangi told the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting that the majority of Radio Pakistan’s transmitters have fallen into dysfunction and the organisation does not even have the resources to pay salaries and pensions.

Aging medium-wave transmitters, the financial crunch and competition by FM channels have forced the former behemoth to reduce transmission hours and compromise on programming quality.

The information secretary said at the February meeting that the government was not in a position to provide financial support to the organisation. But I, for one, would call for the institution to be saved, and even support and happily pay a credible broadcast cess — if only Radio Pakistan were to do its job. Yes, it is a bloated government entity, but it is also an icon, unique and potentially extremely useful in the span of its coverage.

Since the state’s policy on media ownership was liberalised just before the turn of the century, FM radio has gone from strength to strength. There are now over 200 licensed and independent FM radio stations in the country, presenting with flawless sound quality mainly music and some infotainment. According to a 2009 survey, about half of them were on air and doing reasonable to roaring business.

But that cannot compare with the emotion inspired by Radio Pakistan in its glory days: Noor Jehan’s voice floating in scratchily from across the street, the quite lovely drum and brass version of the national anthem followed by the civilised “Yeh Radio Pakistan hai”. During especially the ’60s and the ’70s, Radio Pakistan showcased the best of the country’s writing, acting and music talents.

Since then, though, the gods have not been kind to Radio Pakistan and currently it is a mere shadow of its former self. So why would I support a cess that might help it?

First, there is the scale of the audiences that medium-wave can potentially reach. Powerful though modern FM transmitters are, they still cover a range of merely 30- or 40-odd kilometres — as opposed to the hundreds of kilometres covered by medium-wave . The latter can build audiences as the regional level instead of the local. Radio Pakistan’s potential audience includes urban areas as well as vast swathes of the rural areas. If Radio Pakistan were to receive financial support from the government or through a broadcast cess, it would allow it to be operated on a non-commercial basis and this, in turn, would allow it to focus on material that is not necessarily commercially viable: public service messages and campaigns, for example, showcasing folk and classical music performers, or reviving the lost format of radio dramas.

The advantage of a public domain, state-run medium-wave radio station lies in its ability to address a wide number of topics that may not be commercially viable for advertisement-dependent local FM stations: health and hygiene, farming, trade and a promotion of liberal values.

Radio Pakistan could be instrumental in educating people on issues that do not have much commercial appeal but are of critical importance. Similarly, it could promote performers and musicians who may not be worthy of the advertising giants’ notice but who are nevertheless deserving of having their work showcased.

The irony is that Radio Pakistan has, in the past, played this role to varying extents. Just recently, it ran a delightful series on classical music (in the classical music circles, many argue that Radio Pakistan and its sister PTV are a significant reason why interest in classical music has been retained in the country).

Some years ago, the NGO Aurat Foundation created and packaged a radio programme targeting women in the rural areas. Written in the drama format, it presented hard information on matters such as crop farming, nutrition and animal husbandry.

It placed fictional characters in real-world situations (such as a child with certain symptoms) and imparted information and solutions (such as the existence of Basic Health Units or the characteristics of dehydration).

For that matter, Radio Pakistan even at its very inception used its resources for the public good. In the 2005 book A History of Radio Pakistan, Nihal Ahmad writes that from Aug 27, 1947, “The Lahore station started a regular service for refugees, broadcasting messages from people trying to locate lost ones. Information on the status of displaced persons was also given. Special staff was hired to receive messages at the gate, on the telephone and at the refugee camps. These were scrutinised and then broadcast”.

He says, “The SOS service continued for about seven months till the end of March 1948. During this period about 36,900 SOS messages were broadcast.”

There is no dearth of issues that an efficient state-run medium-wave radio station could address. The drama format being used to counter the lack of awareness and information can be expanded to address issues such as public health, acid crimes, honour killings and extremism — the list can be as long as you like.

All it requires — and it’s a pretty big ‘all’ — is the will on part of its managers. The radio has been used in Pakistan for the bad, by Maulana Fazlullah aka Mullah Radio, for instance. Let’s see it being used for the good.

The writer is a member of staff.