The then Secretary of State Brikenhead wrote to Viceroy Lord Irwin on 15th July 1926 and hoped that local language radio broadcasts in India would help in influencing the masses. British India gave a five year monopoly to the Indian Broadcasting Company. It began broadcasting from July 1927 from Calcutta and Bombay. Leaders of the freedom struggle and later the Quit India Movement had no access to the radio. Even after Independence, All India Radio followed the British policy of using it as a propaganda tool.
Television in India on the other hand was an unwanted child. A Dutch company put up a close circuit television at an exhibition and left behind their equipment. They actually gifted them to AIR because radio was the in-thing and perhaps they hoped their brand would get a boost. And when telecasts began on 15th September 1959 with UNESCO’s help, it had a very low power transmitter beaming to some ministers and their top-ranking bureaucrats. There were only 41 TV sets in India at the time and the one-hour telecast a day was aired twice a week. But Pakistan ushered in television in 1963. How could we be left behind? Daily transmission began in Delhi. And it became a part of AIR because ‘broadcasting’ was the key word. The radio news on TV was broadcast with news readers reading from their scripts. So, TV in India became Radio with bad visuals.
Radio had its own problems. It became the mouthpiece of erudite scholars, poets, composers and writers but with hardly any knowledge of technology. The inevitable happened.
The engineers eventually took over the All India Radio. We also had great policy makers then as now. For several years beginning in 1952, All India Radio (AIR) stopped broadcasting film music because the then minister for Information and Broadcasting, B V Keskar, believed film songs had become vulgar, erotic and westernised.
“After the AIR ban on Hindi film music, Radio Ceylon grew popular in India. When Radio Ceylon started getting popular, an American living in India, Daniel Molina, noticed an opportunity for a business venture. He started “Radio Enterprises,” recalled Ameen Sayani and Binaca Geetmala on short wave on Wednesday evenings became a huge hit. Both AIR and TV followed the model set up by the British. Political propaganda got top priority. Doordarshan however sprinted ahead and charted a different course in the 80s and early part of the 90s. That they produced world class programs were apparent from messages DD received from around the world after the Asiad in 1982, World Cup Cricket, the Non-Aligned Meet (NAM) in Delhi or the series of space -bridge programs it did live with other countries.
That the serials produced then were good is evident even today. During the COVID-19 lockdown, both National and regional DD channels zoomed past their private and commercial competitors in the ratings. What they did was repeat the technically inferior programs of the 80s. The content and the treatment still got the eyeballs that more slickly produced shows fail to get.
But those who then spearheaded DD were forced out and the rest drifted to commercial TV channels. DD has now gone back to a heavy dose of talk shows – essentially radio programs with visuals. Most DD stations are headed by an engineer. Engineers can efficiently run the engine room but to steer it to home port safely, you need other skills.
Commercial TV channels have taken the safe recourse to selling sex, scandal, sensationalism and superstition. For news - death, decay, destruction and disaster are the preferred subjects. Sad, mad and bad are what drive them. There is no place for Mr. glad. In the 80s and early 90s, women in Doordarshan were portrayed to be bold and self-reliant. Udaan, telecast in 1989, told the story of a female IPS officer. She was empowered, gritty and inspiring.
But now an aspiring IPS officer Sandhya, in Diya aur Baati Hum spends 100 to 200 episodes in a saree with a pallu over her head, cringing at criticism from her mother- in-law and trying to please her by learning to cook and clean. And what do we see in ‘Pehredaar Piya Ki’- a 18-year old woman married to a boy of nine!
But is there a future for Indian media? Is there a future for media schools and courses?
I quote from a portal.
“There just aren’t enough white-collar jobs in India for the country’s graduates. So increasingly, Indians fresh out of college with bachelor’s degrees are looking for blue-collar jobs. Some 40% of those eyeing profiles such as office assistants, drivers, bartenders, maids, and mechanics were graduates... Over 80% of India’s engineering graduates are unemployable... almost 93% of MBAs aren’t fit for jobs.”
Newspapers. in a bid to cut costs and become lean and thin, have retrenched a large number of able journalists. Yet there are students who keep applying for Mass Communication courses. What will happen to them? Unless something drastically different is taught, they will add to the frustrated lot. Radio and many TV channels are working reduced hours with skeleton staff. They have to get used to it.
Is there a solution that is cost effective, that can generate employment and can become a global business model? In this digital age, the answer almost certainly is in the affirmative. With most of us confined to homes, it is time to introspect and plan. Internet in villages, digital platforms, cheap smart phones can be combined to create something unique that will generate both employment and profit.
Low capital investment, low operational costs with high employment potential are the only viable way forward. There are several instances of media institutions created with virtually nothing and there is no reason why we cannot hope for a similar miracle here and now.
Indian media have often been misused to influence people in the past but wasn’t a business till recently. It is now an instrument to gain money or power and has not much pretence of any social responsibility.
Death, decay, destruction and disasters are the staple of the media now. Bad news is good news. Will it change under tech-driven media houses waiting in the wings? Time will tell.
(The author is a media veteran based in Kolkata, having an experience of over five decades of experience in print, TV, films and media training)