If you think radio is a dying medium, think again. 64% of the Indian population listens to the radio every day, which means that more than half of our population still depends on the radio as a primary medium for information. From crop updates, stock market news, or even breaking news. It’s one of our oldest information dissemination tools – before T.V. or Smartphones – and that’s why it’s so great! We already have the infrastructure we need for it, which means it’s affordable and it’s everywhere. As a result, India has a very aware population. The problem? Everyone only hears one side.
Based on the provisions of the Policy Guidelines and of the Grant of Permission Agreements framed by the Government, private FM Radio is not allowed to broadcast the news. This means, even today, in 2017, our most far-reaching medium of mass communication is allowed to broadcast news on sports, weather or traffic, but not on political news and current affairs. So, the only news about the government on the radio is news broadcasted by the government, which means news on the Radio is as good as dead.
India is perhaps the lone democracy where the dissemination of news and current affairs programmes on the radio is in the hands of a government-owned broadcaster, Prasar Bharati Corporation, which owns and operates the All India Radio. The government justifies this because it believes that allowing the free broadcast of news on private radio is a big security concern. If used incorrectly, it could incite violence, prejudice, or may even be exploited by foreign radicals. Without a government checkpoint, organisations could broadcast fake news to sway the public based on vested commercial or political interests. Considering that radio is the preferred information medium for the illiterate who can’t ‘read’ newspapers and the ‘poor’ who can’t afford T.V. or Internet, these groups would be most would be most impressionable and could easily be manipulated by private entities, especially on local community radio. As a result, the ban of news on private radio stays.
In 2008, the Government, with suggestions from TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), allowed private FM radio to broadcast news bulletins only from the content broadcasted by All India Radio, without any addition or modification and only as long as they don’t counter or question the government’s version of the news. Private FM channels could now air the news but only word for word as reported by AIR. Obviously, private radio operators weren’t thrilled, to say the least.
The Association of Radio Operators India has been very vocal about the unfairness of this restriction and has been pushing the Government to allow private FM players to broadcast the news. Their argument is that for private radio to evolve, adding new content, something different from that music and lifestyle was necessary. Without the news, radio would become a dying medium as there would be no potential for creative and business collaborations. While the radio medium is already bearing the brunt for lack of variety in content, to air news that’s aired by everyone else will not even remotely help diversify the scenario. Also, merely carrying AIR feeds would not be adequate to form public opinion in a democratic country.
For years, radio stations have tried to find ways around this, by broadcasting panel discussions on pertinent topics and creatively reconstructing news into radio skits, by seeking expert advice on pressing issues or by asking listeners to call in with their views on the issue. However, policy backing for free radio broadcasting would change the medium completely, invigorating it with new life.
ALIVE AND WELL!
In October 2013, after an NGO named Common Cause submitted a PIL, the Supreme Court stepped in to question why private FM stations were still not being allowed to broadcast news of their own.
The Supreme Court emphasized that this restriction was a violation of a citizen’s right to information and that a diversity of opinions, views, ideas, and ideologies is essential to enable the citizens to arrive at an informed judgment on all issues touching them.
Obviously, in agreement, radio operators reiterated the importance for radio stations to engage with the local people and promote transparency and accountability. This prohibition of news on FM Radio is a clear violation of the freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, and should, therefore, be altered. They argue that if the news was allowed to be broadcast on T.V., the policies applied to T.V. could easily be extended to radio allowing for the regulation of sensitive content.
In the age of free speech, expression and information, it’s hard to imagine the world’s largest democracy reducing radios to mindless chatter, music, and ads. Is Indian radio, once a tool of information and empowerment, now just a government tool? Do you think the government will concede to full freedom for radio? Tell us in the comments below.