Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated with radios.
My first radio set was a box with tubes and took a few seconds to warm up. These days you would call it steampunk. It had a dial with a needle and three knobs—one to change frequency, one for volume and the third, if I recall, was to switch between medium and short wave. It was assembled by an electrician in the neighbourhood market. He gave me an extra length of black aerial wire and said I should stretch it to a window for better reception.
For a young man in a small town, that primitive radio was my window to the world. I would listen to British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Voice of America (VoA). That’s how I heard a band called The Beatles, and understood why the girls on the radio were screaming their guts out. Every now and then the thread that made the needle move would come loose, and I would have to squeeze my hand into the box to tighten it. You had to be careful with those hot glass tubes.
The last tube radio I possessed (before I moved up to transistor sets) was equally primitive: It was made by a mechanic who I suspect had cannibalized the parts from discarded sets. It would go off at the wrong time. We were listening to the live broadcast of man’s landing on the moon and a tube overheated just when Neil Armstrong was about to step on the lunar surface. Soon The Beatles split.
When transistor radios became affordable, I bought one with a telescoping antenna. I didn’t like it much because it was a basic set and I couldn’t get BBC on it: I missed their news and music programmes. The other problem with it was you had to hold it next to your ear and even move your body to get better reception.
Good transistor radios were quite expensive. My favourite set was the Sony World Band Radio. In fact, at one point I had two: A big one (a gift) near my bed and a small one that was my travelling companion. Some friends had a Grundig with a digital display and we would compare notes.
I had the radio by my bedside even after cable TV started in India. I watched my normal quota of television, but daytime listening was almost always radio. It was programmed to switch on at a set time in the morning. I liked the ambient sound of world news programmes or music as I read my newspaper, did the crossword, got ready for work or just pottered about the house.
End of an era? Even modern radio sets have become obsolete.
One day—I do not recall which year—I stopped listening to radio on that set. I do not remember if it happened suddenly or over a period, but I know the reason: I had discovered online radio. There were hundreds of stations to choose from.
Now I listen to BBC Radio 5 and World Service, and to All Things Considered and All Songs Considered on the National Public Radio (NPR). I find it intellectually stimulating. For music, I tune in to 3WK and other classic rock stations. The weather and traffic bulletins remind me of holidays. As I write this, I have the NPR on in the background and I heard that US President Barack Obama used 22 different pens to sign the health Bill and then gave those pens out as souvenirs.
Arbitron, the American radio rating service, says “despite newer technologies, conventional broadcast radio continues to be the dominant mode by which most Americans listen to audio content”. Of course, “listenership to newer audio modes” has also increased. In Britain, nearly 90% of the population regularly listens to the radio, be it in the car or at home.
In Delhi, I don’t know anyone who listens to radio except in cars. Perhaps listening to radio at home is no longer cool.
A couple of years ago, while holidaying in a friend’s house in the hills of Dehradun, I heard the sound of BBC news floating in from the garden. There was a crackle in the audio and I knew it had to be a radio. I walked towards the sound and saw a man, a foreigner, on a bench with an old-fashioned radio—the kind I once had—by his side. It was Mark Tully. That was the last time I saw someone using a radio set.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at email@example.com