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An animated short based on a 1980 interview of Michael Jackson, produced by PBS.
An animated short based on a 1980 interview of Michael Jackson, produced by PBS.

Radio riches

Did digital kill the radio star? No, says Shubha Mudgal

In an age of audio-visual gratification and television tyranny, it seems out of place to be talking about radio. But the medium has its own unique and undeniable strengths, charm, and immense archival value. In the days when it reigned supreme, music was an important and highly popular component of radio programming.

Across the world, some of the finest musicians performed on radio, launched chart-busting singles and albums on radio programmes, and also recorded interviews that provide music lovers with the opportunity to get to know the maestros long after they have ceased to be. Even today, music provides a huge chunk of content for radio and Internet radio programming, catering to diverse musical tastes and preferences.

Since radio as a medium preceded television, recordings from radio archives usually provide connoisseurs, scholars, music lovers and artistes with fascinating glimpses of musical history.

On their own, archival recordings, even those with glitches, hisses, pops and crackle, contain information and content that is worth its weight in gold. But innovatively presented and restored, they become even more valuable and attractive. Sometime last month, eminent author and journalist Naresh Fernandes shared a link on his Facebook page, from a PBS series titled Famous Names, Lost Interviews, featuring a short animated film that runs alongside extracts from a 1966 interview of the legendary saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, conducted by Frank Kofsky of American radio station KPFK. Sourced from the Pacifica Radio Archives, the animated short brings the interview to life, drawing the viewer’s attention to the much longer and detailed full interview on the website Pacificaradioarchives.org.

While the series does not restrict itself to musicians, and features a host of eminent men and women from different fields of excellence, some of the great musicians whose voices and conversations have been animated include Ray Charles, Stan Getz, B.B. King and Dolly Parton. Tantalizing pieces of music, often excerpted from albums or singles released by the greats when they recorded the interviews, intersperse the conversation, conducted in an easy, un-self-conscious style by the presenters. So when Charles tells presenter Joe Smith matter-of-factly in a 1987 interview, “I can’t help what I sound like. What I sound like is what I am …," the candour is disarming. The short featuring the iconic Michael Jackson begins with him declaring, “I hate labels…because it should be just music…," to interviewer John Pidgeon in 1980. Pidgeon had to route his questions through the then 13-year-old Janet Jackson, who conveyed them to brother Michael, who unabashedly states that his singing is just “godly".

Call him arrogant if you will, or just plain aware of his own brilliance and genius, but it leaves one wondering if a similar exercise featuring radio interviews with Indian artistes would prove as fruitful. For one, would the interviews be as vibrant and unaffected? And if they aren’t, would Indian artistes upholding hoary traditions from the ancient past agree to being animated to bring their voices to life?

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.

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