Radio still holds relevance in today's internet age

Radio not only democratizes access to the poorest households, it does so within a household as well.
Radio not only democratizes access to the poorest households, it does so within a household as well.

Summary

  • This classic omnipresent and cheap medium holds high potential if used along with other media to achieve special public ends.

A hundred years ago, India’s first radio broadcast took place. The Radio Club of Bombay made that first ever broadcast in the country. A few months later, the Radio Club of Calcutta and Madras Presidency Radio Club were born and began a few broadcasts. These radio activities preceded the setting up of All India Radio (AIR) by about a dozen years. By the time of Independence in 1947, there were six radio stations in India—at Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Trichy and Lucknow.

The basic science of radio telegraphy that preceded radio broadcasting was proposed by Nikola Tesla in the 1880s. Tesla built on the discovery of electro-magnetic waves (including radio waves) by Heinrich Hertz and on the theory of electro-magnetic radiation developed by James Maxwell. The famous Indian scientist, Jagdish Chandra Bose, at a public demonstration in Calcutta, showed how millimetre-length microwaves could travel through the human body and through intervening walls to trigger actions wirelessly. These foundational discoveries formed the basis for Guglielmo Marconi’s patented inventions of the first practical radio transmitters and receivers in 1895. Until World War I, this was the predominant use of radio waves, but it switched to sound broadcasting once the development of amplitude modulation (AM) allowed sound to be transmitted consistently.

Beginning in the 1920s, radio stations emerged everywhere from Argentina to Detroit, Amsterdam, Calcutta and Bombay. Till the end of World War II, radio receivers had capacitors, resistors coils and vacuum tubes joined together by wires. With the arrival of semiconductors in the 1950s, Texas Instruments built the first transistor radio using geranium transistors. A tape recorder manufacturer in Japan called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo decided to make small transistor radios. Its first radio, called the TR-55, became an instant sensation. For marketing purposes and to reflect its birth in the sound marketplace and its appeal to youth, the company rechristened itself Sony. In Germany, Grundig released its Boy transistor radio and grew to become one of the world’s most innovative radio brands.

AIR, India’s national public broadcaster, first established in 1936, is currently the largest radio network in the world. It broadcasts in 23 languages, covering 92% of the country’s area and reaching 99% of the total population. Today, Bengaluru is the top consumer of AIR content in India, followed by other metros.

The famous Radio Ceylon came into existence in 1949, having inherited a powerful short- wave radio transmitter set up during World War II by the South-East Asia Command of the Allied Forces. A programme anchored by Ameen Sayani, Binaca Geetmala, which pioneered the commercial broadcast of Hindi cinema songs over radio, became a hit with listeners and advertisers alike. Before the advent of televised cricket series, live match commentary on radio from near and far was the only way for people to participate in the ‘ball-by-ball’ excitement of the game.

Television and the internet have taken a bite out of the relevance of radio in India today. Yet, despite the dramatic increase in TV and smartphone ownership over the last two decades, radio remains the second-most important channel in India today, behind TV but still ahead of internet-based apps. Commercial frequency modulation (FM) channels were allowed to operate from the 1990s and community radio came to life beginning in 2008. Now over 370 community radio stations operate in various districts across the country, with a preponderance of dialects like Bundeli or Marwari, that are not often heard in mainstream radio or other broadcasts.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi uses radio (and the internet) for wide and deep penetration of his weekly Mann Ki Baat talk. But the policy lessons from this access appear to have been forgotten in a country enraptured by the smartphone and app revolution. From a policy perspective, radio should retain importance, particularly for community-based broadcasting, emergency situations and education. It is an omnipresent and cheap medium that is available to the entire population. Data-usage prices in India are among the lowest in the world. This ease of data access has been converting millions of Indians to internet-based entertainment and education. In the long run, data prices will have to normalize, making it unaffordable to many. The number of devices per household is also a contributing factor for access to digital education. Radio not only democratizes access to the poorest households, it does so within a household as well.

For the full promise of radio to be fulfilled, the costs of supply (radio licence fee and set-up costs) and access should be reduced. With the evolution of technology, data and analytics, radio may be able to offer some or all of the personalization of internet apps. This feature may be particularly helpful for community radio and also for education purposes where local language tools must be used to ensure deeper comprehension.

Beating a radio drum in an internet age may seem anachronistic. The visual feed that the internet offers has obvious appeal. However, for the diversity of a country like India, the cost, reach and penetration of radio can make for a very attractive complement to TV and internet-based approaches.

P.S: “TV gives everyone an image. Radio gives birth to a million images in a billion brains," said Peggy Noonan.

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