The fear of news tailored by private players is a surprise in the internet age. If news websites, run by any entity, can reach out to everyone, why not radio, asks Nivedita Mookerji.
It may have passed as a routine news report, but it's extraordinary that after almost two decades of privatisation, FM radio in the country will get to broadcast news.
It's even more extraordinary that it will get to broadcast only All India Radio (AIR) news without any alteration. This is not an overnight decision, nor is it an arbitrary call taken by the Narendra Modi government.
It was under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that a full-blown FM radio privatisation policy was formulated and 108 FM frequencies across India went under the hammer.
Between 1993, till when AIR was the only radio broadcaster in India, and 2001, when the first private FM radio station (Radio City in what was then Bangalore) was launched, privatisation meant selling airtime blocks on State-owned FM stations to private operators.
The 21st century opened with a big promise of good radio when the Vajpayee government announced a mega auction of frequencies.
But after rounds of ambitious bidding by private players, years of tough business for many and several shutdowns and takeovers, we are left with close to 400 private FM stations across more than 100 cities and towns, belting out non-stop chatter interspersed with a mix of good and bad music, mostly ‘filmy’.
These stations can hardly be faulted for the content they offer. Reason: News, which has been a backbone of FM radio in the US and other Western countries, was a bad word when we set out on the big privatisation drive in 2000, and it still is.
Government after government, irrespective of whether it’s the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance or Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, has handled news on private FM radio with the same level of caution.
Various governments have toyed with suggestions to find a middle ground -- allow only sports and weather bulletins of very short duration, current affairs of a certain kind may be fine, talk shows referring to non-political news could be considered, and so on... Then came a proposal that private FM stations may be allowed to broadcast AIR news in an unaltered form.
That was years ago, and finally now AIR is ready with the news capsules to share with private FM radio stations. Information and broadcasting minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said the move would empower citizens. Really?
The readymade news bulletin from the stable of public sector broadcaster AIR may not be the best form of news to be consumed by citizens across the country on private FM.
The objectives of private FM were to make quality programmes with a localised flavour in terms of content and relevance and to encourage new talent and generate employment opportunities directly and indirectly, as a former I&B official described it.
This was also meant to supplement the services of AIR, according to the official. Using readymade news bulletins from AIR will not meet any of those objectives.
From the government perspective though this is excellent timing to allow private FM radio stations to use AIR news.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the State-run broadcaster will be on an overdrive to put across the government’s message to the masses. What can be better than private FM radio to transmit the same message.
Whether you are a professional driving to work in a city or a farmer working in the fields, the radio will be at work. There will be localised news also catering to the FM audience spread over shorter distances, but everything will come from AIR.
The fear of news tailored by private players is a surprise in the internet age. If news websites, run by any entity, can reach out to everyone, why not radio?
The argument often is websites are accessed by a more educated class, compared to many of those listening to radio. So, it may be easier to influence radio audience than somebody watching TV or reading news on a website, according to the argument, which has no credibility.
More than anything else, when Twitter and WhatsApp spread news, fake or otherwise, more rapidly than any other platform, the inhibition about radio news is tough to figure out.
In fact, even in the latest announcement that the government has made on permitting AIR news on private FM radio stations, there's a caveat. That is, private FM broadcasters may avoid broadcasting in disturbed or border and Naxalism affected areas.
What is left unsaid is that some news may result in volatile riot-like situations, and so let there be news-less islands across the country.
It has taken decades for India to allow news on private radio, even if it’s AIR tailored content; it will take several more years to let private FM radio to have their own news.