On Tuesday, January 8, Information and Broadcasting minister Rajyavardhan Rathore announced a news sharing initiative between All India Radio and private FM channels—a demand first made by private FM channels in 1936. Up until now, AIR, India’s national public radio broadcaster, has had dibs on radio news.
At a launch event organised at Delhi’s National Media Centre, Rathore, in the presence of top officials of AIR and Prasar Bharati, announced that AIR would now be sharing its news content with private FM channels. In effect, the News Services Division of All India Radio will permit private FM channels to carry its English and Hindi news bulletins “in an unaltered form” and “as per certain terms and conditions”. The private FM channels will be allowed to carry AIR news content free of cost—and on a trial basis—upto May 31, 2019, after which further course of collaboration will be decided.
Since Independence, private FM channels have not been granted permission to reproduce AIR news bulletins—let alone produce fresh news content. This has been a strategy implemented by various governments. With radio’s unparalleled reach, such monopoly ensures the government’s control over the dissemination of radio news.
Notably, while the government is allowing news sharing, private FM channels still won’t be able to produce fresh news content. The announcement only allows them to reproduce AIR news bulletins verbatim. In addition, private FM channels will have to broadcast each reproduced bulletin with no more than a 30-minute delay.
Reproduction of Prasar Bharati news content on private FM channels can be a cause of concern as the national broadcaster is seen to be in the state’s favour. Some would even go as far to say that AIR has, since Independence, been the ruling government’s mouthpiece. But more importantly, the question that must be addressed is whether this is a first—strategic but subtle—step taken by the Modi government during an election year, to disseminate its message via private FM channels?
“This (collaboration) empowers each and every citizen. After all, the most important thing that democracy needs is for its citizens to be aware and well-informed,” said Rathore. He said the demand for AIR news to be carried on private FM channels had been a long-sought demand from both parties. It had finally come to fruition thanks to the vision and perseverance of AIR and Prasar Bharati. “The first priority for Prasar Bharati is to create awareness. Revenue generation comes second,” said the minister. “For now, we have made this available free of cost so that there is no delay and so that citizens of the country can be reached through the news.” Rathore also said that one should not view this collaboration as a “my team versus your team” situation and that the coming together of private FM channels and AIR is “very important for our democracy tomorrow”.
All said and done, the terms and conditions under which this collaboration has taken place raise some questions. For starters, why implement the news sharing between private FM channels and AIR on a free and trial basis only till May 31—roughly the time around which the 2019 Lok Sabha election and its peripheral activities will come to an end?
Moreover, news sharing is also subject to certain terms and conditions. During this trial period, private FM broadcasters “may avoid broadcasting in disturbed/border and Naxal areas”. Apart from this, private FM channels that wish to broadcast AIR’s news bulletins will first have to register with AIR’s News Services Division on their website. The AIR news bulletins will have to be carried in toto, “in an unaltered form,” and even the commercials which are broadcast during news bulletins will have to be carried along with the news in toto. Private FM broadcasters will have to give due credit to AIR for sourcing their news and will have to carry AIR news bulletins—either simultaneously or deferred live by not more than 30 minutes. “In case of deferred live, an announcement should precede that it is a deferred live broadcast,” said AIR. “Broadcast of AIR news by any FM radio channel can be done only after accepting the terms and conditions.”
Private FM channels will also have to submit a monthly report by the fifth of every month containing a tally of the total number of times a particular news bulletin was broadcast. In case any of these terms and conditions are violated, “appropriate action will be taken”.
“This has been our demand since 1936 and has now finally been fulfilled,” said Anuradha Prasad, president, Association of Radio Operators for India. She added, “We will try our best to adhere to terms and conditions.”
Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether news bulletins on private FM channels is a boon to democracy, or a subtle election stunt employed by the Modi government to increase its public outreach.