All India Radio offers its news bulletins to private FM stations for free. They aren’t interested

They find the public service broadcaster’s terms and conditions stifling.

WrittenBy:Veena Nair
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On January 8, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, then minister for information and broadcasting, launched what he described as a “historic” initiative to let private FM networks broadcast All India Radio news bulletins for free. The aim, the government said at the time, was to “educate, empower and inform” a wider section of the citizenry than that reached by the public service broadcaster. 


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Nearly 10 months on, the project seems to have come a cropper. That’s mainly because major private radio networks have found the conditions imposed by Prasar Bharati, which runs AIR, rather unpalatable. 

In all, private FM networks must accept a set of 13 “terms and conditions” to broadcast AIR news bulletins. They must, for one, air the bulletins “in toto”, that is, without modification. They are also required to carry commercials aired during news bulletins “in toto”; give due credit to AIR for sourcing their news; carry the bulletins simultaneously or deferred live by not more than 30 minutes; make arrangements at their own cost for receiving the signals of bulletins and broadcasting them, live or recorded, over their channels; and make all efforts to ensure the quality of the broadcast is not compromised. 

“Most private radio networks realised they wouldn’t be broadcasting news but advertising AIR news,” explained Tapas Sen, chief operating officer at Radio Mirchi. 

Prasar Bharati did not even agree to radio jockeys of private radio networks delivering AIR’s bulletins in their own voice and format, Sen added. “Their rules said it must be an exact copy of Akashvani news, it cannot even be reproduced by private stations.”  

Private radio stations are legally barred from producing news, which is the monopoly of AIR. They have long been demanding to do their own news segments, but the government only agreed to let them carry the public service broadcaster’s bulletins. “This was a long-standing demand of private radio channels and  journalists across the board,” said Ira Joshi, principal director general, AIR. “We have facilitated it free of cost.”  

To carry AIR’s bulletins, private networks had to register online with the public service broadcaster’s News Services Division. India has at least 245 registered private FM broadcasters and all but three of them signed up. 

The project started with a trial period until May 31 which was later extended till September 30. 

None of the private radio networks, however, have been broadcasting AIR bulletins regularly. 

For one, as Sen explained, they found Prasar Bharati’s terms and conditions stifling. Why did they sign up then? “We registered in case we need any news segment in the future,” he replied. “At present we aren’t using any.” 

For the other, a member of the Association of Radio Operators for India, which represents private commercial radio networks, said, “Most of the FM broadcasters realised that they would end up parroting what the government wants to say. This government is very efficient utilising every medium of the dissemination of news for their propaganda. This move is also aimed at that.” 

Nisha Narayanan, chief operating officer and director, Red FM and Magic FM, echoed this view. “It’s said Mussolini would give the people of Italy free radio sets. But they could tune into only one station, the fascist station, which was supposed to be all that they needed. Mussolini’s radio sets had just one big dial that said, ‘radio zone’. Indians have had a radio zone for over 80 years where just one kind of programming is suitable for listeners.” 

In 2017, the Supreme Court put an end to “radio zone”, Narayanan said, referring to the court questioning the government why community and private FM radio stations were not allowed to broadcast news. “The Supreme Court in its landmark judgment ordered the state to see that airwaves are so utilised as to advance the free speech right of the citizens which is served by ensuring plurality and diversity of views, opinions and ideas,” she added.

The government is yet to act on the order, though. “The policymakers should consider replacing old broadcast laws with something that’s less colonial,” Narayanan said.

Some private networks cited procedural reasons for not carrying AIR’s news. “We have a way of presentation at Radio Mirchi. Imagine I am doing a show and suddenly I say, ‘Now you’re going to listen to news from Prasar Bharati’. It will sound way off,” Sen said. 

Red FM, one of the country’s largest private radio networks, did not even register for the project. “The news in ‘as-is format’ doesn’t conform to our programming structure. We do not see any point in repeating AIR news,” said Narayanan. 

Joshi contested this line of argument. “News,” she argued, “is not supposed to be entertaining but factual. We focus on giving appropriate news. We are not in a competition and we do not know how to make a mountain out of a molehill. We’ve reporters giving us bytes from certain places. We’ve evolved. We’re on Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud with a huge number of followers. People have listened to our oldest version and think we are still the same.” 

For private FM radio networks, however, the issue is fundamentally one of discrimination. “People who own these stations also own newspapers and TV channels. It doesn’t make any sense to not allow private radio stations alone not to produce news,” Sen argued. 

Narayanan contended that independent news should be allowed on private FM”. Otherwise, she said, “the same five tunes would be played over and over again”. 

“Private FM stations should be on a level playing field when it comes to radio news. Given the surge in digital media, which is unregulated, conventional media like radio needs government support to grow. Support largely in the form of a more enabling policy, ease of doing business and a level playing field. The lack of support from the government will mean all well for AIR, the public service broadcaster, but it will be a memorial service for private FM players.”

Uday Chawla of the Association of Radio Operators of India said they have been trying for 20 years to obtain permission to do news. “It is a policy issue and All India Radio can’t do anything about it,” he said. “Governments are responsible for not giving the freedom to broadcast news to private radio stations.”

Could the news sharing arrangement with AIR be a step towards allowing private radio networks to produce their own news segments? “I don’t think it’ll lead to complete freedom of broadcasting news for private stations,” Chawla replied. “The government has complete control at the moment and it wouldn’t want to lose that.” 

Chawla added, “Nobody has a clear answer as to why private FMs alone aren’t allowed to broadcast news when private TV channels and newspapers don’t face any such restrictions. Everyone points to the existing policy but no one actually does anything about changing it.”


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