Private FM channels shoot themselves in the foot by not broadcasting All India Radio news bulletins

Demonising the bulletins as propaganda shows a poor understanding of people and their intellect.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Being uninformed in an information age isn’t just a snappy expression. It’s increasingly become an ironic reality amid the rapid expansion of news media in India in the last three decades. 


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Nowhere is this as clear as it is in the news broadcast media. The feeling of being uninformed often comes when measured against the lingering sense of the hierarchy of information. In many ways, the failures of an assumed sense of the “interesting” in broadcasting, which sought to replace the information order, has only reinforced the relevance of good old news bulletins. 

This explains why All India Radio’s news bulletin — ranging from hourly five-minute updates to longer 15-minute round-ups in the morning, afternoon and evening — is still a ready reckoner for the daily news for millions of Indians. As a news product, it has no replacement. Seven years ago, in a piece for this site, I had argued that, along with other factors, it’s the information-deficit in the primetime slots in TV news media that made AIR bulletins one of the few options available to glean a quick sense of the key news developments around you. The view needs no revision till date.

It’s in this context that the reluctance of private FM channels to use the AIR news feed is flawed in its assumptions and a listener’s loss in its outcome. It should be remembered that there is a separate and valid case for the entry of private players into the radio news segment. However, till that happens, the reasoning to avoid AIR content seems ill-thought and reeks of empty rhetoric.

First, there is the clichéd objection to “parroting government lines” while using the AIR news service. While that’s true for public broadcasting in India, that doesn’t kill the news value of AIR bulletins. Akashvani Bhawan relies on the official version of news developments which entails the presentation of facts, figures and events in a frame that’s verified by government sources. Even if one views the government’s dissemination of information through the lens of vested interests, one can’t rule out its position as the authentic source for a lot of public information it chooses to share. 

For instance, for a large section of young people appearing for competitive examinations across the country, an AIR or Doordarshan bulletin is a far more reliable source of information than a “news programme” — if you can even call them that — on one of the numerous news channels in India’s broadcasting scene. That’s the utilitarian value of public authority-vetted reliability that AIR brings to its bulletins for a section of news consumers.

Second, at the heart of it, information can have a life beyond a pro- or anti-establishment binary. This is something that many journalists, mostly with romantic anti-establishment views of their profession, fail to understand. However, a large section of news consumers aren’t confined to such ideological blinkers. Even if they know Doordarshan was a “humme dekhna hai” platform for Rajiv Gandhi in the Eighties and that AIR provides reach for Narendra Modi’s “Mann Ki Baat”, AIR’s news bulletins are most likely to give them the sense of an informed soul. 

From the state budget in Telangana or Tripura to elections in Argentina or Nigeria, from the latest Sahitya Akademi event to the outcome of a Santosh Trophy match — AIR news wraps it all up for you. It has a pecking order of information, steeped in an old-fashioned  view of newsworthiness, that still matters. The governmental control over its news production — which has an impressive network of correspondents in different corners of the country, and some abroad too — doesn’t take away from the range of information it offers.

Third, the idea that carrying government advertisements, as relayed by AIR during bulletin breaks, makes private FM channels complicit in propaganda shows a poor understanding of political communication in a democratic polity. In propagation and public education about its policies and programmes, governments need instruments for communication. Radio is one of them, along with advertisements in print, TV or even large roadside hoardings. 

In a political system, such as a democratic set-up as envisaged by David Easton, governments don’t only need to formulate policies and programmes but use resources to communicate it — a process which even political communication theorists like Almond and Powell would approve of. People listening about Ayushman Yojna now, or Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan at the beginning of this century, or Jawahar Rojgar Yojna in the 1980s, on radios at a roadside eatery or hair-cutting saloon become a part of that communication process. Demonising it as the march of the Leviathan isn’t only alarmist but shows poor understanding of people’s intelligence. 

When juxtaposed against debate-driven primetime news shows on other broadcast platforms, or the “exclusives” that eat into the time for daily news on primetime, AIR scores for sheer information value and aggregator value of news already gathered. It’s not in the space of breaking news stories or investigating or following leads — functions that are more journalistic in nature but which don’t essentially make for a general news round-up package.

No wonder the importance of bulletins as a news product, very much a strong part of AIR’s news service, has of late been realised by digital news properties. The daily news round-up has become a part of what they offer to their readers or subscribers. 

However, there is a difference in how AIR does it and how other news outlets do it or seek to do it. In that probably lies the answer to why AIR isn’t interested in letting private FM channels adopt their own styles to deliver the AIR feed. The public broadcaster places a premium on the responsibility, seemingly a shorthand for seriousness, in how news is presented. There is a danger of that being a casualty, given the light-hearted flavour of programming on private FM channels in general. That’s perhaps a problem one can see wherever news is handled with frivolity on digital platforms as well. People tend to identify responsible news delivery with seriousness of tone, mannerisms and  conservative wording of content. 

One reason for this could be that news delivery can be added to a list of professions where a casual approach might be seen as a risk to not only the serious business of information consumption but its delivery too. News providers can be added to the list of professionals with whom serious demeanor and tone become part of what’s expected of them in process of credible delivery. Banking, diplomacy and even defence could be seen in the same frame. 

A case in point is how Shiv Shankar Menon, former foreign secretary and national security advisor, explained his theory on this aspect of human psyche. In December 2013, while addressing the 2013 batch of Indian Foreign Service probationers, Menon argued : 

“I have a theory about why diplomats,soldiers and bankers dress so conservatively,each in their own uniforms. Notice how the more an occupation deals with risk,the more uniform their dress is? A soldier risks his life,the banker risks your money,and the diplomat deals with the risks of war and peace. It is in order to convey the assurance that they know what they are doing,to reassure society,the client or the interlocutor that these professions dress in what amounts to a uniform. And it seems to work.”

Fourth, while AIR news is available on its own FM channel, FM Gold, it’s through its national network and regional stations that AIR news, available in many languages, became a habit for generations of news consumers in the country. In extending a voluntary relay option to private FM channels, AIR is hoping to reach listeners who might not be changing their music channels. If a vague alarm about something imagined to be insidious deprives this section of listeners of their slice of news around, they have probably tuned into the wrong channel. A bit of Akashvani is not the dreadful voice that dystopian theorists are shielding them from.

While old-timers revisit their good old news habit of tuning into AIR, AIR can wait for those who aren’t listening. It may find a way to their ears — with or without private FM channels.

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