In a “historic” move, the arrangement of news-sharing between All India Radio (AIR) and private FM channels was announced at the National Media Centre in New Delhi. This landmark arrangement is the first time in nearly 80 years that private FM channels have been allowed to broadcast the news.
Private FM channels will have to directly pick up news bulletins from AIR and broadcast them in an “unaltered” format, within 30 minutes of the bulletin’s original broadcast time. While the government and Prasar Bharati claim that now each and every citizen would be informed and kept abreast with the nation’s current affairs, this move will also boost the reach of AIR’s news bulletins.
The news-sharing arrangement will be done on a trial basis until May 31, 2019—roughly around the time when the 2019 general election and its activities will presumably come to an end. With radio news being in sole control of AIR—and by default the government—this medium could be a self-serving tool for governments in power.
‘AIR has always toed the government line’
In January 2018, the government had stated that as much as 65 per cent of India’s population would soon be able to tune into FM radio networks. That’s approximately 87 crore people. This announcement came from none other than the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, who also said that the government had taken “a number of initiatives for expanding the FM radio network across the country”. An article in The Times of India said Indian Internet users would reach the 500 million mark by June 2018—just a fraction of what the government estimates the radio’s reach to be.
An ex-employee, who was part of AIR’s newsroom for over 20 years, told Newslaundry the news-sharing arrangement is definitely a pre-election stunt. “Of course it is. What’s been broadcast on AIR (the news) for so long will now also be available on big FM channels in metros and cities, thereby expanding the news bulletins’ reach. By default, young people—who tune into the radio for western music—will be able to listen to AIR’s news.”
The ex-employee explains that the news’ reach will increase because it’s going to people who weren’t listening to it before—but it’s still the same news available to them on AIR. “What plus point can this have? AIR has always toed the government line—that is a fact. This particular move is to only increase their audience base.”
The ex-employee says three months into their job at AIR, the Babri Masjid demolition took place. The ex-employee was given the task of putting together the “press comments” section of the bulletin—a 3.5-minute segment which collates important things covered in major newspapers. “That day’s editor asked me to put it together, but my senior stood up and asked the editor how he could give such sensitive responsibility to someone who was so new. He (the senior) said that I would report the news as I saw it in the newspapers which, according to him, wasn’t how they did things at AIR. He then put together the press comments section himself. But now I realise that all he was trying to do was protect me because if I had reported the events as it was in the newspapers, I would have probably lost my job early in my career.”
The ex-employee adds, “We reported on Babri Masjid that day—but we didn’t even utter the words ‘Babri Masjid’ on air. Till date, we refer to it as a ‘vivaadit dhaancha’ meaning ‘disputed site’.”
If the aim of the “news-sharing” is to make people aware of various schemes, this already happens—AIR is vastly listened to by people in small towns and remote villages without access to private FM channels. The ex-employee says, “With private FM channels now being able to broadcast AIR’s news bulletins—without even putting a comma or a full stop and with the added obligation of reproducing it verbatim—it is an exercise at getting sarkaari news to reach more people who listen to other FM channels apart from AIR. Modi wants you to listen to the news that is controlled by him and wants it to reach you not only through AIR and DD but also through private FM channels.”
AIR’s ‘version’ of the news
Newslaundry spoke to a former AIR newsreader who worked there for 27 years. The ex-newsreader describes themselves as a “radio child” whose father was also an AIR employee, and says the current news-sharing scheme is being done for revenue. “Without payment, no one is going to work. The proposal to share news with private FM channels has been made before also, but it was rejected at the time because AIR’s stance when it comes to news is very … different. Once the news-sharing is monetised by AIR, they will be able to generate revenue by simply sharing what is their own government propaganda.”
The former newsreader also describes how a typical news bulletin rundown is decided and what goes into its making. “What goes in the bulletin depends on the bulletin editor, in consultation with the person in charge of pull notifications. You have a whole set of people for this purpose—there are field publicists and audience research systems which research the audience of every area and decide who is listening to what show and at what time.”
For example, 6 am bulletins are heard mostly by farmers, whereas women mainly tune into afternoon shows. “At 5 pm, the programming is done keeping in mind that children from school have just come back. After 7 pm, the programming is done keeping in mind that people are unwinding, probably listening to the radio while smoking hookahs in their verandahs. There is proper research that goes into it—it is not done at random.”
The former newsreader adds: “If we do not promote government policies, then who will? Jio won’t and neither will Anil Ambani’s channel. It totally depends on your I&B minister…”
Another AIR broadcaster who has been with AIR’s FM Gold channel for the past 17 years as a casual/contractual employee says: “What will come out of private FM channels will basically be AIR’s version of the news. AIR is still in control of the dissemination of radio news. They are no longer interested in programming—that’s why so many regional channels and stations are being shut down. They are now promoting news because they know that the news can help them. Since AIR is the mouthpiece of the government, they will give the news in their favour. After all, programming is just entertainment.”
All three sources agree that AIR has always been “pro-government”, irrespective of which party was at the Centre. “At the time of Rajiv Gandhi, a child reciting poetry on air had said ‘galli galli mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai’. The director of AIR at the time was sacked after this. This is why the government has never granted autonomy to DD or AIR so that they can control the dissemination of radio news.”
Listening in to some of AIR’s news broadcast, Narendra Modi-related news does often take precedence. For example, its December 27 afternoon bulletin was devoted to a rally the prime minister was addressing in Dharamshala on occasion of the one-year anniversary of the Himachal Pradesh government. What the bulletin missed, however, was that on the morning of December 27, 35 students—who were on their way to attend Modi’s rally in Dharamshala—were injured in a mishap when their school bus overturned in Jawali sub-division of Himachal’s Kangra district. No mention of this was made on AIR.
Similarly, on December 29, the news bulletins opened with reports on Narendra Modi’s visit to Ghaziapur where he laid the foundation stone of a medical college, addressed a public meeting, and release a commemorative stamp. This was the day that four Jammu & Kashmir terrorists were gunned down in Pulwama district, but Modi’s news came first.
Each news bulletin also ends with a reminder to listeners to download the AIR app on their smartphones and follow them on Twitter. It should be noted that push notifications sent out from the app are mostly always about what Modi said or did, or where he was and what he inaugurated.
An example of the push notifications from the AIR app.
Sundays at AIR are usually taken over by the Prime Minister’s Mann Ki Baat, which is also broadcast in regional languages immediately after the original Hindi programme. The news bulletin immediately following the programme is often a summary of Mann Ki Baat itself, with almost no new information added.
Given this state of affairs, it comes as no surprise that AIR’s former employees reiterate that this “news-sharing” exercise with private FM channels is hardly likely to change things. If anything, it will serve to amplify the government’s voice—but in the private space.