Tuesday, January 10, 2006

79 and still making waves: AIR Chennai.

All India Radio, Chennai is turning 79 this July.GEETA PADMANABHAN talks about how it has reached out to scores of people, bringing them hours of listening pleasure through its varied programmes.

THE YEAR 1987. The height of the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka. In his hastily made bunker, an Indian soldier clings to his pocket transistor for consolation. "Food and water are luxuries here," he wrote to Shanthi Tanikachalam whose voice has launched
a million radio listeners, "but your five-minute news broadcast helps me keep in touch with the world."

"AIR has been my constant companion for the past 20 years," says an 80-year-old former A-Grade artiste. "I switch on Madras A at 7a.m. for general information.
Then on, it is music, news, concerts, plays... My set goes off air only when I am in bed." She would like the Sanskrit slot on Monday afternoons to be extended.

"FM 1's Western music is really cool," smiles Annapurna, about to enter college. "My friends and I are 7 to 11 p.m. addicts." She remembers a blind classmate being very well-informed because of the time he spent listening to AIR. To scores of pushcart
vendors, wayside mechanics, presswallas, cobblers,construction workers, car radio owners, travellers and those who tune in for weather reports, employment news, blood group appeals and missing persons info, the news that AIR is 79 (July 23, 1927 to 2006) comes as a surprise.

"Only 79?" asks a watchman shouting above the film music blaring from his Philips set. "I thought AIR came with the British." Indeed. From air time on a 40 KW assembled Tx (later a Marconi 200 Tx set) heard by a wonderstruck populace on July 31, 1924, to the high-tech transmission through a computer hard disc,the sound waves of Chennai have travelled far into history.

Rao Bahadur C.V. Krishnaswami Chetty, an electrical engineer with the Madras Corporation , DJ and amateur radio enthusiast, organised the Madras Presidency
Radio Club (MPRC), and with help from friends ushered in broadcasting in India precisely two years after the Marconi Co. went on air in England in 1922. The Indian
Broadcasting Company was given broadcasting responsibility and Lord Irwin inaugurated the first radio station in Bombay on July 23, 1927.

In October, the MPRC folded signalling the end of amateur broadcasting. The Tx was gifted to the Corporation of Madras and after two-and-a-half-years of paper pushing, Chennai again made history by airing the first municipal radio broadcasts in the country on April 1, 1930. When it comes to broadcasting, Chennai certainly can give itself airs! The Corporation Radio and later AIR saw broadcasting as a public service. Good music for the public, talks for corporation school students and health programmes were the initial objectives. Rural sanitation, agricultural yield,bee-keeping, women's co-operatives, eradication of untouchability... AIR Chennai (AIRC) has promoted them all.

Rajaji wanted broadcasts in parks as a means to enforce prohibition. Members of `Vadya Vrinda',perhaps AIRC's oldest programme extant, are proud of their heritage. "It is an Indian blend of Hindustani and Carnatic music set to Western rchestration," say the artistes. This ensemble of fine players presents "thematic music where a composer's creativity meets a player's prowess. In concert with the Delhi group, we
have performed at the Mughal Gardens, to foreign delegates, at the Sangeet Natak Academy and played a special composition by Lalgudi Jayaraman for the Millennium Show."

"No other institution does so much to preserve and spread our culture as AIR," they insist. Its archival section is legendary. "Musicians are recognised by the grade AIR awards when they go for public performances. Performing on AIR is a matter of prestige." "For a genuine singer devoted to nurturing art, AIR affords the best forum," says Sita Rajan, who first stepped into the studio in 1958. She compered Radio Anna's (Ra. Ayyasami) Muthukuviyal, took part in G.Karthikeyan's Siruvar Kalai Poonga, M.Y Kama Sastri's recordings of children's songs and Keevalur Subramanya
Pillai's Isaipayirchi. "I always had a part in the Children's Programme AIR organised on November 14 at the Children's Theatre." Her love affair with AIR
continued in college when she lent her voice to radio plays. In 1967, she became a bona fide performer after winning a vocal contest. Grade A came in 1977, and she
has been featured on musicology programmes such as Padalum Porulum and Surabhi. "We artistes believed in AIR's sense of fair play .We had regular contracts and
were recommended for Sangeeth Sammelans. Many performers began their careers here."

The AIRC's pioneering spirit echoes in its state-of-the-art equipment. Its techno-savvy control room would have won a nod from CVK Chetty. Recordings feed directly into the hard disk and can be broadcast repeatedly on all its five channels without
trading-off quality. "We made the software for this," beams Senthur Pandian in charge of the room. "It is advanced and allows no speed variation. Even our portable system is computerised." He recalls how a motor snagged while taping a PM's public speech, and how he simply trailed the tape on the ground and got
the recording going. "No more such problems," he says. You can phone in to book your favourite film/album number on the Dial Radio-on-Demand service of AIR. A friendly voice will tell you when it will be played. If you are news hungry, press 467 1111 on your hand-held and get the latest read out to you in Tamil.

"We had 700 to 800 calls an hour for election results from all over the world," says a newscaster of this computerised service. "People in the Gulf can already listen to Chennai A on TV," says Superintendent Engineer J. Venkatraman, giving a demo of this digital sky radio link via satellite. "Your cable TV operator can download the station and beam it to you." How does AIR gauge its popularity? "Through interaction with listeners for one," says Deputy Director General, B.R. Kumar. "In May, our mail box received nearly 13,000 letters. Our FM programmes (film music/talkshow/phone-in) are a rage. There has been a 20 per cent growth in our ad revenues and AIRC exceeded the target for 2001. The total annual earning from sponsored slots has touched Rs. two crores. In the suburbs, you'll hear AIR broadcasts in every street in the afternoons. People listen to the radio commentary while watching cricket matches in the stadium.

"We know people are listening when we make a mistake. A music aficionado called in from Besant Nagar to complain that an Uthukkadu Venkatasubbaiar song was attributed to someone else even before the programme got over."

"No other station has eight daily hours of interactive programmes," says Kamalakkannan of the hugely popular Thiraimalai. Call us at 498 3830 and 498 5725 to rap with your favourite stars on our chat show."

"BBC, HBO, Sony, 10 Sports, all advertise on radio," says Srinivasa Raghavan, who heads the Vividh Bharati section. "Star Vijay and KTV did a month-long campaign
on AIR before their launch. Private channels advertise their popular programmes on AIR. Apollo Hospitals give health tips to listeners twice a week. These people
will not pay for broadcasting time unless they are sure of its reach."

"We bring you details of State Government schemes along with ads from undertakings like the Power Finance Corporation," adds Kumar.

"An advertiser can zoom in on a limited audience through our district level radio stations. Our ads are clean and without gender bias. AIR news is authentic,
balanced and devoid of shrill overtones. It is a tradition we are proud of."

But veteran listeners worry over AIRC allowing ads on all its channels, and veteran artistes mourn the diminishing opportunities to perform.

"Prasar Bharathi has slashed fund allotment by 50 per cent," says R. alasubramanyam, Deputy Director,Co-ordination. "We have to earn, grow and pay artistes better compensation. Which other medium finds a slot for Gandhi Anjali? Our sponsor time is negligible. As for the artistes we are under no obligation unless they are on the staff."

A study on FM channels (under K. K. Sundaram, Deputy Director, Audience Research Cell), done between October 2001 and January 2002, shows their increasing
popularity. But this is a film-based reality. Can AIRC go back to being a truly public service?

A panel of 20 eminent people has recommended younger programmers, cross-media publicity, information from the Internet, storytelling (folklore, sci-fi),interviews with visiting experts in all fields, reports on outdoor occurrences, inviting ordinary people to write for productions and airing stage plays among other things to mark up AIR schedules. AIRC, no doubt, is listening.

AIR Chennai Broadcast timings in Short Wave:

4920 KHz 50 kw 0015-0245 utc, 1200-1736 utc
7160 KHz 50 kw 0300-0400[Hol 0445/Sun 0530],
0710 [Hol 0610, Sat/Sun 0630]-0930 [Sun 1130]
7270 KHz 100 kw 0025-0430, 0700-1330, 1430

AIR Chennai Broadcast in Medium Wave:

720 KHz Chennai A 200 kw
783 KHz Chennai C 20 kw
1017 KHz Chennai B 20 kw

AIR Chennai Broadcast in FM:

105.0 MHz FM Gold 5 Kw
107.1 MHz FM Rainbow 10 Kw

For Contact AIR Chennai:
All India Radio,
Kamarajar Raod,
Phone: +91 44 2498 5252,
Fax: +91 44 2638 3204,

Transmitter site address:
All India Radio,
High Power Transmitter Site,
Chennai-600 062,
Tamil Nadu,
Tel/Fax: +91 44 2638 3204,
E-Mail: airavadi@md5.vsnl.net.in

Photo Note:

East Nook — The building where the studios of AIR
Madras were originally located from June 1938 to July
1953 when AIR Madras' own studios were built in
Mylapore overlooking the sea. The East Nook no longer
exists. A multi-storeyed cement concrete structure has
come up there. — A file photo from The Hindu.

Compiled with the help of The Hindu by.
Jaisakthivel.T, Editor, Dxers Guide,
President of Ardic Dx Club,

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