We need to collectively reimagine All India Radio as an independent public service broadcaster.
As All India Radio (AIR) enters its platinum jubilee, it is worth reflecting on this national institution of inestimable worth that has fallen on bad times. In spite of the great changes in the Indian radio landscape, AIR remains a force to reckon with, given its 376 stations, its unrivalled coverage of more than 90% of the country, and broadcasts in 23 languages and 146 dialects.
Nonetheless, AIR remains a deeply paradoxical institution. On the one hand, it offers a truly national service that, to borrow from the old Heineken ad, reaches parts of the country other broadcasters don't. AIR's sound archives – consisting of both north and south Indian classical music and the spoken word – offer a unique memory of music traditions and styles and a repository of the political history of the nation, including recordings by Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, Gandhi, Jinnah and other national figures. The digitisation of these archives at a central level as well as in the regional centres is an ongoing project. On 25 March 2013, for instance, AIR's Akashvani Sangeet released five CDs of the Hindustani vocalist Pt Mallikarjun Mansur, from its 11,000-hour repository of music that includes 1,000 hours of Carnatic music.
AIR has extensive experience of rural and farm broadcasting, with programmes on land and water conservation, sustainable agriculture, biotechnology, integrated pest management for crops, crop insurance schemes, environment protection and disaster management, which have benefited scores of farmers in the country. AIR has played a critical role during natural disasters, most recently during the floods in Uttarakhand. Both AIR's FM radio Rainbow and the station in Najibabad helped relay information that was vital to the rescue operations. It played a similar role during the cyclone in Odisha and the tsunami that struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, both in 1999, as well as in the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, and the Kosi floods in Bihar in 2008. Also noteworthy is its example as a community broadcaster – consider, for example, Radio Ujjas, which is broadcast from the Bhuj and Rajkot AIR stations – and the commercially successful Vividh Bharati. All this does suggest that there is much that AIR offers.
On the other hand, however, on the very same day that AIR released the music CDs of Pt Mallikarjun Mansur, the president of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, announced the establishment of an AIR studio in Rae Bareli, her parliamentary constituency. The relationship between electoral politics and broadcasting in India is, of course, not new, given that during the dark days of the Emergency, AIR became a propaganda mouthpiece for Indira Gandhi, earning the sobriquet "All Indira Radio", and a decade later, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, commanded the over-hasty expansion of broadcasting ahead of the 1989 elections. The late V C Shukla, who was union minister of information and broadcasting during the Emergency, once banned Kishore Kumar songs from being played on AIR and Doordarshan because he had refused to sing at a Congress event in Mumbai. The fact that Rajiv Gandhi heard of the assassination of his mother from a report by the BBC correspondent Satish Jacob, a full five hours before it was announced on AIR, is a reflection of the fact that politics and political expediency have shaped the development of public broadcasting in the country.