Democratise Radio News in India

Mochish KS (mochish@flame.edu.in ) teaches Media Studies at FLAME University, Pune.
20 July 2022

News and current affairs programmes on radio are vital for the future of any democracy. However, India could be the only democracy in the world where the government still controls news on private radio channels. The government’s control over the program content on radio is a major obstacle to achieving an independent media ecosystem. Similarly, the lack of information-related programme content on these platforms could make private FM radio an outdated medium in the years to come. This paper attempts to understand the importance of democratising radio news in India.  Further, it also offers an understanding of the discussions on radio news in India and the need for news and current affairs programmes on private FM radio.

Introduction

Media in India has experienced a radical transformation in the past few decades.  The rapid technological changes and newly emerged ownership patterns in the media system since liberalisation have radically impacted our interactions with the media. At the same time, it has also impacted all aspects of media, from its production to distribution. The arrival of digital technologies propelled the emergence of numerous social media platforms, which have redefined the content, structure, and accessibility of traditional media across societies worldwide. However, private FM radio channels in India are still not allowed to broadcast news and current affairs programs independently. Independent international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (2019), in their analysis of the media ownership in India, stated that India could be the only democracy in the world where the government still control news on private radio channels.
Initial decades after independence had witnessed a steady growth in the popularity of Radio in India.  The policymakers believed that radio and television could play a significant role in shaping the imagination of the young nation. The development trajectory of newspapers and Radio in India have been alike because both have a strong colonial legacy. The first regular Radio service was inaugurated in India by the Indian Broadcasting Company (IBC) with the opening of the Bombay station on July 23, 1927 (Kumar 2003). Since then, Radio broadcasting has remained a monopoly of the governments that ruled India. They maintain tight control over news and current affairs programmes on these platforms.  The "government-controlled" All India Radio (AIR) has been the only player with the license to broadcast news and current affairs programs in an independent India.  This has heavily impacted the growth trajectory of Radio broadcasting in India. The attitude of the policymakers has also influenced the development of Radio as a tool for free speech and debate compared to other liberal democracies.  
The various committees appointed by the union governments to review broadcasting have unwrapped many structural issues faced by Radio broadcasting in India. A close reading of these committee reports indicates innumerable challenges broadcasting faces due to government control.  The prominent one was the Chanda Committee of 1964, set up by the union government to evaluate various aspects of broadcasting in India. The committee argued that “centralisation and bureaucratisation were resulting in an improper selection of talent, curbing of staff enterprise for adventurous programmes, inadequate remuneration to artists, and indifference in content, quality, and presentation of programs" (Kumar 2003).

Radio Landscape in India

Radio broadcasting underwent a radical transformation in the early 2000s.  This was the result of the privatisation of FM broadcasting. The landmark Supreme Court verdict on airways and the government’s economic liberalisation policies have enabled private FM Radio stations in India. Since then, FM channels are only allowed to broadcast entertainment content, especially music. Currently, India is one of the largest private Radio markets globally.  According to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (2021), around 384 private FM Radio and 338 Community Radio channels were operational in India on 29 and 30 November 2021, respectively.  These numbers reflect the media diversity in India.  Various business and media organisations own most of the private FM Radio stations.  
RSF (2019) mentioned that an overwhelming 99% of the country’s population has access to Radio, which can be explained by its low costs of acquisition, its portable character, and the fact that it is a medium that also reaches areas with less literacy rate. Various channels of AIR enjoyed wide popularity among the rural population. For decades AIR delivered news and current affairs content to remote geographical locations that television and newspapers could not reach. The rapid technological changes in the digital media landscape and the rigid programming pattern of FM Radio have raised issues related to the future of Radio in India.
However, what is concerning here is the government’s control over the programme content on these platforms. This is a significant obstacle to achieving free and fair, independent media, which is instrumental for a democracy to function.  Also, this can be termed an attempt by various governments to influence public opinion in their favour. The governments have used their authority multiple times to control the programme content on Radio directly.  Ban on film songs on the Radio in 1952 is a case in point (Iyengar 2018). The Information and Broadcasting Ministry, headed by B V Keskar, found that the songs were vulgar and far too Westernised and might alter a young nation's cultural fabric.
The ban of film songs on AIR has resulted in the rise of popularity of Radio Ceylon among the Radio listeners in India.  Radio Ceylon became the favourite entertainment choice among Radio listening households in India between 1950 to 1970.  Menon (2019) opined that Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala and Mayilvaganam’s soothing voice in Jaffna Tamil had become fixtures of domestic leisure across swathes of the sub-continent.  AIR’s rivalry with Radio Ceylon and the establishment of the Vividh Bharati channel in 1967 to counter the popularity of Radio Ceylon are well documented in the history of broadcasting in India.

Government Control and the Question of Free Speech

Various civil society organisations and free speech activists have raised the issue of news on private Radio in the past few decades.  In 2013 the Supreme Court of India issued a notice to the government. This resulted from public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Common Cause challenging the government’s monopoly on Radio news. “The PIL has challenged the validity of the provisions of the policy guidelines and the grant of permission agreements framed by the government, prohibiting private FM Radio and Community Radio stations from broadcasting their news and current affairs programs on the same footing as television and print media” (Sinha 2013).
In 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court saying that allowing news on private FM Radio would pose a security threat to the country (Nair 2017).  It further said, “several anti-national radical elements within the country and from abroad could misuse it to propagate their agenda.”  The government also told the Court that there is no mechanism to monitor the content put out by the platforms. These arguments raise questions about the government’s willingness to facilitate free and independent media.  The government monopoly has turned the Radio in India into a propaganda machine for various governments that ruled the country.
The ruling establishment’s fear of allowing dissent and debates in a democracy is evident in its approach towards Radio news. Diversity of opinion and its reach to a large majority of the population is always a worrying factor for governments with authoritarian tendencies. The latest Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Without Borders (2022) positions India at 150 out of 180 countries. According to RSF, the significant reasons behind the sharp decline of India’s press freedom are politically partisan media, the safety of journalists, the concentration of media ownership, etc. Allowing political news and current affairs programmes on community radio and private FM could be a possible solution to decentralise the existing media structure. It is also the best remedy to protect the plurality of opinion and media diversity which are crucial to sustaining a healthy democracy.
Moreover, the government’s view raises the issue of the same content level freedom on different media platforms. India's television, print, and digital platforms enjoy the freedom to publish news and analysis. More than half of India's total private television channels are 24-hour news channels.  These channels are allowed to run news and current affairs programmes. In the case of television, the government closely monitors the content and operations of over 900 private television channels in the country.  However, the 2017 affidavit to the Supreme Court spells out the government’s inability to monitor news on the Radio.  This government argument was superficial and came out as an attempt to protect its monopoly over one of the most popular mass mediums ever invented. Additionally, broadcast media work under a strict code of conduct in India. The recent controversies related to the ban on various news television channels exemplify the government’s tight grip on this matter.
Further, denying permission to broadcast news directly violates the 1995 judgment of the Supreme Court on airwaves. The Supreme Court argued that “airwaves were public property to be used to promote the public good and express a plurality of views, opinions, and ideas.” According to the judgment, “the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution includes the right to acquire and disseminate information. Further right to disseminate includes the right to communicate through any media: print, electronic or audio-visual” (Common Cause 2013).
The digital revolution is a reality, resulting in umpteen online media platforms. The free flow of information is considered one of the characteristics of the internet age.  However, the government still wants to control Radio news in India. The communication with the Supreme Court at various points of time in this matter brings out its position and concern.  Allowing community radio to operate was a significant decision in this direction. However, community radio in India is also not allowed to broadcast news and current affairs programmes, especially political news.
In an unconventional move in 2019, the Government of India allowed FM Radio channels to carry news bulletins from AIR (Bansal 2019). This move clearly illustrates the government’s efforts to continue its control over Radio news in India.  Most FM channels were unwilling to accept the government’s terms and conditions to carry AIR news on their platforms. Independent private media should not be forced to take the content created by ‘government-controlled’ media organisations like AIR. These efforts can be an obstacle in diversifying media content in a democracy.  Reading this and the decline of public broadcasting worldwide is essential. Public broadcasting faces numerable challenges like government interference, use of obsolete technology, skewed revenue models, etc.  
The only way to ensure diversity in the media landscape is by democratising the ownership pattern. This move can bring more platforms to the media landscape owned and operated by diverse people. However, it is also essential to guarantee content diversity on these platforms to celebrate media diversity. Especially political news and current affairs programmes on community radio can neutralise the effect of the corporate media’s vested interests in the contemporary age.
Most Radio stations provide minimal updates on traffic, sports, weather, etc., to their listeners. Urban-based private FM Radio channels focusing on music content often deliver these updates to their listeners.  Community radio stations from remote areas of the country also inform their audience about local events, sudden weather changes, etc. This brings us back to the discussion about the type of news allowed on broadcast mediums like Radio. It must be noted that governments are not ready to allow political news updates on these platforms.
Government control of AIR and its nature of news always has been controversial. It has failed to work as an independent media entity since independence. AIR has always been seen as a government propaganda medium in India. Historically, AIR had been unable to take independent positions from those of the government in power and ruling political parties. The 1995 Supreme Court verdict generated a lot of hope about the possible diversity and democratisation of Radio news in India. However, 27 years after that landmark verdict, the government has not taken a favourable decision to allow news and current affairs programmes on private FM Radio channels in India.

Turbulent growth trajectory

Radio in India has had a bumpy growth trajectory compared to other dominant mass mediums. From the popular communication medium in the early decades of independence, it lost its relevance after the expansion of private television in India.   However, the arrival of private FM Radio provided a second chance for Radio in the country’s media landscape. The vast number of private FM channels shows its popularity, especially in urban centres. However, changing technological landscapes pose newer threats to Radio broadcasting in a country like India.
FM channels' current music-based programme content has been encountering enormous challenges recently. Mobile-based digital apps pose an existential threat to India's traditional FM Radio market.  Specifically, music apps' popularity is indeed competing with the music-based FM programme content. In this context, it is also essential to diversify the programme content of FM channels for a healthy revenue model.  News, current affairs programmes, and sports will keep the private FM channels alive in our media market. Also, it will help FM Radio to widen its audience base, which is vital to attract more revenue.  
History shows a medium like Radio can sustain only with a combination of information and entertainment aspects in its programme content. The lack of information-related programme content on these platforms could make private FM Radio an outdated medium in the years to come. A medium like Radio requires constant engagement with the people’s issues to stay relevant amongst its users. Community Radio and private FM channels have the potential to redefine media’s engagement with the locals. The existing centralised media ecosystem often excludes the issues and aspirations of the vast majority of the population. The presence of these platforms could open up a new era of media’s inclusive representation.
Using colonial laws to run media in modern democracy is a severe concern. Most broadcasting-related decisions are made based on the Telegraph Act of 1885.  This generates serious issues with how we engage with free speech and debate in a democracy. The Supreme Court rightly pointed this out in 1995, “Indian broadcasting was being governed by archaic laws. The Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 was meant for a different purpose altogether. When it was enacted, there was neither radio nor television, but both these concepts were later sought to be fitted into the definition of the telegraph” (Noronha 2000).
 

Conclusions

News and current affairs programmes on Radio are vital for the future of India’s democracy. Allowing free speech and debates on these platforms are the only way to uphold the freedom of speech envisaged in our constitution. The decision taken by various governments since 1995 has directly affected the way media engages with Indian democracy. The regulatory bodies should ensure content diversity and transparency to preserve media pluralism and democratic values.  Currently, what is more concerning is the shrinking diversity in media ownership and the entry of various interest groups into the media business. This can strongly impact issues related to plurality, inclusive representation, etc., in a country like India. The trust between the government and its people is the core of modern democracy. Allowing news on private Radio could be the right step toward creating this trust.  Zero government interference and a well-switched self-regulatory framework by the media can do wonders in democracies like India.  Allowing news on private FM and community radio platforms will also strengthen the demand for independent journalism.

 

Mochish KS (mochish@flame.edu.in ) teaches Media Studies at FLAME University, Pune.
20 July 2022