Turn up the radio...

nostalgic notes

Turn up the radio...

For over a century, radio has played tunes to the march of human history, setting the background music for our lives. As we listen to news and traffic reports punctuated with the latest hits while driving, how many of us reflect upon the invention that revolutionised communication? There’s more to radio than songs presented by vivacious RJs.

Did you know, for instance, that radio signals played a vital role in the rescue of over 700 passengers of the ill-fated Titanic, enabling quick communication with nearby ships? In those days, carrier pigeons were the prevalent mode of communicating at sea. Without radio, it would have taken days for distress messages to reach, and there would have been no survivors of the Titanic.

Those of us who grew up when TV was just a single Doordarshan channel with limited transmission timings will remember how radio brightened up our days. Latest news bulletins, talk shows, quizzes, radio plays, and of course, music to cater to varied tastes; radio constantly regaled us with never a dull moment. Providing infotainment may still be the most obvious function of radio today. But radio technology also supports many other marvels of modern life. The story of how radio evolved, a product of research often independently conducted over many years by generations of brilliant minds, is fascinating in itself.

First, let’s see how good old radio still scores over its arch rival, TV. Indeed, once the whole world thought radio would die a natural death with the expansion of TV. But radio reinvented itself by offering FM stations, which are very popular and offer spunky competition to TV. In its heyday before TV stole the limelight, we relied upon radio to make the dullest things sparkle with life and excitement. The sound broadcasts drew our interest, and excited the imagination of individual listeners to form their own special mental images.

That’s the score!

In my schooldays, classmates with their own pocket ‘transies’ were the cynosure of all ears. Come winter and test cricket season, work slowed down all over town. In school, we would slump upon our desks and perpetually pretend to tie shoelaces, or search for lost erasers or pencils. Ingenious ploys to catch the running cricket commentary from transies smuggled in schoolbags. Ace commentators’ electrifying voices infused excitement into every wave of the bat and each toss of the ball. During a particularly sizzling international test match, our teacher must have sensed how her best speeches were assailing deaf ears. Choosing pragmatism over authoritarianism, she asked, “What’s the score?” Our terror at the prospect of impending doom in the Principal’s office made way for smiles. Our teacher joined us to hear the commentary for five full minutes, before turning off all transies and resuming the day’s lesson.

After subsequently watching cricket on the field and on TV, I now realise that radio commentaries played a major role in creating excitement and hype over test cricket. Urged by the vibrant commentary without visuals to bring home drab reality, we actively imagined an action-packed game. Minus commentary, traditional cricket is a visually dull affair with players’ languid movements drawn over five long-drawn days. No wonder, limited-over one-dayers, and IPL with its cheerleaders and hoopla, are more popular versions of the game today.

The famous War of the Worlds broadcast directed by Orson Welles shows how radio, with sound alone, could excite the imaginations of multitudes. Broadcast in the US as a Halloween special on October 30, 1938, this series of fictitious news bulletins was based upon H G Wells’s classic science fiction novel, War of the Worlds. This radio broadcast sent many American people into a tizzy because they were convinced that Martians were really invading Earth. TV broadcasts, on the other hand, show everything while leaving little to the imagination. Thus TV, which encourages passivity in the audience, dulls our imagination instead of challenging it like radio.

News reports of war and violence are clear enough on the radio, without the support of graphic visual images of violence. This is a gentler way of making young children aware that death, war and violence exist, without compromising their natural sensitivity. As little children living in New Delhi during the Indo-Pak War of 1971, we listened intently with our parents to war updates on the radio. Lights stayed dimmed and windows were pasted over with newspapers because of the blackout. We children would crawl under the bed whenever we heard anything remotely resembling an air-raid siren. We felt concerned and sad for brave soldiers who were fighting and laying down their lives. If we were also constantly seeing visual images of this death and destruction on TV, it is likely we would have grown more insensitive to violence. Our fear and concern must seem silly to today’s children, who are habituated to a steady barrage of gory images on TV.

Compared to radio, TV with explicit visuals would definitely be a greater culprit in accustoming people to violence by making it a part of our daily routine. Scholarly studies worldwide have made strong statements linking media violence and violence in society. A continuous deluge of sensational TRP-grabbing images in the media (print, TV, movies, video games etc) can desensitise us by distorting death and disaster which doesn’t affect us directly, into prime-time entertainment. When violence and bloodshed is thus presented to be the everyday norm, it is less likely to move us. This raises deeper and ominous questions. Is the overwhelming graphic violence in print and TV influencing increased aggression on our own city streets? If we are impressionable victims of such subtle brainwashing, then TV would make a stronger impact compared to radio.

Since radio engages only our sense of hearing, it leaves us free to focus our sight and more of our attention on driving, knitting, gardening, jogging and various other things we like to do while listening to broadcasts. TV, on the other hand, demands all our attention, and turns us into passive couch potatoes.

Music is more enjoyable on the radio, where the focus is on the melody alone. Glitzy visuals do not vie to distract us, or compensate for mediocre lyrics, vocals or instrumental effects. Recently a friend shared a video of a song sung by the inimitable Mukesh. The visuals were unremarkable, with Mukeshji standing before a mike, while the staid orchestra played behind him. Everyone wore straightforward everyday clothes, and there was no fancy lighting, dancing or histrionics. Mukeshji sang with pure, undiluted passion, and what a song it was! No special effects distracted attention from the soulful lyrics sung by a timeless, mellifluous voice. Radio supports pure, good music, which doesn’t need to hide behind distracting gimmickry.

It’s music to ears

Radio has revolutionised mass communication, and is useful in many other ways. Before radio, telegraph was the best way to rapidly transmit information over long distances. But telegraph used a system of codes, while radio carried speech. Telegraph required wires, and could not work across vast areas without wiring. Around 1891, radios began to be used on ships at sea, preventing accidents and helping in rescue operations. In 1899, R F Matthews became the first ship to use a wireless device based on Marconi’s system, to request emergency assistance at sea.

Radio spectrum and technology has many applications; from baby monitors and broadcasting to radar and radio beacons. In 1910, Frederick Baldwin and John McCurdy first connected an aerial to their bi-plane, to demonstrate radio’s use for navigating planes. In 1921, the Detroit police first used radio-equipped vehicles. Today’s ambulances use radio to monitor and relay the patient’s condition to the hospital.

 In 1902, ‘ham’ or amateur radio was first introduced to the US through a Scientific American article on “How to Construct an Efficient Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus at Small Cost.” Today, there are many ham radio enthusiasts all over the world, connected through ham clubs. Apart from enjoying an interesting hobby, ham operators have been helpful in rescue operations after natural disasters such as earthquakes, when major communication centres have been damaged or destroyed. Their broadcasts have guided search parties and located victims in remote areas.

Radio telescopes pick up radio waves naturally emitted from stars, quasars, black holes and other objects in deep outer space. This helps scientists to get a better understanding of our vast universe. Given the infinite expanse of space, it’s possible that other intelligent life exists far away. Radio will play a major role if humanity successfully connects with intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Radio rules...

The world has many scientific minds to thank for this wonderful invention. In the early 1800s, Hans Christian Orsted began experimental work on the connection between electricity and magnetism. Further experimental work was continued by Andre-Marie Ampere, Joseph Henry and Michael Faraday. Subsequently, James Clerk Maxwell developed a theory of electromagnetism, predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves. Heinrich Hertz proved that electricity can be transmitted in electromagnetic waves. Nikola Tesla wirelessly transmitted electromagnetic energy in 1893.

Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose was a pioneer in the field of microwave devices. He invented the Mercury Coherer and the receiver which Marconi used to receive the first radio communication across the Atlantic over a distance of 2,000 miles, in 1901. Guglielmo Marconi is widely credited to have developed the first instrument for radio communication over large distances. He was awarded the official patent by the British Government. Marconi established the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897. The work of each of these scientists and several others was of vital importance. Ultimately, it all led to the system of wireless sound broadcasting known today as radio.

In India, radio went commercial in 1965 with the introduction of ads in Vividh Bharati broadcasts. Catchy radio jingles won people’s hearts. Tunes like Tandurusti ki raksha karta hai Lifebuoy, Doodh ki safedi Nirma se aaye, and Sona sona naya Rexona stayed on every Indian’s lips. Ameen Sayani, with his rich, sonorous voice, was India’s pioneering all-time Number One RJ.

He first appeared on radio in 1953-54 to change forever the relatively staid tone of AIR broadcasts. Sayani made broadcasting history by hosting the Binaca-cibaca Geetmala film songs programme for 39 years. At the height of his career, he did over 35 radio programmes every week. My personal favourites among the golden radio voices of yesteryear were Gitanjali Iyer hosting A Date With You, and Melville De Mello’s reading of the English news. Yuva Vani programmes and Bournvita Quiz had us kids hooked.

Today’s profusion of FM channels has produced many talented and magnetic radio presenters or RJs, each with their distinctive brand of delivery. Deadpan humour, talent for sarcasm or spoofs, rich and electrifying voices, the ability to talk non-stop with oodles of confidence even when they make a slip of the tongue, the most popular RJs are celebrities with fan followings. Teaming up with copywriters and producers, they make up the most visible, oops audible, face of an exciting profession.

Radio thrives on, reinventing itself and offering new ways to support technological advances. On World Radio Day, and every other day, let’s celebrate this invention which brings music to our ears.

Landmarks in Indian radio history

June, 1923: Programmes aired by the Radio Club of Bombay.
Nov, 1923: First broadcasts by Calcutta Radio Club.
July 31, 1924: The Madras Presidency Radio Club begins
July 23, 1927: Indian Broadcast Company (IBC), Bombay Station
inaugurated by Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India.
Aug 26, 1927: Inauguration of the Calcutta Station of IBC.
Sept 10, 1935: Akashvani Mysore, a private radio station, set up.
Jan 19, 1936: First news bulletin broadcast from the Delhi Station .
June 8, 1936: Indian State Broadcasting Service became All India Radio.
Oct 1, 1939: External Service started with Pushto broadcast.
Jan 1, 1942: Akashvani Mysore was taken over by the Maharaja of Mysore.
1947 (at the time of Partition): Six Radio Stations in India (Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Tiruchirapalli & Lucknow) and three Radio Stations in Pakistan (Peshawar, Lahore & Dacca)

July 20, 1952: First National Programme of Music broadcast from AIR.
July 29, 1953: National Programme of Talks (English) launched from AIR.
1954: First Radio Sangeet Sammelan held.
Aug 15, 1956: National Programme of Play commenced.
Oct 3, 1957: Vividh Bharati Services inaugurated.
Nov 1, 1959: First TV Station in Delhi started as part of AIR.
Nov 1, 1967: Commercials on Vividh Bharati introduced.
July 21, 1969: Yuv-Vani service started from Delhi.
July 23, 1977: First ever FM Service was inaugurated from Madras.
Bangladesh recognised Akashvani for its contribution in the Bangladesh Liberation War. On March 27, 2012, Sh L D Mandloi, DG, AIR received the award at a ceremony in Dhaka.

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