Before radio became only about dhak dhak and bak bak

Two RJs hark back to the days when the airwaves reverberated with lovingly picked songs and soulful talk

Shabbeer Ahmed

Long before the radio became an annoyingly chirpy voice repeating cliches, it was for many a perfect combination of nostalgia, music and meaningful conversations.

 If you are a long-time radio listener, chances are you have heard the name of Shabbeer Ahmed, Bengaluru’s English-language radio jockey active in 1998. “We didn’t have FM then, we had medium wave. I used to do a show called ‘Tuesday Tunes’ on FM Rainbow of AIR,” he recalls.

He owes his interest in RJing to a film he watched in Chennai, where he was born and brought up.  “The American Consulate would screen classic movies from time to time. Once I happened to watch ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ where the lead actor, Robin Williams, is an RJ. His cheerful voice saying ‘Good morning Vietnam’ lifts the morale of listeners in a country struggling with war and poverty,” he says.

 Years later, Shabbeer went on to win the title of ‘Master of English Dictionary’ in a citywide competition conducted by  AIR Chennai. That gave him a chance to conduct radio interviews. Armed with the experience, he auditioned for AIR Bengaluru when he moved to this city.

 “I was rejected at first but they inducted me when they launched FM, and my voice was the first one to speak in English and Hindi. The first ever song I played on FM Rainbow was ‘Journey to the moon and back’ by Savage Garden,” he says.

One of the defining factors of the early FM radio era was loyal listenership, says Rashmi Shetty, RJ for 10 years with FM Rainbow. “I did a show called ‘Meethi Yaadein’, where I played old Hindi songs. The RJs would keep changing but the show timings remained 11 pm to 12 midnight. All of Commercial Street would hear ‘Meethi Yaadein’ and I have had listeners calling to tell me how much they loved a particular song I played,” she recalls.

Analog to digital

They worked when analog ruled, and digital was slowly gaining in popularity.

“You had to count the tracks on the LPs and rewind or forward the tapes and then play them. If you were doing a live show, you had to carry the whole lot – tapes, LPs and CDs---to the studio,” says Shabbeer.

Rashmi adds, “AIR had archives that nobody had. We would go to the library the previous day, select the records, dust them and decide what to play. On the show you had to talk, make sure the record player needle fell exactly on the groove, and also read messages from a huge mobile phone. So being attentive, mindful and present was very important.”

 

Romantic, intimate

Shabbeer misses the romance of an earlier era. He got so calls from people talking about depression, break-ups, and marital woes. They felt comfortable because he was an unknown face, and just a voice they liked.

“Unlike television, where you know what the person looks like, the radio is your sweetheart. You imagine the person to be however you like,” says Shabbeer, adding that social media has changed all that, and no mystery surrounds RJs now.

 

A hundred calls

Rashmi once invited Padmaja, who had lost her vision late in life, on her show. Towards the end of the programme, Padmaja shared her number, a common practice in those days.

“After some time, I tried calling her up to thank her for coming on air but her phone was continuously engaged. When I finally got through to her, she ecstatically told me she had just finished her 100th call,” says Rashmi. The callers included commissioners of sales tax and income tax and they had invited Padmaja  to talk to their staff.

Another man told her, after speaking for a while, “I always enjoyed listening to your voice a lot. Could you please dedicate a song to my schoolmates?” It turned out to be a school for the blind, and Rashmi realised the caller was visually imparied. “Here was someone for whom the connect to the world was through music,” she says.

Her advice to RJs today: “There are a lot of lonely people out there. Connect with them. Say something that makes them feel good about life.”

 

Paid content is bane of FM radio

Radio is today exceedingly commercialised with the concept of ‘pay per play,’ says Shabbeer. “If a new movie is released, you will only hear its songs on all the channels. Your playlist is driven by commercialisation; there is no delightful suspense,” he says.

 

Bumblebee buzz

Rashmi once did a show for teenagers, and spoke about how a bumblebee doesn’t know its wingspan is too small to allow it to fly.

“Sometimes, if we don’t know our limitations, we go beyond what we think we can do,” she said on air. A year later, she got a call from a listener who said, “When I face difficulties, I take strength from what you said.”

 

Mix mess

LPs, CDs and wrong jackets created a great recipe for bloopers, says Rashmi.

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Before radio became only about dhak dhak and bak bak

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