Discontent wafts through India's air waves

Discontent wafts through India's air waves

The country's diverse audience will lose out on local flavours if regional FM channels go off air

Between 2017 and October 21, 2021, the Prasar Bharati has switched off 978 of its 1,300 “obsolete” Analog Terrestrial TV Transmitters, or ATTs. Credit: iStock Photo

The adamant march of technology has transformed television broadcasting. It reached our homes through rooftop antennas, then cable, subsequently satellite and now streaming. India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati says it is keeping in step, turning to digital streaming and cutting costs by switching off old technology.

However, some of its recent actions, like shutting down the Amruthavarshini FM channel on Akashvani in Bengaluru, have triggered concerns that it was also throttling its diverse content that catered to India’s multilingual tapestry by either shutting down its regional Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR) centres or consistently understaffing these.

Between 2017 and October 21, 2021, the Prasar Bharati has switched off 978 of its 1,300 “obsolete” Analog Terrestrial TV Transmitters, or ATTs. It will switch off the rest of the ATTs, barring 50 that will continue in coastal and border areas for strategic reasons, by March 2022. As its CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati said, “Television viewing is no longer happening through rooftop antennas in India.” The phasing out of these antennas, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said, has already saved Rs 100 crore.

Also read: Questions raised over Prasar Bharati's content syndication policy; CEO allays concerns

The public broadcaster said it is only switching off its ATTs and not its Doordarshan, or DD, studios in regional centres, which will continue to generate local content.

For example, Kalaburagi’s content will continue to be available on DD Chandana, the public broadcaster’s Kannada regional channel, and of DD Silchar’s on DD’s Assamese language channel.

In a statement, the ministry committed that these DD Centres will maintain their presence on digital media via YouTube and social media.

However, concerns have remained about the longevity of these DD Centres and the quality of their content given the significant numbers of vacancies that DD has not filled in its regional centres for years now.

According to a reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha in April 2018, the Information and Broadcasting minister said DD Gulbarga (now DD Kalaburagi) has 19 employees against the sanctioned strength of 91.

According to another reply in the Rajya Sabha in February 2019, the ministry produced an assessment of the number of vacancies in AIR and DD.

The assessment was prepared in December 2016. It put the number of vacancies in DD at over 3,000 while AIR had over 12,500 unfilled posts.

Interestingly, in the April 2018 reply, the minister said, “There were no plans to close down either the high-powered transmitters or the studio centre of Doordarshan at Gulbarga.” In a reply to another question in 2018, it said, “DD Kendra Sambalpur has been producing programmes with available manpower resources,” which were 42 vacancies against a sanctioned strength of 74.

There are other concerns that India’s linguistic minorities worry about.

When BJP Lok Sabha MP Annapurna Devi, now a Union minister, asked in March this year whether she can watch Doordarshan Jharkhand on DTH, the ministry replied, “No proposal is under consideration to notify Doordarshan Jharkhand as a mandatory channel to be carried by DTH/Cable Operators.” In July 2019, the minister told Parliament that AIR has not included many of its channels, including Akashvani Centres of Jharkhand, on DTH platform due to limited availability of slots to carry radio channels. It did, however, promise to expand the capacity of DTH platform for accommodating more radio channels.

Reasons for closure

Concerns erupted after the Prasar Bharati shut down Amruthavarshini. Vempati has defended the shutting down of the separate channel citing its declining popularity and saving costs. He said the content of the channel will now have a two-hour slot on the multilingual Raagam channel. But as former Dharwad AIR Station Director C U Bellakki stresses, we should not look at public service broadcasting from a financial perspective. “As preservers and promoters of culture, such channels promote local flavour, and that is Akashvani’s role.”

Udayadri, former assistant director of the Bengaluru AIR station, says people in Bengaluru and those living in nearby villages, including youth, tuned in. “Few states and even particular regions in these states have Carnatic singers. Karnataka is one of them. The channel provided listeners with an opportunity to learn from renowned artistes and gave opportunities to many local artistes,” he says.

Many see it as an assault on the rich heritage of Carnatic music and loss of opportunities to local talent. Vempati faced complaints on social media as well. Twitter users said the two-hour slot on Raagam cannot compensate for Amruthavarshini’s 8.5 hours of classical music broadcast per day, including live shows and interactive content.

H S Saraswathi, former station director, who retired in 2018 and worked with both Raagam and Amruthavarshini, says Raagam relays tailored programmes sent from different states. Now, there won’t be live programmes, the amount of time dedicated to Carnatic music will reduce. Amruthavarshini also broadcasts folk music in its most original form. These hyperlocal broadcasts add to our rich archives, she says.

Even if people do tune into Raagam, it won’t be in a language that they will understand. “Akashvani has an important responsibility to preserve and promote fine arts. It is a huge responsibility. To sustain an organisation, commercialisation may be important; we must draw the line somewhere. Channels like Rainbow FM may be conducive for this purpose, the same cannot be expected of channels like Amruthavarshini,” she says.

Others, however, see a more insidious agenda than just the financial aspect. An official retired from Akashvani, Bengaluru, says there was an attempt to have one integrated programme broadcast from Bengaluru and most other regional stations would be converted to relay stations. He says the Prasar Bharati backtracked and denied existence of any such plan after language activists protested.

Scaling down

In Kerala, according to sources, Prasar Bharati dropped its plans to scale down operations owing to stiff resistance. Kerala MPs protested any plans to shut down AIR stations apart from the one in Thiruvananthapuram. Vempati denied there was any such move, but sources said protests forced rethink.

In Tamil Nadu, which has 15 AIR stations of which five are relay stations and two are local radio stations, the Prasar Bharati was working on a plan to convert primary stations in Madurai, Coimbatore, Tiruchirappalli, and Tirunelveli as relay stations, which would mean they will not generate original content for their local audience. While efforts to reach AIR officials in Tamil Nadu proved futile, sources said converting primary stations into relay stations would take away the independence of local stations. “All stations will have the same content. This will not serve any purpose. For instance, programmes related to agriculture should be different for different regions. It cannot be the same for all,” a source said.

In Kashmir, the Radio Kashmir station was renamed AIR Srinagar after the scrapping of Article 370 in August 2019. In 1990, when militancy erupted in Kashmir, local employees of Radio Kashmir managed to run the station despite threats and intimidations from the ultras. Radio Kashmir became an important medium during the 2014 deluge when all communication lines were shut. It worked as a bridge between the public and the administration.

According to Maqsood Ahmad, a senior announcer at the station, the role of Radio Kashmir in preserving art, culture and languages is tremendous. The station still broadcasts programmes in Balti, Sheena, Pahari, Gojri and Punjabi languages. However, he says there were more than 50 programme executives and announcers in 1990 which has come down to seven now. Most of the senior employees have retired and no new recruitments are happening, which is affecting the quality of programmes at the station.

(With inputs from Arjun Raghunath in Thiruvananthapuram, E T B Sivapriyan in Chennai and Zulfikar Majid in Srinagar)