Entertainment, music and news all seem to be at our fingertips today, but for a long period in modern history, accessing such services was a difficult task for most people because of a lack of relevant infrastructure. In India, a major milestone in this area dates back to 100 years ago – when the first broadcast was made, under colonial rule.
National Broadcasting Day in India is marked on July 23 as symbolic of the Radio Club of Bombay (established by some businessmen) making the first-ever broadcast in the country in June 1923. The broadcast was followed by the setting up of the Calcutta Radio Club five months later.
The Indian Broadcasting Company (IBC) came into being on July 23, 1927, although it was soon facing liquidation in less than three years. But it would eventually lead to the birth of a name recognizable to Indians for generations in the form of the All India Radio (AIR). Here is how it happened.
Beginnings of All India Radio
According to the AIR website, the Indian Broadcasting Service had begun its operations on an experimental basis but soon saw a financial downturn. To revive the radio, BBC producer Lionel Fielden was appointed the first Controller of Broadcasting in August 1935.
Jawhar Sircar, who was the CEO of Prasar Bharati, wrote in The Indian Express on World Radio Day in 2014, “Described as “brilliant but impetuous… very highly creative” and someone the “system looks on with disfavour”, Fielden proved these epithets as he went about his job like a man possessed. By January 1936, he gave Delhi its radio station, at Kingsway Camp, ruffling many feathers as he went about in his brusque “must do” style. “I quarrel fearfully with all the secretaries and deputy secretaries,” he bemoaned to Lord Keith, “and I don’t see how I can do anything else”.
In the same year Akashvani Mysore, a private radio station, was set up. On June 8, 1936, the Indian State Broadcasting Service (ISBS) became All India Radio.
Its new form would be The Central News Organization (CNO) in August 1937. Within four years, AIR would come under the Department of Information and Broadcasting, now called the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (under whose jurisdiction it remains to date). When India attained independence, there were six radio stations in India, at Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Tiruchirapalli and Lucknow. There were three in Pakistan (Peshawar, Lahore and Dacca).
AIR then had coverage of 2.5% of the area and 11% of the population. CNO would further be split into the News Services Division (NSD) and the External Services Division (ESD). In 1956 the name AKASHVANI was adopted for the National Broadcaster. It was used interchangeably with AIR, often to specifically refer to its Hindi broadcasting.
The melancholic yet stirring jingle associated with AIR was composed by Walter Kaufmann. Born in Karlsbad (present-day Czech Republic), Kaufmann trained in music in Prague and Berlin before fleeing Nazi persecution and landing in India in the mid-1930s. He joined AIR in 1937 and worked as a director of music in Bombay. During his time in India, he extensively researched native musical traditions and even worked in Bollywood.
How film songs were allowed on the radio
The Vividh Bharati Service was then launched in 1957 with popular film music as its main component. But this was not easy to do and had some critics. Ace The Indian Express reported earlier, in 1952, AIR had imposed a ban on film music and it was in these years that Radio Ceylon and their popular show Binaca Geetmala, hosted by Ameen Sayani, became the savior for Hindi film music lovers.
BV Keskar, who was then the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, believed that film music was “westernised” and Indians needed a dose of homegrown classical music. He believed that the appreciation of classical music had “fallen” and was “on the point of extinction.”
He initially suggested that all songs aired on AIR be screened by the organization, and said that if a song is played, it would not carry the name of the film as AIR would not advertise for the movies.
But soon, the film industry producers rescinded the music rights given to AIR and within months, there was no film music to be heard on the radio. However, Radio Ceylon, based out of Sri Lanka, which had started its Hindi music station a few years ago, became active during this period as they saw a big opportunity with their Indian listeners. Binaca Geetmala gained fame during this time as Ameen Sayani presented the most popular songs of the time with some trivia.
With a network of around 260 radio stations, AIR today is accessible to almost the entire population of the country and serves nearly 92% of the total area. A broadcasting giant, it broadcasts in 23 languages and 146 dialects.