Being entertaining or informative, or both, on the radio require hours of preparation. It’s the homework that goes into a broadcast that creates a distinguishable product for listeners. But when it comes to public radio on AM and FM frequencies in our country, homework is a key missing ingredient.
When private radio channel FM100 came around some 15 years ago, the state mobilised its vast resources to challenge it. Armed with a new team of young broadcasters, state-owned FM101 tried to provide quality programming to an audience which would have accepted a new entrant at the time. Unfortunately, it failed because of archaic tube transistor modelled radio technology which spewed inferior sound quality and because it gave zero attention to branding and marketing. Radio Pakistan is capable of more — it is a powerhouse of broadcasting knowledge and experience. From news and information to intellectual discussions with the most brilliant minds in the country, from live music and poetry recitals to radio dramas, Radio Pakistan used to make their programmes to perfection.
Public radio around the world remains an important medium of information. But with the pathetic quality of programming in Pakistan, few rely on the state for entertainment or information. This hasn’t dissuaded the government to keep spending our tax money on running several FM station frequencies which rebroadcast AM programming, such as the hourly new bulletin. Originally, FM101 was supposed to break the monopoly of FM100, but with the forward thinking of Pemra and the issuance of 500 licenses, this need is diminished.
Why does the state continue to operate a failed unit? In the present situation of the devolution of federal power and the preference towards privatisation, all FM channels of Radio Pakistan should be sold to people who can transform these channels to something listenable. Otherwise, a public-private partnership being courted by the National Highway Authority’s new FM radio network could be a workable alternative to privatisation.
I used to think that AM radio should also be privatised, but on a recent trip down the motorway, I was pleasantly surprised to listen to a radio drama after decades! The drama was an intelligently crafted piece on promoting behavioural change with regards to women’s health in rural areas. Above all, the drama was entertaining. I also heard an interesting Punjabi show explaining when to sow crops, what fertiliser to use and which soil tests to carry. Rural areas can still benefit from AM Radio although that, too, will diminish as the reach of FM penetrates the smallest of cities.
The crumbling state of state radio can still be saved. With a proud history of a hardworking staff, Radio Pakistan could still be the source of information and entertainment it once was. I wouldn’t want anyone to say that a failing institution of a failing country is only to be expected. Vision and good leadership can bring back its lost glory.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th, 2010.