Sunday, February 19, 2012

Redyo, Radio

There’s something special about commemorative days. In Nepal, hardly a god or a goddess, an animal, a river or a mound, or even a mahamanav is spared ritual adulation prescribed by tradition. Our social fascination for tributes goes beyond the natural sphere, as in our literal worship of technology during Bishwokarma pooja, in the form of vehicles or ploughs or knives.

So when the word was out that United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) invited countries to tune in for the first World Radio Day on February 13, it did not come as a surprise to many people, perhaps including those who are accustomed to conceptually impregnated events like World Peace Day or World Press Freedom Day. We got Monday, devoted exclusively to a piece of technology, the “old lady” medium of mass communication.

Our broadcasters, their fans and their supporters gathered to deliver their visibly energetic speeches on how the ever-expanding “FM” phenomenon had swept Nepal commanding world attention, and how this technology had contributed to social transformation in a developing country. Now let’s hope that this Day does not turn into just another ritual in our long list of commemorations.

Each of the 195 member states of UNESCO may interpret the significance of the World Radio Day in their own ways. For example, most listeners in Shanghai or New York or London tuning in for casual news-ing and for a quick fix of music and entertainment would look for a different meaning in the annual event than people from countries with large rural populations that depend on one of the cheapest forms of medium for their essential information.

In approving the proposal from Spanish Academy of Radio to proclaim an annual day for the acoustic medium, the Paris-based UN agency’s general conference on November 3, 2011 underscored radio’s relevance to developing countries. It hoped that the celebration would raise greater awareness about the importance of radio, enhance networking among broadcasters, and encourage decision-makers to establish and provide access to information. Furthermore, radio’s significance was emphasized especially for marginalized groups, indigenous communities, civil societies, women, and areas like agriculture and healthcare.

For Nepal, a country with rich linguistic and cultural diversity, and over 80 percent population listening to radio, mostly in rural areas, these objectives resonate with our priorities. However, given the varied existing meanings of “radio” today the apparent fixation on this term looks reductionist. Broadcast radio is incomplete without proper and unequivocal appreciation of listeners. There is more to listernership in social transformation than technological determinism. We cannot ignore listeners’ power to influence radio culture just as we cannot overlook radio’s influence on people. It is ironic that UNESCO’s efforts to deliberate on dedicating a day for this popular channel did not accommodate views from the popular masses (listeners) whereas feedback was keenly sought from national commissions and policymakers.

Indeed, the proposal that was conceived four years ago had received an overwhelming support during the formal consultation process. However, the initial skepticism and apprehensions voiced by some quarters in declaring the World Radio Day help shed light on interchanging perceptions of radio today. Concerns were raised that “radio” was hard to define in today’s multimedia and converged environment. It is being somehow subsumed in the Internet or mobile phones or tablets. Not surprisingly, today Wi-Fi is becoming synonymous with radio transmission. In addition, the radio is more than news or entertainment broadcasting; it also implies other specialty uses in astronomy, aviation, physics, telecommunication, and two-way communication (walkie-talkie), etc.

Another view was that radio in and by itself does not deserve to be singularly commemorated. Celebrating it as part of an existing observance, say World Telecommunication Day, would not only make the event reasonable but also help save celebration costs (estimated to be US $90,000 for the UN agency, and between US $5,000-10, 000 for national commissions, annually).

Questions were also raised about the selection of the date, February 13, the day the United Nations Radio was established in 1946. If the UN could declare October 2, Gandhi´s birthday, as International Day of Non-Violence, having the birth day of Guglielmo Marconi (inventor of wireless radio transmission) or Reginald Fessenden (inventor of audio broadcaster) would definitely help give a human face to the event. Alternatively, the day could be dedicated to amateur hobbyists who, according to many radio historians, made the most significant contributions to wireless radio broadcasting in its early days. Or, for a genuine appreciation of popular radio culture, “World Radio Listeners Day” could be observed on November 2, the day the world’s first entrepreneurial radio went on air in Pittsburgh in 1920, suddenly making the medium very popular among the masses.

Whatever the arguments, for their role in helping create shared communities across cultural, political and economic barriers, the psycho-social dimensions of radio merit consideration. As first or second generation radio listeners, many of us cannot imagine our key life events without the radio framing or shaping them for us. The radio, like ageno, the fireplace, with members of the family huddled around, served the purpose of galvanizing communal bonds and fashioning a collective national ethos. For many a solitary dhakre on remote mountain trails, or a home-bound lahure, the hum of the “redyo” offered an intimate sense of affinity with the rest of the world.

Already, I am beginning to feel nostalgic. Now I can see some of my pivotal life units in terms of key “radio moments”. That is a profound sense of association, of orientation, of fulfillment. As I recall, first, there was this incredible rumor that inside there were tiny talking people making the little buzzing box their home. Soon the childish curiosity gave way to adolescent fascination with music and geeti nataks. Radio was a common life-string running through disparate associations, from om jayajagadish hare to Soaltee sabun to Basudev Munal to budi aamai’s conversations with JTA babu. These familiar noises and voices filled the void of leisure, giving steady meaning and sense to the routines of life.

Down the road, news-ing with radio became a part of growing up, with Praveen Giri, for instance, imparting the ambience of constancy via his cogent voice. Somehow, some of the most memorable informational occasions served by radio were deaths and wars. No BP Koirala would have ever died (to many of us) without the radio, and no Iran-Iraq war would have been fought minus the radio. The point is our perceptions of reality are at the mercy of the medium. Until the advent of television in the mid-1980s, the otherwise visually distinctive King Birendra was merely a towering figure of voice. Radio served only to fill in our mental image of him, and of other major personalities.

Meanwhile, with TV and the arrival of Internet and mobile devices, the semblance of the unity of information began to fade away fast. The converging media environment speaks of multiple realities or shared sense of belonging, and communities in far too many segments. This is a positive development in a pluralistic society, as long as, of course, the veteran medium is used in the service of the lived realities and actual needs of the people.

If numbers are any indications, with over 400 FM stations across the country, sure, we are well into our formative local radio culture. Qualitatively, however, there is little distinction made these days between information, news, music, entertainment, and advertising in our radio channels. Many of these channels, including some community as well as government-owned stations, serve special interests. They are either here for social influence, political propaganda or quick commercial gains, with little or no regard for public good. Add to that the recent surge in social marketers seeking to transcend access barriers. It points to a subtle shift in radio manipulation. The medium’s abuse is a serious risk; and it has in the past served as a powerful propaganda tool, from Hitler’s Germany to Rwanda’s genocide to our own killing terraces and conniving power corridors.

The psycho-social radioscape of the new generation is far more delicate than the one some of us navigated in the past. This generation is faced with the challenge of testing the limits of its assorted media perceptions. Thus, commemorating listeners, the users themselves and their experiences would be the best tribute to this veteran medium.

Published in Republica, Feb 18, 2012