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What Internet Age?
A Call for More Radio for the Subcontinent

Of all the communications technologies that are accessible to the vast majority in the country, radio is pre-eminent. It is portable and relatively inexpensive to access. Credit for building a sound base for broadcasting in the far corners of the country and evolving a public service paradigm truly belongs to All India Radio. AIR has acquired for itself a national identity and breadth of programming that is universally acknowledged. Radio broadcasting is now poised to enter a new era, with the expansion of the Frequency Modulation (FM) band to many more cities and towns involving the private sector. The auction of nearly 330 FM stations in 91 cities in the ongoing second phase has received an overwhelming response, fetching one-time entry fee of about Rs.1,100 crore and opening a source of revenue for the Government by way of annual fees. It is not surprising that there was such enthusiastic participation by many companies, some of them well-known media houses. Unlike in the developed world, the FM band has been largely dormant for decades in India in the absence of a clear policy direction and was waiting to be energised. A liberal set of licensing rules, compared with the first phase of auctions in 2000 — such as one-time entry fee, sharing of revenues and provision for Foreign Direct Investment — has generated heavy bids in many cities.

The challenge that lies before the FM broadcasters is to come up with a programme mix that is genuinely creative. Culture critics have long associated the rise of private FM radio in some developed countries with an excessive influence of the market leading to trivialisation and crass commercialisation. Even if they wish to, private broadcasters may be unable to insulate themselves completely from market compulsions, but as custodians of publicly owned airwaves, they have the opportunity to create new programming genres that draw upon the diversity of talents and cultures, including rich traditions of classical music. It would advance the cause of broadcasting, to inform and educate the citizen, if the Centre's Information, Communication and Entertainment Committee (now going into many connected issues) enables private FM channels to produce news bulletins and news-based features. On a broader scale, FM radio is now part of a growing ecosystem that includes technologies such as digital audio broadcasting, satellite radio and Internet radio, all of which can deliver many more channels than traditional radio. Yet, FM is likely to be the dominant format for the foreseeable future, given the low cost to the listener and the range of receiving devices — handheld sets, mobile phones, car audio, and cable television. Ironic as it may seem, availability of choice of both technologies and channels strengthens the role of public service broadcasting rather than weaken it. AIR must continue to enjoy, with the support of public funds, the advantage of being guided solely by the public interest, as opposed to what may be seen as the public's interest in trivialities.

 

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