radio, AIR, FM
Discontent is brewing in southern states on the move to shut down regional channels.

Are AIR's regional radio channels going to fade away?

Bengaluru is going to miss the favourite programmes on Rainbow FM-Kannada-Kamanabillu (101.3), with All India Radio (AIR) deciding to merge it with a Medium Wave (MW) station. Rainbow FM has over 30 lakh listeners, including abroad.

Last year, FM channel Amruthavarshini (100.1) was merged with the national channel Ragam. AIR suspended the operation of Amruthavarshini, which broadcast Carnatic and Hindustani music. Now Kannada listeners have to hear AIR’s Ragam.

Though official sources attribute the decision to dip in the number of listeners, some former AIR officials dispute the claim.

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According to them, Rainbow FM has the second highest number of listeners in India. Geetha Ramanand, Convener of the Federation of Carnatic Classical Musicians, has repeatedly urged the Centre to protect Karnataka’s interests. Her pleadings have fallen on deaf ears.

Disquiet in Karnataka

The iconic AIR is itself in news, especially in Karnataka, over the issue of change in programme content. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry is accused of suspending regional channels one by one.

The 25 BJP Lok Sabha members from Karnataka do not seem to see this as an attempt to impose Hindi over regional languages.

Veterans who built Akashvani brick by brick see the developments as an attempt to privatize AIR. It is no wonder, they say, that AIR is not filling the posts of programme executives and deploying excess engineering staff to manage the news and entertainment programmes.

According to a senior retired AIR executive, the process of weakening AIR began after the BJP took power nationally in 2014.

“The Modi government is not interested in making AIR a robust institution though it is commercially viable and a revenue earning model” a senior official told The Federal.

South India

AIR is shutting down radio station services in the southern states, supposedly for modernization. It is not clear why Prasar Bharati is allowed to close autonomous, popular and revenue-earning regional services?

In a significant development, AIR lost its identity on May 5, 2023. According to reports, Prasar Bharati has decided to refer to its radio service as Akashavani, not AIR. Sources in Prasar Bharati say the decision was taken earlier but is being operationalised now. The DMK in Tamil Nadu has objected to the name change.

Discontent is brewing in southern states on the move to shut down regional channels. Political leaders, academics, intellectuals and language bodies have blasted the decision, saying it harms the country’s pluralistic structure.

Following public resentment over the move to merge Rainbow FM, Minister for Kannada and Culture Shivaraj S Tangadagi has written to Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur expressing anguish.

Tangadagi termed the merger an “attempt to silence the regional voices”. He said Bengalureans are emotionally attached to the Rainbow channel. “The (merger) move upset Kannadigas as it hurts them to listen to Hindi being excessively promoted by the Union government.” He asked Thakur to suspend the merger of regional channels.

Hindi imposition?

Last year, when FM Radio allocated more time to other languages, then BJP minister Suresh Kumar urged Akashavani to roll back these programmes. He asked: “What is the need for news in languages other than Kannada on Rainbow FM?”

Narayana Gowda, President of the Karnataka Rakashana Vedike, warned of state-wide protests if the Centre failed to protect regional channels. Janata Dal (Secular) leader and former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy termed the merger a threat to Kannada. Former Kannada Development Authority (KDA) chief and filmmaker TS Nagabharana too condemned it.

The shutting down of Ananthapuri FM and Real FM’s merger with Akashavani in Kerala have met serious resistance from elected representatives and people. All major political parties including the BJP have opposed it. State ministers including V Sivankutty and Antony Raju have written to the Centre.

Congress leader VD Satheesan said Ananthapuri FM – the first such station in Thiruvananthapuram – had a listener base of over 4.5 million. Its closure will impact millions who rely on it for entertainment and news.

The situation in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu is no different. Radio stations Hyderabad B 1377 kHz was discontinued in January 2022. AIR Chennai B Channel, Delhi’s Indraprastha channel and the Short Wave channels of AIR Srinagar and Jeypore Odisha were also closed.

Prasar Bharati

Prasar Bharati defends itself by saying it wants to discontinue the old transmitters which have served more than their service period.

A senior AIR official also contended that the developments were part of a larger plan to actually strengthen regional channels and to reach out to more listeners through a single channel. Prasar Bharati clarified that no radio station of AIR was being shut or downgraded. The ongoing process was meant to upgrade and modernize the services.

But former AIR officials dispute this.

CU Bellakki, a former Assistant Director of AIR, observes that a merger of regional channels will defeat the very purpose of AIR as it is public service broadcaster. Udayadri, a former Assistant Director (Programme) in AIR, says: “The move is unfortunate. The Union government must safeguard Rainbow FM.”

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Sources in AIR Bengaluru said it was the Centre’s decision to have one primary channel for one state and convert the rest into just relay channels.

Rajya Sabha member Dr John Brittas said: “Our founding fathers would have borne in mind the need to protect, enrich and promote our cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity. It is the duty of the Union Government to protect and nurture the diversified character of the country.”

In a July 2023 letter to the Centre, he dubbed the Prasar Bharati’s move as an “abrupt and ill-conceived decision” and said it amounted to an attack on federalism, pluralism and diversity.

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