It was there before TV, iPods, or streaming, and it isn’t going anywhere
Coming home to Chandigarh for a family reunion, I was delighted to meet my nephews and nieces for the first time, most of whom had been born and brought up in America. As we experienced a round of load shedding, the NRIs cringed when they were told there would be no television for the next one hour.
Amidst the ruckus, I brought out an old friend -- tattered, taped-up, and almost forgotten -- a battery-operated radio. As my nephews and nieces looked on in amazement at the weird device I had pulled out of the closet, my mind drifted back to the days when the radio used to be my best friend.
I still remember how the first private radio station took our small city of Chandigarh by storm in 2006, and owing to the strict hours and serious shows it initially aired, it was nothing short of community radio for us, but there was never a dull moment with it.
Memories of my grandfather using his radio are still vivid in my mind -- just before the clock showed 9pm, my grandfather could be seen sitting in the drawing room with his daily sundowner of scotch, and a plate of aubergine fritters, listening to the Aakashvani bulletin on his old, Doordarshan transistor, which spewed out crystal clear voices despite the thick, black tape holding it together.
It was passed down to my father, who now shares it with me. When my sister started her preparation for pre-medical exams, my father presented her with her very own Philips radio to provide her company when she burned the midnight oil, but never did a night go by when we didn’t fight over the radio channel to be played at night.
But alas, radio stations in Chandigarh did not air after 11pm. With local and national FM channels deserting us way before our bed time, we would try our best to salvage the situation by turning the tiny antenna on the radio to catch the best possible frequency for AM channels.
With a few expert flicks of the hand, we would soon be listening to oriental music from China, Pashto music from Afghanistan, Punjabi jokes from across the border in Lahore, and indecipherable dialogues in what seemed to be Korean.
The best channel in our daily mélange, would be the all-English Voice of America from Pakistan, which provided some of the most comprehensive news of the day. We would make mental notes of the stations’ frequencies, only to forget them by next morning.
The radio has traditionally been a harbinger of news from far and near and now, a mentor for our farmers and those in rural India. What the telegram was for personal communication, radio was for broadcasting. My parents often tell me about their days spent in front of the radio, listening to the commentary as Kapil Dev brought us our first cricket World Cup.
Decades later, having foregone privileges to the television due to my eyesight, I would sit for hours in front of the family radio, listening to the commentators describing Sehwag’s and Tendulkar’s dexterity on the field in the 2003 Cricket World Cup, trying to mimic their hook and pull shots as I comprehended them on the radio.
Each boundary would be accompanied by a BSNL advertisement, which would be the sweetest thing when the Indian team was batting, and anathema when our opponents held the bat. I can’t say I remember -- for the simple reason that I wasn’t born at the time -- but I have heard repeat telecasts of the accomplished baritone of Pandit Nehru announcing India’s tryst with destiny from my grandfather, and the birth of Bangladesh being announced on the radio for all to hear. Like the telegram, the radio brought moments of joy, and moments of sorrow. When cable TV connections were still precarious in 1999, the radio proved to be the most reliable source of information about our soldiers in Kargil. Our maid would never leave the radio’s side, lest she missed any information of her brother serving in the Gorkha regiment.
With the advent of mobile phones equipped with FM transmitters, the radio has reached an even wider base, and can be listened to at any time of the day. As an engineering student in Karnataka and later as a professional in Hyderabad’s IT sector, I found myself increasingly hooked on to radio on the internet, with my favourite being BBC Asia Network from the UK.
I remember copying many a practical lab record with the heavily-accented Punjabi of the Punjabi communities in Southall and Birmingham in the background, and trying to identify the songs when the Bangla hour would start.
My nieces and nephews were, sadly, not impressed by the radio. The multi-faceted iPods and iPads are more their things. Perhaps they need to get a little older to appreciate it.
However, once going out of style, the radio is now staging a return, and a recent visit to a radio station to understand their sales, marketing, and technology left me impressed.
It is the lifeline for long drives, for people battling sleep while driving at night, and most importantly, for millions of people living in rural India. Personally, the radio gives me a sense of being alive, as if someone is there with me.
Late into the night, with few people to give you company, it gives me peace to know there are others listening to the same songs as I am -- a sensation which a television, iPod, or streaming app can never give me.
Rishabh Kochhar is a former business consultant.