Akashvani/ All India Radio

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A backgrounder

May 5, 2023: The Indian Express

After Guglielmo Marconi sent out the first radio transmission in 1895, it took over two decades for radio broadcasting to become commercially available. In India, the Radio Club of Bombay sent out the first commercial transmission in 1923. In the same year, the Calcutta Radio Club was started and a year later, radio broadcasts reached Madras with the Madras Presidency Radio Club. Early years of radio broadcasting were marked with fascination about the new technology and a constant state of financial precarity. The ambitious Indian Broadcasting Company (IBC) came into existence in 1927, only to face bankruptcy in 1930.

It was not until the government stepped in that there was a degree of stability in radio programming. In 1930, the Indian State Broadcasting Service (ISBS), under the Department of Industries and Labour, commenced its operations on an experimental basis. Senior BBC producer Lionel Fielden was appointed as India’s first Controller of Broadcasting in 1935 and brought major advancements to the programming.

Finally, on June 8, 1936, ISBS became All India Radio. A year later, AIR was brought under the Department of Communications, and four years later, under the Department of Information and Broadcasting, now called the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (under whose jurisdiction it remains till date).

A story of exponential growth

At the time of Independence, India was left with six radio stations: at Delhi, Lucknow, Bombay, Madras and Trichy (three others – Peshawar, Lahore and Dacca – had gone to Pakistan). In terms of coverage, AIR covered just two percent of India’s land area and reached just 11 percent of its population. To truly be All India Radio, AIR had to grow – and grow it did.

Today, with a network of over 262 radio stations, AIR is available to 92 per cent of India’s area and nearly all of its population. It broadcasts in 23 languages and 146 dialects, catering to India’s diverse demographics and tastes. It also has an External Services Division which broadcasts in 11 Indian and 16 foreign languages, reaching out to more than 100 countries. Its News Services Division broadcasts 647 bulletins daily for a total duration of nearly 56 hours.

FM broadcasting began in 1977 in Chennai, and expanded during the 1990s. Today, AIR 18 FM stereo channels, largely targeting the urban audience.

Nostalgia, thy name is Akashvani

The name Akashvani was adopted by AIR in 1956. It was used interchangeably with AIR, often to specifically refer to its Hindi broadcasting. For many Indians today, the Akashvani jingle evokes the memories of a bygone time when Indians would wake up to the sounds of the jingle at the break of dawn and start their day with AIR programming.

The jingle was composed by Walter Kaufmann. Born in Karlsbad (present day Czech Republic), Kaufmann trained in music in Prague and Berlin before fleeing Nazi persecution and landing in India in the mid 1930s. He joined AIR in 1937 and worked as a director of music in Bombay. During his time in India, he extensively researched native musical traditions and even worked in Bollywood.

Broadcasting modern Indian history

More than anything else, AIR’s place in history is cemented due to its role in communicating momentous events in India’s recent history. Prior to the advent of television or digital media, it was radio that was the medium through which Indians consumed news, cricket or entertainment. Whether it be Jawaharlal Nehru’s iconic “Tryst with Destiny” speech in 1947 or Kapil Dev’s mythical 175 run knock in 1983, it was AIR which brought these events to homes across the country.

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