How has the radio continued to be a part of Indian households for 91 years

By Suradha Iyer

91 years ago, this week was the first radio broadcast from Calcutta’s Indian Broadcasting Company’s station. This innocuous, expensive technology took the freedom movement securely underground and paved the way for today’s media-hungry population.

History of the radio in India

Indian radio is a cultural phenomenon that has revolutionized our lives since the 1920s. Recent studies have shown that the radio is the fastest growing and penetrative broadcasting medium among the youth and working class in India.

Your morning companion to work has been through a lot, with the Indian Independence movement being part of its grand story. No traditional technology has stood the test of time quite like the humble radio and it has now become a symbol of resilience for India.

1929: India gets its first radio

The 1920s saw the first radio sets imported to India and two stations set up in Bombay and Calcutta for the purpose of news broadcasting only. The number of radio sets all over India was very low and it remained a rich man’s toy. The BBC began its broadcasts to India in the 1930s and with an increase in the tariffs on the radio, it remained painfully out of reach of the Indian populace.

The All India Radio (erstwhile known by various names) was established in the 1930s to disseminate news amongst Indians. This news was tightly controlled by the administration and rise in popularity with many Indians and revolutionaries at the time.

Pre-Independence

Slowly after as the number of radio sets in the country crossed 100,000 there was a rise of numerous underground radio stations.  Most of these were discovered and shut down by the police forces, with underground radio being one of the primary communication links for the revolutionaries since 1935. The amateur licenses were revoked by the British for fear of Indians aligning with the Axis powers and destabilizing the allies in Asia. This criminalized the use of amateur radio and forced it underground in the first place.

The AIR began broadcasting whitewashed news from the BBC suited to Indian sensibilities and focused on the news of World War II while largely neglecting Indian news. The Azad Hind Radio, led by Subhash Chandra Bose, grew in response to this ban and used its reach within and outside India to rouse Indians to stand up to the government and also provided news of the War. He openly condemned the AIR and the BBC and created nationalistic sentiment for Indians fighting the War under the Indian Legion or the Indian National Army. There were weekly news bulletins in eight national languages for volunteers in these forces broadcast from Germany, and later Singapore. This radio station was classified as propaganda radio within India, and aimed to counter the Allied radio news.

Within India, local radio stations were so rigorously monitored that each underground broadcast had to be randomized and anonymous and limited to a few minutes.

One of the most infamous among these was the Congress Radio, which had a three-month run during the Quit India Movement. During its short tenure, the radio had an immense impact in rousing Indians and allowing direct broadcasts from national leaders to step up the demands of Indian freedom. Dr. Usha Mehta was one of the leaders of this station and she coordinated the movement and popularized it among the people. She was arrested and imprisoned for her involvement with organizing the Congress Radio. The radio was clearly perceived as a threat to the British rule and became a huge leveller in the fight for Independence.

Post Independence and Liberation

The post Independence era radio recreated the news bulletin culture of the English in affluent households and chronicled numerous historic occasions such as the Tryst With Destiny, election results, the Five Year plan, amongst several others.

Over time as the radio medium was popularized, the AIR (also called the Akashvani by Rabindranath Tagore) was the primary and only news medium controlled by the government. The AIR became the first link between a new government and its people with most policies being announced over radio news bulletins. The early speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru andDr. Rajendra Prasad helped maintain optimism in the newly partitioned India. The radio helped preserve the idea of India during the trying times of 1962-6 and during the war for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used the radio to communicate with the people when declaring the Emergency in 1975 and thereafter, tightly controlled the news being fed to the masses, asking for news to be flattering to the government.

As the emergence of the transistorized radio increased radio access in communities after 1978, the radio was still restricted to the AIR. The radio created educational segments and interviews to educate the public on subjects like modernized farming & health. The AIR had entertainment segments called Vividh Bharati wherein Bollywood music was played and also advertisements were featured, creating the radio culture that is prevalent to this day.

The resurgence of the medium

During the 1990s Indian audiences abandoned the radio for the television and with fewer people buying radio sets, the medium fell in viewership and thus, stations died out or sold out cheaply. However in the 2000s, it radio took off again, and the growth in viewership and revenue has seen a consistent growth till date. The resurgence is very atypical in broadcast media, given that nobody has gone back to embrace the telegram what was different for the radio?

Perhaps this can be attributed to the growth of the mobile phone which reduced radio from being a bulky, standalone device to a handy application in a breakthrough piece of technology- the radio suddenly became cool again. The radio has this unique advantage of having seamlessly integrated into the phone and online spaces that its predecessors didn’t. The radio receivers could be embedded into mobile phones, vehicles and didn’t have an added cost for entertainment. This made the radio a standalone, on the go entertainment accessory everybody needed.

Furthermore, what added to this complete image-transformation of the radio was the entry of private players after the government sold 108 FM frequencies starting in 2000 to private channels. Times FM did exist in the 1990s, but restrictions by the government didn’t help build a competitive radio space as it did a decade later. Radio City Bangalore in 2001 began the wave of the new age radio we are now so familiar with. The radio also became profitable in the metros with advertisers vying for prime time advertising in a cool new space.

Even today, the strength of the radio is the connect it has with its primary audience that drives advertising like no other medium. With the radio becoming so ubiquitous, hyper-local advertising which helps target audiences effectively followed suit. The TV cannot compete on this front- and advertising is often more expensive and less effective than that of the radio.  The Indian radio today has a wider audience than the BBC, one of the oldest, richest and most reputed TV channels.

The amateur radio, the backbone of India’s radio, also didn’t grow too much post Independence.

The radio took off in the amateur space only after 1984, when taxes on radio equipment were waived. The 2000s saw a meteoric increase in adoption of amateur radio-  about 17,000 licensed HAM channels existed as of 2007. The amateur radio space has helped avert and mitigate deaths and provide vital communication links in times of emergency and natural disasters. India also is one of the only players to have an amateur radio satellite (the HAMSAT) in orbit today. In fact, today, we can thank amateur radio enthusiasts in aiding rescue efforts in the devastating Kerala floods.

The future

The radio space is growing at a healthy rate and is projected to be a Rs 4,780 crore industry by 2021. This is mostly due to the government’s plans to sell 839 frequencies in 227 cities in its phase 3 radio expansion. The adoption of radio stations by larger media houses is a win-win for both parties as the radio is all set to reach more than 2 million people in India over the phase 3 rollout and offers companies the unique benefit of cheaper advertising with the ability to target audiences geographically. Commercial radio stations today commonly use music and celebrity promotional interviews to engage with its audience. They advertise interests and programmes by their parent media groups for free to a wider audience. Both these factors have cemented the radio’s place in the future of broadcasting.

However, the radio in the news space -where it was initiated- has been overtaken by the television and print media. Better penetration by these outlets has ensured that the radio-news bulletin stations have become redundant. The 2017 order by the I&B ministry curbs community news channels from airing any political pieces outside the AIR broadcasts. The radio that began out of political dissent has slowly been stifled into broadcasting nothing but the official version of the news. This seems like a step back from freedom of expression but political dissent and discussions have taken off online with a slew of political podcasts filling in for what has been revoked. The popularity and reach of the podcast, however, is insignificant with respect to the radio.

The future of the radio is so far secure, but it remains to be seen whether it will continue to be used for entertainment alone or whether it will go back to where it came from: being a toll of revolution and new ideas.


Suradha Iyer is a writing analyst at Qrius