Sparking a Radio Reboot in Rural India

Team MyGov
28 Apr 2023

I remember there was a weekly radio opera called ‘Loha Singh’ that used to be broadcast in newly Independent India by All India Radio, Patna. Groups gathered around tea and paan shops, chaupals, and the houses of a ‘naukaria’ (the name given to those who were in service and, hence, could afford a radio) to listen to the play in several parts of northern and eastern India. But that was in the heyday of the radio. Post-’90s, the popularity of the radio declined steadily —first, because of Doordarshan, then private cable TV and finally OTT.

So, when after becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi announced that he would interact with the Indian masses through a radio programme called Mann ki Baat, people, especially the urban elite, were quite befuddled by his choice. But as the show marks its 100th episode on April 30, many are realising the role it has played in reviving the radio in India. While critics dub it propaganda that only BJP cadres listen to, it seems to have struck a chord with common people. Farmers, labourers, truck drivers sitting in dhabas tune in to Maan ki Baat on the day of its broadcast in rural India.

It’s not one-way communication either. AIR centres say they receive thousands of postcards and inland letters from listeners who want to give their opinions and comments on the various episodes of Mann ki Baat. So, in a strange sort of way, it’s also helped to revive letter writing.

So why does this use of a ‘dying’ medium work? For one thing, radio has a deep memory in the Indian rural psyche. Most people still perceive radio and newspapers as credible sources of information. For instance, one hears things like ‘radio ne kaha hai’ (it came on the radio) or ‘akhbar me chhapa hai’ (it was published in the newspaper). This shows that these two mediums still have authenticity and legitimacy in rural or semi urban India. There are popular songs in rural north India such as ‘bagiya ghuma da piya, radio suna da ho’ (O beloved, take me to the garden and play the radio for me) which reflect the fondness for radio. Modi’s Mann ki Baat tried to touch and invoke these popular memories. In fact, he invested his own popularity to popularise the radio.

Another reason is that this is non-political communication by a politician. Modi usually avoids bringing up political issues in his Mann ki Baat episodes. A rough content analysis of the episodes by this columnist reveals certain patterns. There are two main narratives —one is inspirational and the other evokes aspirational bhav (feelings) among listeners. For the latter, the PM highlights characters who are working at the grassroots level to deal with issues like water crisis, environmental crisis due to unbalanced development etc.

Inspirational content is generated by narrating the success stories of local entrepreneurs to make them a role model for others. In rural speak, these strategies would be called ‘dekha-dekhi aage badhana’ (aspire to new goals by looking at others). The third type of communication is centred around providing social confidence to various communities on the margins such as tribals by mentioning their heroes, histories and icons. The fourth type of message mostly focuses on the need to eradicate social evils such as drug addiction which are weakening our social capacity to grow and develop. The fifth type of message revolves around promotion of local arts and crafts which has been catchily dubbed ‘vocal for local’.

In fact, a mention in Mann ki Baat gives a big fillip to local entrepreneurs, changemakers and activists. One could call it a trickle down effect.

So, this is an interesting reinvention of radio in the time of mediascape (as termed by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai), which may infuse confidence and aspiration among some sections of society. The affluent and urban sections have an entirely different lens to see society so they may miss the importance of radio as a medium of communication for marginalised and rural India even in the age of smartphones and social media.

Author: Badri Narayan

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