A hundred years of radio
THE percentage of people listening to the radio in this country these days has dropped. Perhaps it’s because television has managed to spread its tentacles into regions previously considered inaccessible. Or because other sources of receiving news, like the internet or the mobile phone have surfaced. But there was a time when the square box with the circular top and the rotating knobs, tucked away into the corner of the drawing room, was the only source of instant news, information and entertainment, and the only meaningful contact with the outside world. This was certainly the case in pre-Partition Bhopal where The Times of India arrived a day late and was read with next day’s breakfast.
How well this writer remembers as a child, towards the close of the Second World War, those nights in the central Indian city with the two lakes. One was cocooned from the rest of the universe by a cloak of mosquito netting. And the only light in the impenetrable darkness came from the bright green dial on the Czechoslovakian radio. The wireless became a close and trusted friend. Night after night as the selector needle was eased from left to right one was able to pick up all sorts of exotic stations Manila, Djakarta, Honolulu. One could hear the swish of the surf and the wind rustling through the palm trees when they played ‘The song of the islands.’ And one could picture a group of native maidens, garlanded with leis of hibiscus and gardenia, dancing the hula on the sand.
That was the great thing about radio. It gave one the opportunity to use one’s imagination, and to create what Walter Lippman referred to as ‘counterfeits of reality.’ Since a person was using only one of his senses after tuning in, and was not seeing what was actually taking place, it was possible to imagine a scene as it unfolded. This was especially the case when listening to a play, a short story or a whodunit. The early years in Pakistan were no different. The radio kept one in touch with what was happening in the wide, wide world, and what was taking place just around the corner on the hit parade. How one looked forward to those broadcasts of western music by Edward Carrapiard and Fawzia Maung who provided an aural conduit through which people kept in touch with one another in that precious half hour. Those were the days when one could hear Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony one week and Mexicali Rose the next.
It was therefore with pleasurable anticipation that this writer turned up at the two-day conference on radio held towards the end of last month at the Karachi Arts Council. The conference had a somewhat long-winded title – ‘100 years of Radio: the voice of our times: yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ But every minute that was spent in the auditorium, listening to the participants conjugating the rigours of their calling and regaling the audience with delightful accounts of the past, was worth it. The audience was made up of a galaxy of veterans, as well as the younger breed of broadcasters. There were also media specialists, scholars, journalists, academicians, civil society activists, and people who just dropped in to find out what it was like in the good old days. It was an assembly of individuals from places and disciplines that had never interacted with each other in Pakistan to such a profound extent. The speeches and references were simply drenched with nostalgia and a jolly good thing too, for in a country that seems to have lost its moorings, the only thing it has left is memories.
The conference was the brainchild of Javed Jabbar, former senator, minister, film maker and author, a writer of repute and a leading voice in Asian media. What struck one was the wide interest the conference had evoked. There were at least 250 participants, many of whom were plucked from far flung parts of the country like Ghotki and Sukkur, Tharparkar, and Dadu, and around 200 guests. Jabbar set the tone of the conference when in his introductory speech he pointed out that radio was the first communication medium in human history to truly democratise access to information and knowledge. He said that this change led directly to a new level of mass political awareness around the globe and inspired the worldwide revolutionary movements against colonialism leading to independence of occupied nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
What distinguished this forum from others was the fact that the chief guests in the inaugural session were not high-profile ministers or government politicians, but low income radio listeners, some of whom travelled over 600 kilometres by truck and bus to share their experiences of how their participation in workshops on ‘radio and women’s empowerment’ organised by Baanhn Beli during the past few years, had given them a new sense of self-esteem. There were also blind listeners and blind radio presenters like Bilal Shafi and Kashif Ahmed as well as a few disc jockeys on FM stations. The piece de resistance on the first day, was a memorable seven-minute tape by Azeem Sarwar, a former senior official of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. The tape contained 31 clips of sounds from the history of radio and included among other vignettes, the voice of George Bernard Shaw, the terrible boom of the first atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, the voices of Mr M.A. Jinnah and Mr Liaquat Ali Khan, and flashes of song from three of Pakistan’s greatest classical singers, Roshan Ara Begum, Noor Jehan, and Mehdi Hasan.
There was never a dull moment during the two-day conference. A procession of distinguished personalities, a sort of who’s who of Pakistan Radio, ascended on to the stage and gave brief glimpses of the role they played in the history of this great medium.
One of Pakistan’s pioneer cricket commentators and a distinguished international diplomat, Jamshed Marker, recalled the early days when the commentators’ box was first located on the ground before it was moved to a wooden machaan. He dilated on how he and his colleague, the late Omar Kureshi, tried to capture in words the sights and sounds and the excitement of the sport. Munir Hussain also spoke about how he introduced Urdu cricket commentary. Then came Zia Mohyeddin, a national treasure, who recounted how he began professional work as a radio broadcaster and was a witness to some interesting episodes; like the time when some officials tried to ‘Islamise’ the names of classical music ragas. Z.A. Bukhari, the first DG of Radio Pakistan, would have nothing to do with such “absurd attempts to mutilate music”.
Zia was followed by Khwaja Shahid Hussain, a former director general of the PBC, and a former ambassador to Unesco in Paris, who specially flew down from London; Jehan Ara, chief executive of Enabling Technologies, and Dr Altamash Kamal, a specialist in advanced IT and former editor of Spider magazine; Amir Uppal and Sohail Hashmi, who hosts a popular daily programme on FM89. The veteran Agha Nasir, a former director general of PBC who wrote a large number of acclaimed radio plays, and author-broadcaster Sabih Mohsin also made an appearance and lamented the decline of radio’s role in fostering the richness and resonance of language. Others who spoke were Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar who presented a hilarious 15-minute skit on a fictitious minister of information and broadcasting, the representatives of three major global radio networks – the BBC, Deutsche Welle and the Voice of America, civil activist Syed Abid Rizvi from Quetta, Owais Aslam Ali, secretary general of the Pakistan Press Foundation and Iftikhar Rashid, chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.
Two brothers, Humayun Ansari and Azmat Ansari, described the ideal requirement for being good listeners and the pleasures of broadcasting and listening to western classical music on Radio Pakistan. Nihal Ahmed, a former PBC director and author of ‘A History of Radio Pakistan’ referred to an interesting passage in the book which pertained to the death of he founder of the nation. Mr Jinnah passed away at about 10.55 pm on September 11, 1948. In those days Radio Pakistan used to end its daily transmission at 11.00 pm. By the time the news about Mr Jinnah’s demise had reached Radio Pakistan, the transmission had already concluded. And so it wasn’t until the morning of September 12, 1948, that the people of Pakistan heard about the death. It was an interesting epitaph to a very successful conference.