‘This is Radio Pakistan!’
The institution, which announced Pakistan’s birth and once nurtured the country’s top artists, writers and poets, today struggles for survival. Yes, the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), or Radio Pakistan, as it’s popularly known, is being subjected to a slow death. Lack of funds, flawed policies of the successive governments and a callous attitude of short-sighted officials – all have contributed to its current financial woes. If the Finance Ministry gurus manage to have their way, Radio Pakistan will receive 2.2 billion rupees to run its show in fiscal 2012/13 (July-June). The allocated amount falls short to meet even the salary bill and pensions of its 3,200 current and 4,200 former employees or their spouses, which cost the institution around 3.8 billion rupees a year.
Moreover, the PBC will have no money to run the day-to-day expenses of its 30 broadcasting houses from where 64 frequency modulation (FM), medium- and short-wave radio stations are operated that not only reach Pakistan’s remotest regions, but other parts of the world in 22 local and 11 foreign languages.
There will be no money available to meet PBC’s operational expenses that include payments to its more than 4,000 contractual staff members, maintain its rickety old transmitters or buy oil for electricity generators to ensure transmissions during the frequent and prolonged power outages that plague the country.
Unlike the private-run FM stations, which are concentrated mostly in a handful of urban centres, the PBC-operated radio stations do not bank on pirated music 24/7. They provide news, current affairs shows, educational and social awareness programmes, along with whatever is left of Pakistani music and drama.
One can argue about the quality of content and suggest ways for improvement, but the PBC bosses have a case when they say that they need funds to keep this institution afloat.
In most parts of the world – from the United States to neighbouring India – radio stations are funded by public money or endowment funds. The reason: this institution is not just about airing commercial programmes all the time. It is seen as a public service institution, responsible to inform and educate people along with providing entertainment.
For instance, a private radio station will not air programmes for the small fifty thousand plus Wakhi community of Gilgit-Baltistan in their language because it would be commercially unviable. But the PBC does. The private sector will not run non-commercial community stations in rural areas including Turbat, Skardu, Mithi or Zhob. But the PBC does. There are such desolate regions in the country, where Radio Pakistan serves as the only connection with the rest of the country and the world.
The private sector operates, as it should, where there is money and profit. The state-run institutions have a bigger role and responsibility.
However, the nine revenue-earning FM stations of the PBC generate around 300 million rupees annually through advertising. The PBC’s total share in the country’s radio advertisement is around 30 percent, which is not bad given the stiff competition it faces from more than 100 private stations that are saturated in urban centres and bank mostly on pirated Indian music to attract listeners.
The critics of PBC may rightly say that it remains a mouthpiece of every successive government. And that it is a meant for government and state propaganda – and that too is done in a crude manner. The argument carries weight and underlines the need to improve and revamp this important institution.
The PBC needs to be made more current, reliable, efficient, and technologically advanced so that it remains vibrant and keeps pace with the changing times. There is also a need to free the PBC as well as the Pakistan Television from the clutches of the Information Ministry and put them under a bipartisan control of parliament. But at the same time, they should also be freed from the influence of big businesses and the corporate world. These institutions must be pro-people and act in the larger public interest.
One can talk about many suggestions, but the PBC’s current problem is that it needs sufficient fund-allocation to survive.
According to Murtaza Solangi, PBC’s director general and perhaps the first working journalist who managed to reach its top slot, the institution faces an imminent closure if the Finance Ministry does not allocate at least 5.2 billion rupees for the next financial year. This is the minimum PBC needs to ensure payment of salaries, pensions and run its operations.
But given the fragile state of the country’s economy and its gnawing budget deficit, which according to the State Bank of Pakistan is likely to be around 6.5 percent in the current fiscal, the Finance Ministry appears to be in no mood to oblige the PBC.
The Information Ministry has already been informed about this meagre allocation. With Qamar Zaman Kaira back in the Information Ministry ‘saddle’, will his weight matter where Firdous Aashiq Awan’s failed to make a difference? This is perhaps a 5.2 billion rupees worth question for the PBC officials and its well-wishers.
To end PBC’s financial troubles, the government should consider reviving the radio license fee which was scrapped in 1999 when Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif was in power. The Sharif government had also abolished PBC’s tax-exemption status. Both the radio license fee and tax-exemption were part of the Constitution under the 1973 PBC Act introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government.
For the Pakistan Peoples’ Party government perhaps this is the time to correct the wrong and save an institution, which has been connecting Pakistan and recording and telling its political, social and cultural history since 1947.
Pakistan and its people should not be left just at the mercy of sleazy pirated music, BBCs and All India Radios of this world. We need Pakistani narrative and voice on this medium. Who else, but the PBC can do this. Yes, despite its many short-comings, Radio Pakistan still matters. It not only evokes nostalgia, but remains a powerful medium of today which is stretching into the future. For, “this is Radio Pakistan!”
The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org