There are over 140 commercial FM radio stations operating across the country at this moment. Add another 45, which are non-commercial, and you’re looking at nearly 200 FM stations, covering the length and breadth of the country. It’s not like they’ve been around forever.
For the longest time, there was just Radio Pakistan. It was only in the early nineties that the first FM radio station, then known as FM Special, started broadcasting from Islamabad. A month later, Karachi came online as well. All this was under the umbrella of Radio Pakistan. Later, these channels were rebranded into what is today FM 101.
A few years afterwards, Pakistan’s first commercial radio station FM100 came into being. Both 100 and 101 were young, brash and vibrant, and attracted a similar audience. The presenters (radio jockeys) became household names and stars in their own right.
Since FM 101 was borne from within Radio Pakistan, all the first few broadcasters that came into the FM industry were trained individuals. “There was a proper selection process and not everybody could go on air,” remembers Tauseeq Haider, arguably the first FM presenter in Pakistan. “Not only were we trained on how to speak but also on what to say and what not to say on air.”
To be fair, the first crop of FM broadcasters had some heavy weights from Radio Pakistan to lean back on. People like Abid Hussain and Seema Siddiqi who kept a hawkish eye on what went on air and what didn’t.
And then there was the clear distinction between broadcasters (radio jockeys) and producers. Today, there is no such thing. A presenter is a producer and everything in between and radio has been reduced to nothing more than a jukebox of Bollywood numbers, brimming with frivolous content and blabbering semi-delusional presenters. As one old radio producer said to me “the moment five people start listening to somebody, they think they’ve become a star!”
Haider believes that when the state opened up the radio industry, it should have made some rules and guidelines for how broadcasting was to be done. Instead, once radio went private, all the owners cared about was profit and loss. Content took a back seat, and what happened next took radio even further down the drain.
While everyone in the radio industry complains ‘there’s not enough money!’ one just needs to step out of the urban centres to really understand the medium’s dilemma. Rural channels hardly pay anything to their talent. They sometimes don’t even have producers. The talent comes in for free and the only real staff are the sales people. They go and sell airtime to anybody willing to buy it.
And as a former head of an FM network broadcasting in KP and parts of FATA, I can attest to the same: when we took over Radio Buraq, the channel was running adverts from hakims and naswar walas in Mardan. And the moment we decided to say no to such clients, the revenue stream dried up, because those hakims and naswar walas were the only ones in the area who wanted to advertise. This raised the pressure on the sales department who were left scraping to find local advertisers to match rising operational costs.
There is also the issue of ethics. Some of the adverts on rural radio stations are not suitable for certain age groups. Yet, there they are. And again, as long as the money is coming in, the owners don’t care if there is an advertisement for male fertility pills going on air on his or her network. And the regulatory body doesn’t have enough of a monitoring system in place to hear every single advert, on every single FM channel in the country. Which is why there is some severely objectionable content still going on air in some of the semi-urban and rural FM stations in the country.
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Radio is also considered an ultimate tool in the preservation of language. Just listen to some of the old stalwarts of Radio Pakistan. The enunciation is immaculate. The breathing control, remarkable. Some of the words one hears are incredulous, because we have come so far from our language ourselves. But turn the dial to any one of the private channels, and the listener is bombarded with heavily accented minglish. A dagger in the hearts of English and Urdu both.
Anybody worth his salt in radio understands that the ultimate driver is the programming content. And that can only be understood by first getting into the minds of the audience. Which is precisely what we did prior to re-launching Radio Buraq: conducting a five city listener research to understand what they audience wanted to hear.
The findings were astonishing. The further one moved from the urban centres, the need for information rose. People wanted to hear the news, they wanted to hear about sports, and technology, literature and prose, and everything in-between. These findings were in stark contrast to what were long-held beliefs about radio, that it is a secondary and passive medium. The moment we honed in our content, people started to tune in. And once the programming bar was raised, the money slowly started to trickle in.
To be fair, there is still some good content to be found on the radio-waves. Certain urban channels understand the need for content to be the main driver of radio and have managed to carve a niche for themselves by doing just the same. There are some who have become the voice of a city or a community and by doing so, are able to gather enough sales to keep going. A few have understood the music needs of the listeners and have taken the presenter out of the equation completely.
And then there’s Radio Pakistan. Yet another great institution, filled with potential, going down the drain. “Radio Pakistan has all the necessary ingredients to change the way radio is consumed in Pakistan,” says Haider. “All it needs is a real broadcaster to lead the network.”