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The strange and amusing history of Indian Commercial Radio - Ameen Sayani


Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Did you know that, until the dawn of the 1950s, All India Radio (later also called Akashwani) was one of the finest broadcasting organizations in the world? 

Patterned on the lines of the BBC, AIR carried out its mandate of ‘Education, Information, Entertainment’ with great skill and magnificent impact – with the full participation of the nation’s finest writers, speakers, performers, presenters and producers. 

And, like the BBC, AIR also never thought it necessary to allow commercials to step into its parlour and maybe dilute its excellence in those early days. Although the Partition in 1947 had resulted in a number of great broadcasters opting for Pakistan, India still retained enough talent, flair and expertise in the field of communications to keep AIR’s flag flying proud and high. 

But then, three things happened that began to clip AIR’s wings on the one hand and, on the other, led to Indian Commercial Radio being born—but abroad (almost like an unwanted child !): 

At the time of granting Ceylon (Sri Lanka) its independence in 1948, the British also donated to Sri Lanka their superb short-wave transmitters (earlier used for Lord Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command, and situated in Colombo), which the Sri Lankan government deployed for its newly-formed All-Asia Commercial Broadcast Services in English, Hindi and Tamil. Some of these were long-range 100 kw transmitters, which could cover not only the entire Asian continent with great clarity and range, but were also able to reach South and East Africa! (The English and Tamil All-Asia Services took off with a bang soon after their inception. But the Hindi Service, in spite of its immense potential, didn’t initially have any professional broadcasters to nurture it – just a group of amateurs gathering and playing records of Indian film songs.) 

While all this was happening, there came on the Indian scene a great purist whom most of our early commercial broadcasters fondly refer to as the ‘Father of Radio Ceylon’. He was none other than India’s Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Dr BV Keskar. With energetic dedication, Keskar went about straitjacketing AIR and shackling creativity in bureaucratic rigidity. Keskar’s most drastic act—the reason for which no one could ever fathom—was to totally ban Hindi film music from AIR!  AIR’s entire treasury of Hindi film songs was either thrown away or destroyed—just at the time when film music had already entered its “golden” period, and was being enriched by great composers, lyricists and singers, all helping to keep India’s magnificent multi-faceted traditions of literature, romance and philosophy alive. And secondly, film songs had also already become, through AIR itself, the finest medium for the spread of national integration and the national language. Predictably, Radio Ceylon’s Hindi service, which was playing almost nothing but Hindi film songs—soon began to take over AIR’s entire “popular entertainment” audience!

The third factor involved an American who had a business in India in those days, Daniel Molina, who saw a commercial opportunity in Radio Ceylon’s fast-spreading popularity, and managed to set up a sole agency to channelise Indian commercial business to Radio Ceylon. He also created a production unit called Radio Enterprises Private Limited (REPL) for the preparation of radio programmes and commercials. To head REPL as Programme Director, Molina selected a young man who was already a star broadcaster on AIR’s Bombay station and a leading actor-director on the Bombay stage, Hamid Sayani, who had also been trained in advertising in such leading firms as J. Walter Thompson and Stronachs. 

Hamid took the English section under his wing, and gathered a strong group of people to set up REPL’s Hindi section. Radio Ceylon’s broadcasts soon began to be peppered with catchy commercials and jingles of almost all the major brands being sold in Indian markets, and also ‘sponsored’ shows which caught on like wildfire. Many of those commercials and programmes are still fondly remembered. 

Some of the Hindi sponsored shows that stormed the airwaves through Radio Ceylon (later called Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) were: ‘Ovaltine Phulwari’, ‘Colgate Rang Tarang’, ‘Lux Ke Sitaray’ (compered by Balraj, who later blossomed into the famous film star Sunil Dutt), ‘Binaca (later Cibaca and Colgate-Cibaca) Geetmala’, ‘Polson’s Chanchal Balak’, ‘S.Kumar Ka Filmi Muqaddama’, ‘Maratha Darbar Ki Mehekti Baaten’, etc. There were also some sponsored shows for various clients/products presented each week by famous film personalities such as Nargis, Meena Kumari, Manmohan Krishna, Talat Mehmood, Geeta Dutt, David, and others. And, of course, every major feature film that was released booked its own special series of shows. 

AIR was, naturally, quite uncomfortable with its listenership and potential revenue being gobbled up by an upstart neighbouring station. So, after the exit of Keskar, AIR welcomed the return of film music and popular formats with the advent of a new service, the Vividh Bharati network, in October 1957. But commercials were still not permitted, and Radio Ceylon kept merrily booming along until November 1967, when Vividh Bharati became AIR’s first Commercial Service. 

However, even that couldn’t topple Radio Ceylon’s formidable popularity and commercial success, for three reasons: 

  • Vividh Bharati’s commercial stations were being broadcast through short-range urban medium-wave transmitters, leaving huge areas of India uncovered, while Radio Ceylon’s short-wave beams reached all parts of the country.

  • Vividh Bharati’s advertising rate structures were station-linked, while Radio Ceylon’s rates were perhaps the lowest among any commercial media in the world. If a client wanted to go “national” on Vividh Bharati (yet covering only the restricted urban station areas), he would have to pay almost ten times more than Radio Ceylon’s rates for unrestricted all-Asia coverage! 

  • AIR was still resisting the entry of ‘sponsored’ shows, which were the backbone of Radio Ceylon’s popularity. However popular and effective a station’s own presenters are—and both Radio Ceylon and Vividh Bharati had many highly competent and successful announcers—they can never provide the variety and meticulous programming (backed by more abundant funds) that radio shows recorded by 'outside' producers can deliver.

It took AIR three more years to realize this, and Vividh Bharati’s first lot of externally recorded sponsored shows finally began to pour in from 3rd May 1970. A huge array of excellent sponsored shows came to be aired, all building up tremendous listenership and revenue for AIR.

AIR finally heaved a huge sigh of relief when, after the 1970s, Radio Ceylon’s reception began to dwindle. Its old short-wave transmitters were aging, and the short-wave bands were being badgered by powerful 1000 kw transmitters from Moscow and Peking, knocking out all other stations that came in their way. Also, India’s Information & Broadcasting Ministry had acquired its greatest hero, the dynamic minister, Vasant Sathe, who not only cleaned up the weaker aspects of AIR, but also enlisted advertising and media professionals to help him turn Doordarshan (the national TV channel) into a fantastically powerful medium by streamlining commercial rates and polishing up the programming.

However, AIR’s Commercial Service dipped once again with Sathe’s exit. Just when Doordarshan was commencing its sponsored show scheme (another gift by Sathe’s chosen 'Working Group' of professionals), AIR raised its advertising rates five-fold, resulting in a dismal crash in revenue earning—since countless clients shifted their budgets to Doordarshan. In fact, many such mishaps occurred, which would take many more pages to explain, so let’s just examine the broad details of the shaping of Indian Commercial Radio thereafter:

  • After much coaxing from professionals (under the aegis of the Advertising Agencies Association of India and Bombay’s Advertising Club), commercials were also introduced on AIR’s Primary Channels, to reach larger rural audiences. (It took many more nudges to allow Primary Channels to accept sponsored shows, and it is interesting to note that shows sponsored by private advertisers and government agencies on AIR’s Primary Channels are doing an excellent job even today to spread commercial as well as social progress in rural India.)

  • The year 1993 heralded the opening up of AIR’s arms to welcome Independent Radio. A few hours of air time on FM/VB channels of Mumbai and Delhi (and later Chennai, Kolkata and Panaji) were offered for sale to private broadcasting companies. Listeners still remember the sudden breath of fresh air brought in by the informal, fun-filled, chatty programmes of Radio Mid-Day and Times FM from the morning of 15 August 1993.

  • Just when these private broadcasters’ businesses began to flourish, AIR cancelled all their slots, and – after another uncomfortable interval—introduced a system that allowed private broadcasters to bid for specific FM frequencies, on which they could set up their own independent transmissions. And thus the foundation was laid for the more than sixty station-groups that are functioning and presumably thriving today—the better known of which are: Radio MIRCHI, Radio CITY, BIG FM, RED FM, MY FM, Radio ONE, OYE, FEVER, DHAMAAL, HELLO, and many others. Many of these independent broadcast companies operate in a number of cities, and many more cities are likely to be opened up to private broadcasters in the future.

  • To add to these, AIR has also considerably expanded its own array of commercial stations. Apart from Vividh Bharati and the Primary Channels, commercial time is now also being sold on AIR’s Local Radio stations, FM GOLD metro channels, FM RAINBOW stations in many cities, the National Channel, External Service and the North Eastern Service !

No mere article—perhaps not even a whole book, would be able to correctly analyse and evaluate the plethora of options, outlets, rates, reach and efficacy of all the commercial radio channels available in India today. The only exercise one could effectively undertake is to briefly pinpoint the main problems of the medium, and suggest avenues of rationalisation and improvement. And that is what this article now proposes to do:

A. Let there be variety:

The most annoying thing about many FM radio stations today is that they all sound alike, and often play the same songs over and over again. It is critical that each presenter/announcer develops his/her own distinctive personality and style – or the programmes (which are the “mother-content” for commercials) could begin to sound infinitely boring. And as far as the content selection goes, the need for variety has already begun to be understood, and many stations have started blending the “bang-bang, rush-rush” style of contents with a little more elegance of the somewhat older-world charm. 

B. Don’t subdue creativity with useless bureaucratic dictatorship:

One could quote innumerable instances of official high-handedness in earlier years, such as when the song ‘Mehengai Maar Gai’ (‘the soaring prices are killing us’) from the film Roti Kapda Aur Makaan  was banned by AIR during the Emergency, because someone high up in Delhi wasn’t comfortable with people being informed that ‘prices were hitting the roof’! Similarly, the broadcasting authorities have not allowed independent broadcasters to present news and current affairs, although the Supreme Court of India has clearly granted the fundamental right of ‘freedom of speech’ to all communications media. It has been amply proven over the last six decades that things work best when governments have perennial interaction with professionals, as they should in any democracy. One-sided bulldozing normally leads to disaster. 

C. Remember the famous saying: ‘the best radio programmes are the ones that you can see’! There are no visual aids in radio – the words we speak and the music (or effects) we play help to create visual images in the minds of the listeners, who fill in their own forms, colours, textures and even fragrances. It is only when radio programmes ‘come alive’ that the commercials they carry are best conveyed and remembered. And sponsored programmes recorded externally can also help tremendously in livening up a station’s programming. 

D. Clarity and simplicity are commercial radio’s most vital requirements (besides, of course, creativity):

Radio, being the most 'fleeting' of all media, needs always to be immediately understood. We often come across commercials these days which, although full of enjoyable 'sound and fury', are rendered so fast as to make us wonder: what exactly were they trying to sell ? Let the pace of delivery and the speech be a little more comprehensible, and let the pronunciation of all the languages being spoken be more precise and correct (even when speaking colloquial 'Hinglish' !) 

E. Finally, let there not be so immense a proliferation of radio channels that quality is compromised, and both media owners and listeners cease to care:

Only one instance will be sufficient to illustrate this point: Mumbai’s Vividh Bharati transmitter is supposed to be the most powerful of all VB stations (almost 50 khz) and is charged for as such – but, for over 12 years, it can’t be heard in most parts of Mumbai ! The maintenance of transmitters, their correct rating, regular feedback research and the avoidance of unchecked expansion are all vital to keep Indian commercial radio on the move – and 'on the hop'! 

Image description:  On June 16, 1938, AIR Madras station on Marshall’s Road, Egmore, was inaugurated by C. Rajagopalachari, then premier of Madras Presidency, Lionel Fielden, controller of broadcasting, and Sir Andrew Clow, member of communication in the Viceroy’s Executive Council. Photo: The Hindu Archives. Source:


Ameen Sayani is a popular former radio announcer from India. He achieved fame and popularity all across South Asia when he presented his Binaca Geetmala program of hits over the airwaves of Radio Ceylon. He is one of the most imitated announcers even today.

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