New Delhi: It was the BBC’s Hindi radio on shortwave that slowly carved an identity for the British broadcaster in India after its launch 80 years ago. With an estimated audience of 40 lakh across India, the radio service was the first choice for consumers of serious news and entertainment alike, particularly in the remote and far-flung parts of the country.
But the service fell silent last month, on 31 January, with the BBC management citing a dwindling audience and plans to boost digital and TV presence as reasons to call time on this chapter of history.
It came as a rude shock for its loyal audience and the dismay was evident, according to BBC insiders.
“It was heartbreaking to see the kind of emotional emails and letters we received on the days preceding the shutdown and after that,” an insider told ThePrint. “They (the audience) pleaded to keep the service afloat. Some even said they were willing to crowdfund it. But it seems the management was interested in the numbers and the BBC Hindi radio service on shortwave was not giving them adequate numbers.”
Another insider in the BBC said audience numbers for the radio service had come down from 1 crore a few years ago to about 40 lakh now, even as its presence on platforms such as YouTube thrived. The service has also established its presence on television with a tie-up with news channel NDTV.
“But in our experience the quality of news consumers is poor in digital as compared to the loyal audience that BBC Hindi radio service in shortwave enjoyed,” the second insider said, basing the assessment on feedback received from both sets of audiences.
“I would say the management was insensitive to the millions of listeners in the remote corners of India who banked on the service as their daily source of news,” the insider added.
The decision to switch off BBC Hindi radio is part of the British broadcaster’s global cost-cutting efforts. It had planned to end the BBC Hindi radio service in 2011, but changed plans owing to massive outrage and a high-profile campaign supported by eminent journalist and author Sir Mark Tully, a former bureau chief of the BBC.
It’s not just the BBC Hindi radio service that has suffered on account of this twin push to cut costs and go digital. Even BBC Urdu announced in December last year that it will end the radio broadcast of its popular news and current affairs programme, Sairbeen.
In India, BBC also has internet broadcasts in other Indian regional languages, but no associated radio services.
The unique challenge of India as a market
While the BBC management emphasised the fact about its dwindling audiences and its digital and TV push, experts say another reason could be the challenges India poses as a market for radio.
“Many remote parts of India are still not connected by the internet. How will they avail of BBC Hindi radio service in its digital format? For them, it is as good as over,” an official from the All India Radio engineering service told ThePrint.
The BBC doesn’t broadcast from India and has hired transmitters in neighbouring countries such as Nepal for Indian broadcasters.
“As a result, the broadcast has reportedly not been very clear and there are crackling sounds. As part of its cost-cutting measures, BBC probably wants to save on the hiring cost of the transmitters,” the official added.
The first BBC insider quoted above said, in parts of Africa, for example, the broadcaster had local language tie-ups with FM channels and hence the transmissions were clear. “But since the Indian government does not allow news and current affairs on radio channels, there could be no local tie-ups here for the Hindi service, which primarily comprised broadcasts on news and current affairs,” the insider added.
“In the absence of any local tie-up, the quality of voices on shortwave suffered, which could have also resulted in some loss of listenership.”
BBC had boosted J&K broadcasts after Article 370
While the BBC World Service has generally tried reducing its shortwave broadcasts, particularly in South Asia, for the aforementioned reasons, it had bolstered shortwave broadcasts in Jammu & Kashmir after the scrapping of Article 370 in August last year. This was done in light of the communication shutdown in the erstwhile state, which made phone and internet connectivity inaccessible to local residents.
BBC World Service director Jamie Angus had said at the time, “Given the shutdown of digital services and phone lines in the region, it’s right for us to try and increase the provision of news on our shortwave radio services. Audiences in both India and Pakistan trust the BBC to speak with an independent voice, and we know that our reporting through several moments of crisis this year has been popular and valued by audiences who turn to us when tensions are highest.”
“Listenership for shortwave service may be on a decline. But in a world of internet shutdowns, that remains the only option for radio broadcasters to reach an audience,” the AIR official quoted above said. “Unlike the internet or FM broadcasts, shortwave signals are the least prone to jamming. The BBC had realised its potential at that time and had increased its shortwave radio broadcasts.”