FM Radio in Pakistan

FM Radio in Pakistan

Past, Present and Future

Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace: this is the theme for World Radio Day 2019. Radio, which has the distinction of being the world’s first electronic medium, has evolved over the years to become what it is today – a part and parcel of our lives. With its extensive outreach, high user-friendliness and admirable diversity of its content, as well as a local hue, radio still holds a distinctive place in an age of digital media, especially the social media. During the past few decades, the importance and use of radio in world’s social fabric has undergone a conspicuous change. The medium- and short-wave broadcasting is losing its charm and is being taken over by community and commercial radio with frequency modulation (FM) broadcast, which has emerged as an innovative medium. Radio broadcasting in Pakistan is also witnessing this radical change. Right from its very inception, commercial FM radio not only got widespread popularity but it also laid the foundations of a new ‘audio culture’ in the country. Homes, offices, bazaars, marketplaces, vehicles; in fine, FM transmission became omnipresent. As per the figures released by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the authority has issued licenses to as many as 142 commercial FM radio stations, besides 45 non-commercial ones issued to educational and other institutions. So, at present, there are 187 licenced commercial and non-commercial radio stations operational in Pakistan. Moreover, 49 FM radio stations are in public sector being run by Radio Pakistan. If we add up three FM stations working as Friendship Channels of China Radio International, the total number of FM channels currently broadcasting in Pakistan reaches up to 239.

In order to know about the listening trends, pervasive popularity and code of conduct for FM radio, this scribe conducted interviews with Dr Zahid Yousaf (Chairman Center for Media and Communication Studies, University of Gujrat) and Mr Sajjad Bari (One of the very first radio DJs in Pakistan). The questions posed to both these personalities are as under:

1. Has the FM broadcasting revived the culture of listening to radio in Pakistan?
2. What, in your opinion, are the reasons behind widespread popularity of FM radio?
3. Are FM radio stations providing their listeners with the ternary of education, entertainment and information?
4. Are FM radio stations playing a positive role in promoting Urdu and the local languages?
5. Are you satisfied with the content of FM radio?
6. Has PEMRA curtailed the role of FM radio?
7. Are FM stations operational in universities as well as the syllabus for radio taught to Mass Communication students producing graduates well equipped with skills consummate to the demands of the modern-day job market?
8. Are commercial FM stations adequately fulfilling their responsibility of public service broadcasting?
9. Has FM radio been successful in retaining the audience it attracted at the time of its inception?

Read More: The Rise and Rise of FM Radio

On the next page is the crux of the conversation held with Dr Yousaf and Mr Bari wherein they have commented on the above-mentioned questions candidly, and have also suggested what we need to do in the near future:

Dr Zahid Yousaf Chairman Center for Media and Communication Studies, University of Gujrat

1. In the first two decades post-independence, the only electronic medium of communication in Pakistan was radio. So, it had enjoyed an absolute monopoly in this domain. However, with the advent of television, in 1964, a momentous change happened; television grabbed a significant chunk of audience and its rise, over the years, made it immensely popular among the masses so much so that by the end of the twentieth century, the balance was hugely in favour of television. Even a perception developed that radio is listened to only in rural areas. FM radio, nonetheless, diluted this impression to a large extent. So, we can asseverate that the revival of radio has been possible due to FM radio. Currently, unlike the perception I just mentioned, FM radio stations are operational mostly in urban areas and owing to a limited range of its signals – a maximum of 50 kilometres – its audience is located in cities and their suburbs. Although facilities like live stream and podcast have fundamentally changed the term ‘local audience’, yet FM is still popular despite the fact that neither FM broadcast is available in villages nor is the internet facility, and its accessibility is also very limited. A rueful fact is that there has always been a lack of authentic data on radio listening trends and never has been there an effort to analyze them as well as the outreach of this effective medium of communication.

2. A plethora of reasons can be enumerated for such an immense popularity of FM radio, but the difference between AM and FM broadcast – content diversity, better signal quality, live audience participation, and facility to listen to FM radio via mobile phones – being the foremost one. Besides, many ground realities also have contributed to this. For instance, a population facing long electricity outages could fulfil its communication needs only through FM radio. Moreover, FM radio is the only means of communication for nearly 40 percent illiterate Pakistanis and it has the potential to connect millions and millions of Pakistanis living below the idiomatic poverty line.

Similarly, the fast-paced urban life also demonstrates the need of the FM radio. Above all, the role of radio becomes critically important whenever an accident or calamity hits Pakistan. And, we must keep in mind that Pakistan is included in the list of countries – the sixth largest – where populations are most vulnerable to natural calamities. These facts not only highlight the popularity of FM radio in Pakistan but also exhibit its critical importance.

3. Today, radio broadcast is much different from that in the past. When FM radio set its foot in Pakistan, special care was accorded to keep an element of balance in its diverse content. But, with more and more channels entering the field, this balance got disturbed. At present, there are a number of FM channels that play only music 24/7; some only broadcast music and some talk by the presenters and some rope in experts of various fields for their transmissions. So, it would be right to say that FM in Pakistan is used largely for entertainment purposes.

4. Whatever the language of programmes – Urdu or any of the local languages – one thing is undeniable: an excessive use of English language is rampant. Look, every language has its own flavour and a peculiar culture, but no one pays any heed to that. Pronunciation in local languages is somewhat satisfactory, the hosts of Urdu shows make a lot of pronunciation mistakes and their choice of words is also, sometimes, very poor. Even more disturbing is the fact that they do not want to rectify themselves, rather they assert that their audience like such conversation. In this state of affairs, how can you keep a language in its pure form and flavour?

5. As I said earlier, content exhibits the policy a channel follows. And, as far as the element of being satisfied with it is concerned, I would say that a meticulous pre-show preparation, which once was the hallmark of radio announcers, is solely lacking in today’s RJs and DJs. Sans strenuous efforts, the content would be weaker and substandard and would definitely fail to have any positive impact on society. So, organizing regular training and capacity-building courses for the staff of the channel should be the top priority of its management so that the planning, preparation and presentation of the content is always up to the mark.

6. It would be more appropriate to call it regulating, rather than curtailing, the role. Yes, I would recommend that PEMRA should draw up guidelines to maintain balance in the ternary of entertainment, information and knowledge so as to adequately fulfil the people’s communication needs. PEMRA should also relax conditions, e.g. license renewal period and fee, for non-commercial FM channels of universities.

7. No, because radio production is a technical subject and expertise on it is available with Radio Pakistan only. Those teaching radio production in universities hardly have any training and capacity-building opportunities. Resultantly, they fail to properly train their students. Similarly, syllabus, too, is not revised and updated regularly. To ameliorate the situation, I think, MOUs should be concluded between Radio Pakistan and the universities under which training sessions for university teachers should be organized by Radio Pakistan Academy.

8. This is a tyranny of commercialism that most corporate sector institutions shirk their social responsibility and similar is the situation with commercial FM radio stations.

9. I already mentioned that no serious effort to analyze and ascertain trends of radio listening has been seen in Pakistan. So, let’s explore answer to this question through another measure. You know, 200 plus channels are functioning in Pakistan right now and the number is still growing. Our businessmen are shrewd and wise but if FM is not popular anymore, why would they give them advertisements worth two billion rupees annually? Why the private sector has maintained an investment of nearly 1000 million rupees in this sector when there are no listeners of FM radio? It all suggests that FM channels are still immensely popular in Pakistan, thanks to a large audience.

Mr Sajjad Bari 
A Pioneering Radio DJ in Pakistan

1. It is absolutely true that the FM broadcast led to the revival of radio listening in Pakistan. At the time of its advent in the 90s, FM was a novel thing in Pakistan’s radio industry for it offered a new presentation style, an innovative compèring and top-notch music that the audience would get to listen to.
2. Actually, there are various reasons behind the soaring popularity of FM radio. Previously, radio announcers would use a microphone to host a show, but RJs at FM stations introduced a new, informal and a markedly different style. Moreover, their selection of music was also unique. Transmission signals were also far more powerful and audible than those of the radio channels broadcasting via short- or medium-wave. Themes and topics they selected were also not difficult for people to understand. In addition, a facility for the audience to join the show through live phone calls – probably for the very first time people were able to listen to their own voices on radio – created in them a sense of belonging and personal affiliation with FM.
3. No doubt, they have focused mainly the element of entertainment; they are also disseminating education and information to the audience. It, however, varies from channel to channel; some channels focus more on entertainment while many present some other forms of programmes like talk shows, interviews, radio clinic, question-answer programmes, and so on. So, we can say that entertainment is at the top overall; though information and education are a lesser priority.
4. Situation regarding pronunciation is no less than ‘alarming’, I would say. The care accorded to correct pronunciation and usage of words in good old days, i.e. the era of Radio Pakistan, is solely lacking at FM channels and they don’t even bother to take care of that. A new language we call ‘Minglish’ has developed. Although there was only a limited transmission in local languages, the situation has changed after new licenses for different cities have been issued, and now programmes in local languages are increasing in number. Today, you can listen to very good shows in Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, Balochi, Seraiki and other regional languages. Urdu programmes, however, are still replete with pronunciation mistakes while English words, too, are used excessively.
5. I think there is still a long way to go. While issuing licences for new FM channels in the private sector, no heed is paid to professionalism. That’s why there have been no serious efforts on improving the content and formalizing the role of FM radio, nor have there been any training and capacity-building sessions for DJs, keeping in view the needs and requirements, as well as the scope of FM radio in the modern era. Although FM was new to the presenters of Radio Pakistan as well, they were already trained in matters like planning, use of microphone and hosting of the show and the content of their transmission was also much better than that of the channels in private sector.
6. PEMRA has not only curtailed the role of FM channels, especially in the fields of current affairs and news, it has virtually ended it, throwing the local FMs out of the domain of dissemination of political awareness. No local channel is currently allowed to gather news and broadcast a news bulletin, or even touch current affairs. On the other side, TV talk shows on current affairs in our mainstream electronic media have left even the entertainment industry far behind. Had PEMRA allowed FM channels some room to touch news and current affairs, no one would have said what we often hear nowadays: “Who listens to the radio in these modern times!”
7. Not at all! There is a pressing need to revise the syllabus for radio being taught at our universities. It needs to be made practical-based because when we talk to students doing internships, one thing that is vividly clear is that the syllabus they are taught is divorced from the prevailing trends of radio; we need to work on that.
8. Fulfilling but not fully, to some extent, though. And that too varies from channel to channel. FM stations based in big urban centres are much different form those in small cities. We need to improve on that, too.
9. No, the audience is much lesser that what the FM channels attracted when they started their transmissions. The reasons are obvious; innovation and improvisation that would have been there to keep up with the modern-day world are solely lacking. And, as I said earlier, professionals should have joined this field but, unfortunately, it never happened. Some professionals DJs of high calibre have left radio to join television channels. I always say that radio is no competition to television. Radio may have competition with other radio channels and so is the case with television channels, but there can be no inter-medium competition.

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