Monday, July 7, 2008

Radio in India in 1960s

I have been holding forth a lot on Binaca geetmala. But I have not yet talked about the medium on which this programme was broadcast i.e. radio. Also, I have not talked about Ameen Sayani, the presenter of Binaca geetmala. I will talk about Ameen Sayani in future. At present, I will talk about radio in India in 1960s and 70s.

It is difficult to imagine today, but there were hardly any sources of information ( and indeed entertainment) for the masses till 1900. It was in the early decades of that century that radio was invented and radio stations were opened. In India, radio stations were first opened in 1920s and its spread over the country was quite slow in the beginning. There were very few radio stations in India at that time.

Radio sets themselves used to be bulky as they used to contain vacuum tube valves ( not solid state components like transistors and ICs, which were invented only in 1950s and later). In addition to being bulky, they were expensive too. A radio set occupied pride of place in the household that was fortunate enough to have them. Money was not the only constraint. Electricity was another constraint. battery operated radio sets ( transistor radio) were non existent because transistor itself was yet to be invented.

Now a days, with the benefit of hindsight, we take many things for granted. For instance, we are told that India became independent on 15th August 1947 and people all over the country celebrated it. The reality was, many parts of the country were blissfully unaware of this occurence. My father, who was a school student and lived in a village, used to maintain a diary in 1947. ( had I been more aware of the value of antiques, I would have preserved that diary, but it was not yet antique value in 1970s when I stumbled upon it). This diary had an entry somewhere in september 1947 that India had got independence sometime in August. when questioned, my father told me that no one was aware of the fact because they had no means of communication within 15 miles of his village. And same was the case for everyone else in that area. The nearest radio set was 15 miles away and it was through that radio set that a vague information about Indian independance slowly trickled down among people there.

Also, one could not have a radio just like that. One needed to have a license to own it and pay license fee of Rs 15 per year ( Rs 15 was more than one day's pay for a salaried person), just like one needed license to own a gun. The license book was the size of ration card ( another coveted document) and needed to be kept in safe custody.In fact, one needed to have a license for owning a cycle as well, and the metal token given as license needed to be fixed on the cycle.Cycles were checked by traffic police for license plate and night lamp, the way they check scooters and motor cycles now a days.Yes, cycles were required to have night lamps compulsorily, Horn/bell called ghanti, were also compulsory items on a bicycle those days.

Having completed all formalities and having arranged for all requirements like electricity etc, the radio had to be installed. It was a specialised job and the radio seller would depute his trained personnel for the job, who would install the aerial.Yes, it was called aerial, not antenna. Now, this aerial was not like a thin rod that we see today. It was more like a fishing net rather than a fishing rod, and needed to be spread in an expert way as if catching the radio wave was like catching fishes. There were people who would not bother installing the aerial as it was too cumbersome to first install and later maintain. One could get reception without aerial too, but not of the same quality as with the aerial.

Having gone through all the hassles successfully, now it was the time to actually use the radio. The process went something like this- switch on the main switch on the switch board, then rotate the designated knob clockwise, which would cause the radio to get switched on. Now wait for the radio to get started ( the way we wait for computers to get booted today). after a minute or two, the valves would start functioning and the radio was ready to be used.

Front of the radio set would be glowing like the screen of present day laptops and there were many numbers and words etched on the front panel of the radio.If car engines are described in terms of their cylinders, then the radios were described in terms of bands. Typically, a radio set would have three or four bands ( smaller and cheaper sets would have lesser number of bands, expensive bulky sets would even have seven or more bands). One of the bands would be called medium wave band, rest would be short wave bands. In rest of the world, like say England, they even had long wave band, but that was not the case in India.

After switching on the radio, one needed to select the band. If the radio had say four bands, one of them would be medium wave band, then the rest were short wave bands, typically marked SW1,SW2 and SW3. SW1 would have areas marked like 9M, 13M ,16M, 19 M ( which would indicate wavelenth in meters).Personally, I never found much use of this band in India, because none of the radio stations of interest broadcasted in these wavelengths.

SW2 was the band that was of most interest. It had 25 M, 31 M and 41 M marked in it. 25 M was special because that is where radio Ceylon ( later Sri Lanka broadcasting corporation) used to broadcast its Hindi service programme. SW3 had 49M upto 90 M marked on it. MW band had marks from 135M to say 900 M.

Adjacent to the meter marking, there used to be marking for frequency in MHz or KHz.And these readings were inversely proportional to the wave length values.
Higher the meter value, lower the frequency, and vice versa.Radio stations would announce the meter and frequency periodically like " This is the Hindi overseas service of Sri Lanka broadcasting corporation broadcasting on 25 m at 11928 khz and on 41 m at 7220 khz." The AIR ( All India Radio)stations would be more steadfast and announce their wavelengths upto two decimal figures. I soon worked out the formula which was (wave length in m) X (frequency in khz) = 300000, where

300000 was the speed of light in km/ sec.

Some high end radios even had names of certain important radio stations written on the radio on the relevant places for guidance. Different radio stations on the same meter band would broadcast on slightly different wavelengths / frequency, but the tuner in the radio was a manual knob which tended to shift imperceptibly, and as a result the tuned station would often get detuned, and in prime time, viz night time, too many stations jostled for space for the same wave lengths like commuters in a Bombay local train, and if you lost your station, then getting that station back was purely a matter of chance.

Many a times I have missed out listening to the interesting portions of Binaca geetmala because of this reason.And if the weather was cloudy, then the broadcast would be more disturbed than Indian batsmen on a green wicket.Every lightening thunder in the sky would cause disturbance in the broadcast. Even under normal weather conditions, there was considerable noise, which human minds could filter,but not recording machines, if one decided to record radio broadcasts. Of course,recording machines were exorbitantly expensive at that time. All this disturbance in sound was because the broadcast was on AM ( amplitude modulation). On the other hand, TV broadcast have always had their audio as FM ( frequency modulation). That is why TV audio is always crystal clear.

Another thing about those radios. The radio looked like a miniature multistoried building,well lit up. And the vacuum valves glowing inside ( another way to classify a radio was on the basis of how many valves it boasted of)kept the interior of the radio cozily warm, and mice actually found the radio sets as their ideal home, full of lighting and warmth. So,the radio not only looked like a building, it also acted like a housing complex for mice. When these bulky radios gave way to small transistor radios, the biggest losers were not mankind but these mice. Just as the era from 1950s to 1960s was the golden era of Bollywood music, it was the golden era of housing for mice. And these mice kept radio mechanics gainfully employed.

Being a radio mechanic was considered a sign of brilliance and this job was considered second only to the job of a locomotive driver,if I am allowed to
exaggerate a little. And there were books like "build your own radio". People who could actually build their own radio were regarded as geniuses.

With all this discussion on the hardware of the radio ( the term hardware incidentally stood for a shop dealing in hammer and tongs and paints and nails),I will discuss the software ( another term not yet invented at that time ) next, viz the various radio stations and their programmes.

8 comments:

Raja Swaminathan said...

Atul, fantastic read.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Your usual style - I can read for hours and hours without getting one bit bored.

Reading about the 9M, 13M etc brought tears to my eyes ! Lots of memories...I also remember listening to good songs on 7.5M - I think it was on MW.

Keep writing...you can count me amongst your most avid fans. :-)

Raja

squarecut.atul said...

Thanks a lot,Raja. I was sure you would like this.Writing this post gave me lots of satisfation.Your appreciation means a lot to me.

Ravi said...

It was a wonderful read. Thank you so much! ravikant

chandichayan said...

hello

It is really a fantastic article which brought to my mind all my past days. in late 80's I use to sit hours searching through SW2. Those days I considered FM a band which is waste which was not found in our radio but a neighbourhood radio. Instead in our radio SW3 which was not common in all the radios in our area. So this was a matter of pride for me as a child. Now I am happy that evnthough through FM the radio has come back. When I was reading this article the childhood memnories were haunting me. thanks a lot.....

shijo

squarecut.atul said...

I am pleasantly surprised that this post of mine has been liked by many people, including those who have not commented hrere. I thank all those who have nice words about this post voz Raja, Ravi,Chandichayan.

kitcha said...

Dear Atul,
Lajawaab and Bemisaal post.It took me back to the year 1958 when my dad brought an HMV radio into the house.Radio ruled the roost in my childhood days and there was an aura surrounding the Radio. I recently went to Europe and in a restaurant owned by an Italian he had 10 radio sets of various shapes. I still remember those commentary days on cricket which used to have such stalwarts like Vizzy, sarbadhikari, Vijay merchant and Bobby AFST. Not to forget Radio Australia Alan Mcgivray and our own Dicky Rutnagar and V M Chakrapani. I remember listening to the Tied test match commentary (Brisbane,1961) and getting late for school. Binac was special so also Aap hi ke geet and of course Saigal at 7.55 AM everyday. My friend who is an avid radio listener even today had a spat with his father who had inadvertently changed the frequency of Radio Ceylon. On the same evening he bought another Radio set(Transistor)and after presenting it to his father said "Dad, Never touch this set". Because it is very difficult to catch Radio Ceylon now a days. I dont get it. Do you?

M V Krishnan

squarecut.atul said...

Thanks for your comments, Mr M V Krishnan. your experiences of listening to Radio commentary, including the tied test as Brisbane, is priceless.

And of course, listening to Radio Ceylon in general and Bibnaca geetmala in particular was a divine experience.

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