December Issue 2015
The advent of the internet threatened most traditional forms of media, including television, print, and radio. Thankfully, instead of consuming one or more of these mediums, the internet created its own space, and by merging all the traditional forms of media, it created a brand new product.
Hence, internationally, television, print and radio all thrive concurrently, each in its own firmament. Sadly, this is not the case in Pakistan. Here, when one talks about the media landscape, radio is seldom mentioned as a primary player, when in fact, the statistics would prove otherwise. Take for example, penetration. Radio, in all its various frequencies, continues to reach more places and people in the country than terrestrial TV and local newspapers combined.
Even a cursory glance at Pakistani TV, awash with sensationalist drama and tainted journalism, interspersed with some commendable series and news programmes, is enough to show how long a way we’ve come from the time of Neelam Ghar, and the 9pm PTV news bulletin. But Pakistani radio, is still mired in a time warp — the ‘Asalamualaikum Pakistan’ era of FM 100 and 101.
Depending on the listener’s socio-economic class and upbringing, it is likely there will be one channel to prefer over the others. But in effect, the products being delivered by the airwaves are all the same — instant gratification. Radio in Pakistan has unfortunately been reduced to “Today’s topic is love, text us on 5555 and tell us what you think,” “the recipe for chicken samosas is as follows,” and “here’s your requested number.” Much of it is, in fact, about music — the good, bad and ugly.
Surely radio was never meant to end up here.
A few years ago, while launching a radio network in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a listener survey was conducted to understand what people wanted to hear. The results were fascinating. People wanted to know about science and agriculture, history and politics, sports and drama. And yes, they wanted music as well. But all these findings were contrary to everything that aired on local radio listenings.
In radio circles, a statistic known as ‘Time Spent Listening’ (TSL) is of paramount importance. TSL is defined as “the amount of time spent listening to any particular station at one time, before changing the station or turning the receiver off.” And this is where the differences that exist between urban and rural audiences come into play. The research mentioned earlier was conducted in KPK and FATA, where people perhaps not only have fewer media options to access, but they also have more time to tune in. Hence, here the TSL was high, fringing on two hours a day. Results from similar research conducted in Karachi revealed TSL was under an hour.
How does this affect anything?
Quite simply, the TSL is the amount of time a channel has to demonstrate its strength and scale of both, vision and the choices it offers, to the listener. The lower the TSL, the harder that is. In urban centers, radio is at best, a background medium. One uses it while doing something else like driving, cooking, or jogging. Critics suggest that because of radio’s background nature, the content cannot divert one’s attention. Ergo, the easiest solution: music.
To be fair, this state of affairs is not entirely the radio channels’ fault. The laws that govern radio in Pakistan are draconian and anti-progress. For example, globally, the most profitable form of radio, is not music, but talk. And talk radio is not permissible by law in Pakistan. News, another major content type is also heavily regulated, with only a certain percentage of news time allowed in the daily programme mix.
That leaves music. The beauty of radio lies in its ability to be both local and international. A small FM station, for example, can be the voice of a single neighbourhood or community, whereas institutions like the BBC, VOA, and yes, Radio Pakistan too, can literally broadcast across the world on the AM frequency. However, the laws of economics and PEMRA combined have made venturing into the radio industry so exorbitantly expensive, that nobody is willing to take the plunge on a smaller scale.
Radio channels owners have also played their part in ensuring that radio does not evolve. As long as a strong marketing and sales department continues to sell airtime, as long as running costs are met along with a decent profit margin, owners are not terribly pushed about content. Music remains the easiest fix, and that’s where everybody goes.
Radio in Pakistan is in a comfortable fix: while it leaves a lot to be desired, it’s making money as it is, hence nobody is inspired to evolve. This then puts the ball back in the state’s court, where the state broadcaster can become the one pushing the envelope. But even there, we’re stuck in the era of war songs played in ‘65 and ‘71.
Time to move on. Time for a new song.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.