I first became aware of my interest in radio when I was in school. I was in the fourth form (equivalent to eighth grade now) when I wrote to Melville de Mellow, the great commentator and newscaster. I expressed my interest in joining radio and asked him the procedure to apply. He asked me to complete college and then apply to read the news on All India Radio (AIR).
After seven years, when I finished my graduation, I received a letter from Melville about a job opportunity. It was so sweet of him to send me a reminder letter. I was very excited about the prospect. AIR had invited applications from eligible candidates for filling the posts of news readers in Tamil and Malayalam and I applied for the job. Much to my surprise, I was selected as a news reader in both languages. Though I was fluent in both the languages, I opted for Tamil. I began my career as a newsreader in AIR, New Delhi, in December 1962. Back in the day, all the regional language news would come under a single division — News Service Division. Though I had a good time working in New Delhi, somewhere deep down in my heart, I wanted to be at home in Madras. Three months later, the head of my department informed me about an opening in Madras and asked me whether I am willing to relocate. To be honest, I was taken completely by surprise and couldn’t contain the joy in my heart. I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to move back. My monthly salary in New Delhi was Rs 300 and like any other employee, I expected a pay rise. But I had to take a pay cut of Rs 50 to come back home.
I joined the Madras All India Radio station as a Tamil newsreader in March 1963. Back in the days, there was only one local news bulletin (from Madras) and three national news bulletin (broadcast from Delhi). We had a very small team — D Janaki was the sub-editor and popular writer Chitti Sundararajan was the station head. I also got a chance to work with the late theatre artiste and film actor Poornam Vishwanathan. Carnatic music programmes were given prominence as it helped develop people’s knowledge of Carnatic music. I know rasigas who have been tuning in to the programmes since 1950. We also broadcast film music, but on one condition. The film music should be recensored and certified by the station head. Well, we had (and still have) a conservative mindset. Apart from this, there were Tamil feature programs, discussions and programs for farmers. We didn’t have any competitors in radio and we enjoyed a total monopoly. Oh, those were the days, my friend... What we broadcast was the last word for listeners. We were striving hard because we wanted to fulfil people’s expectations and give them the best programs.
H Ramakrishnan reading news at the All India Radio station
Radio soon became one of the sources to get news and information. We had three loudspeakers installed at Marina Beach and Panagal Park, which would be switched on from 5.30 pm to 9.30 or 10 until the broadcast transmission is over. People thoroughly enjoyed listening to the radio. During my day off I used to visit these places just to get the vibe. Those days, we didn’t have the concept of recording programs. Most of our programs were live. That said, whatever little recording we need to do was done using spool recorders. Speaking about the recording process, I have an interesting anecdote to share.
When Jawaharlal Nehru passed away in 1964, we went to record condolence messages from some prominent personalities in the city. We visited Rajaji, former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, at his residence. He noticed us carrying spool recorders and with a smile, Rajaji said, “Ten minutes ago, BBC reporters visited me and recorded my message. They were carrying a very small recording device. But you people are carrying a very big suitcase to record my message! I wonder when you will grow and be modern in your machinery.” Even now, if people want to listen to classic programs, they will have to tune into AIR. I am not saying this because I am a former AIR employee. AIR always provides unadulterated news and nothing can match up to the nostalgia it can evoke – especially listening to the ‘akashavani’ jingle in the morning while sipping a hot coffee.
Interesting facts about AIR
- During his India visit in 1959, Che Guevera recorded an exclusive interview on AIR with KP Bhanumathy
- Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan was rejected by All India Radio for a job
- The first ever FM service was started on July 23, 1977, in Madras
- It was Sir Lionel Fielden who coined the term ‘All India Radio’ on June 8, 1936
- Vividh Bharti Services were inaugurated on October 3, 1957