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Days of glory in Radio Pakistan

Updated Feb 19, 2019 03:19pm
Recalling a time when Radio Pakistan was at par with international broadcast standards.
<strong>Talat Hussain relives his days as a drama artist at the Radio Pakistan studio in Karachi. It was here where he, like many other prominent actors, began his career in the sixties. Ever since, he has become a household name in terms of acting. He has appeared in an extraordinary number of TV dramas as well as films. One of his most memorable roles was of a refugee in Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998), which was based on the life of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and whose image  can also be seen in this photograph behind Talat Hussain. Photo: Arif Mahmood/Dawn White Star</strong>
Talat Hussain relives his days as a drama artist at the Radio Pakistan studio in Karachi. It was here where he, like many other prominent actors, began his career in the sixties. Ever since, he has become a household name in terms of acting. He has appeared in an extraordinary number of TV dramas as well as films. One of his most memorable roles was of a refugee in Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998), which was based on the life of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and whose image can also be seen in this photograph behind Talat Hussain. Photo: Arif Mahmood/Dawn White Star

At 11 p.m. on August 13, 1947, the well-known presenter Zahur Azar announced from All-India Radio’s (AIR) Lahore station: “At the stroke of twelve midnight, the independent sovereign state of Pakistan will come into existence.” An hour later, Azar stated eloquently: “This is Pakistan Broadcasting Service, Lahore. We now bring to you a special programme on ‘The dawn of Independence’.”

Azar’s announcement, which was in English and followed by an Urdu translation by Mustafa Ali Hamadani, was important for two reasons. One, it made radio the first medium to announce the creation of Pakistan; two, the Lahore station, which a mere hour ago was part of AIR, was officially part of the Pakistan Broadcasting Service (PBS), which subsequently became known as Radio Pakistan.

Prior to Independence, AIR (established in 1926) comprised nine stations. Post independence, six remained (Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Madras, Lucknow, Tiruchirapalli) while the Dhaka, Lahore and Peshawar stations became part of Radio Pakistan, led by Z.A. Bokhari, the first Director General. On April 16, 1948, the Rawalpindi station was inaugurated, followed by the Karachi station on August 14, 1948. This station initially began broadcasting on August 5, 1947 as the Sindh Government Broadcasting Station; during its 10-day existence, it aired live coverage of landmark moments such as Mr Jinnah’s oath-taking ceremony as Governor- General, as well as dramas and music; the reason why it was shut down was because it violated the Wireless Telegraphy Act, according to which a provincial government could not operate a radio station.

Increasing The Reach

Over the next few years, more shortwave and medium-wave transmitters were purchased and put into place to increase Radio Pakistan’s reach across both wings of Pakistan, as well as overseas, through a ‘Priority programme of development’. As a result, by 1949, Radio Pakistan could be heard in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Far East, Europe, as well as in Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Due to its diverse audience, by 1954, Radio Pakistan’s news bulletins were broadcast in at least 15 languages, including Afghan-Persian, Arabic, Balochi, Balti, Bengali, Burmese, English, Gujarati, Iranian Kashmiri, Parhari, Pushto, Sindhi, Shina and Urdu.

Training And High-Quality Programming

In addition to news bulletins, Radio Pakistan aired dramas and feature programmes which, according to A History of Radio Pakistan by Nihal Ahmad, centred on “nation building themes”, as well as “history, culture, the freedom struggle, crime detection and social issues.” There were also programmes covering science, music, farming, education, poetry and sports. Religious programming was not limited to recitations from the Quran and included readings from the Geeta, the Tipiaka and the Bible. In fact, despite the fact that the BBC, Voice of America, All India Radio and Radio Ceylon were available to listeners, Radio Pakistan was able to hold its own. To produce high-quality programming, Radio Pakistan placed a great deal of emphasis on training their actors, producers, directors and technicians. To this end, a training institute was established as early as 1949.

Radio Stars

Given the emphasis on training, the people who worked at Radio Pakistan as newscasters, voice-over artists, writers and producers eventually went on to make their careers in cinema, theatre and television. These include film actor Mohammad Ali, television actors Neelofar Aleem, Talat Hussain, Santosh Rassal and Qazi Wajid, and prominent writers such as Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj, Rafi Peer, Syed Abid Ali, Khwaja Moinuddin, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Hasina Moin and Bano Qudsia. Other notable personalities include Omer Kureishi and Jamshed Marker, whose cricket commentaries are remembered to this day. Prominent Urdu newscasters included Shakeel Ahmed and Anwar Behzad; Anita Ghulam Ali and Edward Carapiet (who hosted the popular Hit Parade) were well-known English newscasters. Then, there were those great voices we still hear today, who either debuted or gained prominence on Radio Pakistan and include Madam Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan and Reshma. Another notable personality was Agha Nasir, who is considered a pioneer of Radio Pakistan and later served as Managing Director, PTV; he transitioned from radio to television with ease due to the training he received at Radio Pakistan. During an interview with Dawn, Nasir stated that: “From the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, Radio Pakistan was at the zenith of its success, not only because there was no competitive medium or source of information, education and entertainment, but because it was run in such a perfect manner; it was at par with many international radio services.”

Enter The Commercials

When commercials began to be aired in 1961 (from the Karachi station) and subsequently from Lahore Dhaka in 1967, Ahmad points out that “there was a great rush to book commercial spots and the entire allocated advertising was booked, leading to demand for more advertising time.” In the initial days, one hour of commercials were aired with the “objective of publicising locally manufactured products”; by the mid-sixties three hours and 10 minutes of commercials were broadcast on weekdays, and three hours and 40 minutes on Sundays.

A Matter Of Media Spend

Although there are no statistics with respect to ad revenue available from the forties and fifties, according to Gallup Pakistan, by 1966 media spend reached four million rupees. Of this, print, the undisputed leader, commanded 59% of the share. (At the time, leading newspapers included Dawn, founded by Mr Jinnah on August 14, 1947; Nawa-i-Waqt, established in 1940 by Hamid Nizami; Jang established in 1939 by Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman; and Pakistan Observer founded by Hamidul Huq Choudhury in 1949, which was published from Dhaka; after the 1971 war it was called Bangladesh Observer, and ceased publication in June 2010). Such was radio’s prominence that it came second, securing 19% of total ad spend, followed by PTV (12%), the only television channel and outdoor (10%). Cinema too was a significant advertising medium, although statistics of its market share are unavailable. Since then, things have changed drastically. According to the Aurora Fact File published in the magazine’s November-December 2017 edition, radio accounts for a mere three percent of the total media spend. Of this, Radio Pakistan’s share is four percent, and two of its music-based FM channels 101 and 93 (which, like Radio Pakistan, are part of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation and were established in 1993 and 2014 respectively) have a combined share of three percent. Consequently, the share of all three channels amounts to seven percent, which is relatively low compared to the revenue share of other networks and stations such as Radio Awaz Network, 106.2 and 100, which range between eight to 10%. Today, Radio Pakistan’s audience is mainly confined to people living in rural areas, who do not have access to FM channels, yet. However, the station’s contribution towards training and nurturing talent should not be forgotten as it served as the first training ground for writers, producers and actors who went on to work on television, and thus contributed to the vibrant media scene that is prevalent in today’s Pakistan. 

Mamun M. Adil is a leading advertising and communications expert at Aurora. mamun.adil@gmail.com

First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.