Aurora Magazine

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Days of Glory in Radio Pakistan

Published in Mar-Apr 2023

Recalling a time when Radio Pakistan was at par with international broadcast standards.

This article is part of our cover story <strong>Future Imperfect?</strong>
This article is part of our cover story Future Imperfect?

Talat Hussain relives his days as a drama artist at the Radio Pakistan studio, near M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi. Photo: Arif Mahmood/White Starr
Talat Hussain relives his days as a drama artist at the Radio Pakistan studio, near M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi. Photo: Arif Mahmood/White Starr

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 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, officially became 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 and 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 – it initially began broadcasting on August 5, 1947, as the Sindh Government Broadcasting Station, and 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. It was shut down because it violated the Wireless Telegraphy Act, according to which a provincial government could not operate a radio station.

Increasing Reach

Over the next few years, more short-wave and medium-wave transmitters were purchased 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 and 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 – it included readings from the Bible, the Geeta and the Tipitaka. 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 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 Abid Ali, Hasina Moin, Khwaja Moinuddin, Rafi Peer, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Bano Qudsia and Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj. Other notable personalities were Omer Kureishi and Jamshed Marker, whose cricket commentaries are remembered to this day. Prominent Urdu newscasters included Shakeel Ahmed and Anwar Behzad, while Anita Ghulam Ali and Edward Carapiet (who hosted the popular Hit Parade) were well-known English newscasters. Then, there were the 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 said 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 and 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 was aired every day 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 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 and published from Dhaka; after the 1971 War it was renamed Bangladesh Observer and ceased publication in June 2010.) Such was radio’s prominence that it came second, securing 19% of the total ad spend, followed by PTV (12%) 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 Aurora’s 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 (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 and 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. 

First published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017) on March 31, 2018.