Sunday, March 15, 2009

FM: A ubiquitous part of urban life

Karachi --- FM radio, or frequency modulation radio, has become a ubiquitous part of life in the metropolis. From once teetering on the edge of oblivion, FM has injected new life into the medium of radio, making it an unmistakable part of the urban fabric.

In Karachi alone, as of last count there were nine FM radio stations competing for the listeners' attention. These are, in no particular order: Mast FM 103; City FM 89; Radio One FM 91; RadioActive FM 96; FM 100; FM 101; Hum FM 106.2; Apna Karachi FM 107 and Hot FM 105.

All these stations, with the exception of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation's FM 101, are privately owned enterprises. But before proceeding any further, a clarification must be made between FM and the other popular format of radio, AM (amplitude modulation).

"The main difference between the two formats is that FM has much better sound quality than AM, but a smaller geographical range. For instance, AM can be heard hundreds of miles (or more) away from the transmitter, whereas even the strongest standard FM transmitters have a broadcast range of up to a 50-km radius. FM is capable of delivering close to CD-quality sound," says Sharaf Qaiser, Head of Production at Mast FM 103.

Talking about the demographics of FM, it has crossed all class and status boundaries, especially in Karachi. Whether it is blaring out of the expensive sedans of the nouveau-riche, or piped through the pocket-sized FM players of students on public buses, after about 12 years of proper existence in Karachi, FM has arrived and is here to stay.

Advertisers have moved in to stake their respective claims in radio-land and radio stations are trying to cater to almost every stratum on the socio-economic totem pole. As Mr Qaiser, a radio insider with nearly a decade of experience commented, the socio-economic divide seems to be quite pronounced in the world of FM radio.

"Everything below the '100' mark on the dial (FM 89, 91 and 96) seems to cater to the English-speaking elite; those who are 'upwardly mobile' or at least wish they were. Stations ranging from FM 100 downwards (the FM broadcast band starts at 87 and usually goes up to 108) target what is known as the 'Urdu medium' crowd," he observed.

Whatever the merits of this claim, it just might be that local FM stations are pursuing the policy of 'narrow-casting,' or targeting specific segments of the population.

But apart from the apparent division of FM stations along class-based lines, one thing that united most listeners this writer talked to was their distinct distaste for the antics of the majority of on-air personalities. Many listeners claimed that the majority of RJs (radio jockeys, the politically correct way to say DJ, or disc jockey) are habitual abusers of both the English and Urdu languages.

They said that these mostly young, hip neophytes (and even some of the older lot) make a mockery out of language, and what is being spoken on air is a mutilated witch's brew that is neither here nor there. Listeners added that they much prefer the segments and stations (primarily 106.2) that play back-to-back music.

However, Mahrukh Shaikh, a broadcaster formerly associated with FM 101, defended the RJs' on-air claptrap thus: "Most of the time we blab on air as we have to fill dead air. I admit, mostly RJs don't make sense. They think they can get away with it, and in fact they are getting away with it. The listeners only criticise us when we don't play their requested song right at that instant or if we fail to read out their text messages on air. People in fact enjoy bakvaas (gibberish) and call up and contribute to the bakvaas!"

Compare this to the glory days of Radio Pakistan, when on-air personalities were looked up to for their linguistic prowess and art of enunciation, whether broadcasting in Urdu or English. A former RJ of FM 101, who did not want his name mentioned, recalls being censured by his seniors during the early days of the FM boom.

"I had just finished doing my regular English show, when I had to fill in for the next presenter, who could not make it on time. The next programme was in Urdu and since my Urdu is not of broadcast quality, I had to wing it through the entire two-hour programme. Naturally, I got an earful from the senior Radio Pakistan people after the show. But listening to the kind of language that passes on radio nowadays, I am simply flabbergasted," he said.

But is FM radio in Karachi today simply reflecting the changing cultural mores of society? Has the art of language really sunk to the depths that a good chunk of listeners and critics claim it has? Whatever the answer, the at times endless, nonsensical banter blabbed by certain on-air personalities may well be a cultural harbinger of the shape of things to come.

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