AIR makes the most of Cup, least of commentary

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Updated: Apr 4 2011, 13:52pm hrs
Ignored and unheralded, but radio commentary too is enjoying its brief moment in the Cricket World Cup sun. As per Sukhjinder Kaur, coordinator, marketing and sports, All India Radio, At R17 crore, the event is the biggest ever grosser in AIRs history.

In fact, the rate per second on air for the semi-finals and finals was a whopping R50,000 per second, she adds. However, while Kaur takes heart from the figures as proof that radio commentary is still so popular in India, there is no denying the fact that a medium once seen as an important reason for the massive popularity of cricket in India is slowly dying out.

With a penetration of 98% India, cricket commentary on radio, since the first live cricket broadcast was put out in the 1940s, is the bedrock on which the popularity of the game in India rests. TV viewing may be the norm in cities, but radio professionals point out that between 60-70% of people outside big towns still rely on radio.

Apart from its widespread availability and affordability, among the advantages radio enjoys is mobility and lack of dependence on power supply.

However, even the dedicated fans do not contest the falling standard of AIR radio commentaries the only radio channel that does running commentaries in the country. One reason is that most of them holding the job do it only part-time. Fans like Rehan Fazal of BBC Radio celebrate the exceptions like Harsha Bhogle, who fought their way up and are products of the system, but rue the dismal state of radio commentaries now, marked by banal commentaries. Fazal recalls earlier times, of the days of witty and informative commentary, like when the legend AFST or Bobby Talyarkhan remarked about Tiger Pataudi getting out on 4 in a Test in Mumbai as having missed a century by 96 runs.

There is no system in place for recruitment of radio commentators or for training of new talent, and insiders say the AIR listening board, for the audition of commentators, has not conducted any auditions for about three years now. Combine this with low remuneration (R2,050 for the whole day), and the field attracts very little talent.

In addition, AIR for several matches now has encouraged off-tube commentaries, which means not being at the venue, but doing the commentary with a TV screen in front. Live commentaries for domestic cricket matches in the Ranji or Duleep trophy too have been discontinued, with just the finals being covered. This means fewer chances for people to hone their commentating skills.

Dr Narottam Puri, a medical doctor who started his career in radio as a statistician for AIR and would go on to become one of Indias famous commentators, feels sad at the dropping standards on radio now. He recalls with pride how he shared the box with Talyarkhan, Pearson Surita, Anand Setalvad, his father Devraj Puri and Vizzy (the Maharaja of Vizianagaram).

Now, he says, there is no motivation, training or appropriate payment. Its almost as if radio has given up, intimidated by TV that cant be the correct way to go about things. The landmark radio show called the TMS (Test Match Special) by the BBC should have folded up years ago if that was the case.

Dr Puri believes the government system of indifference to merit destroyed standards, pointing out that if Tests got over earlier than scheduled, the commentators werent paid for those days. Asked about the state of affairs, the information and Broadcasting ministry refuses to comment, as technically they have nothing to do with it and AIR falls under an autonomous Prasar Bharati.

In fact, it is only recently that the Prasar Bharati has drawn up a blueprint for a new recruitment board. Admitting that they had neglected radio and recruitment had been ad hoc, Chairperson Mrinal Pande says: We have several ideas for completely turning around content as digitisation and convergence have made so much possible. We are looking to be able to recruit people in an unbiased manner and in strongly professional terms. We have state of the art facilities, some fine editors and studios, but we need to be able to get the best talent from the private sector. We need to shed the idea that because we have such a large footprint and are sarkari, we can afford to be complacent and not savvy.

Pande also admits that in this process, the private sector has left AIR far behind.

However, according to Sanjay Banerjee, one of the only two Hindi commentators on radio empanelled for international matches, and who works with a private TV channel, all is not lost yet. I still know of people who put on the TV but on mute, with the radio commentary as accompaniment.