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The Rise and Rise of FM Radio

The Rise and Rise of FM Radio

The journey of radio that began with its use as a medium to convey messages, after years of evolution, has now become the most important need of the society. Radio’s potential to be used as propaganda tool attracted not only the governments but also the private-sector corporations so as to exploit this powerful medium, endowed with wide outreach, for the promotion of their interests. For that purpose, elements like information, knowledge and entertainment were unified to disseminate information on government’s policies and also to achieve commercial objectives. Efforts to pursue this two-fold interest resulted in the soaring number of radio stations worldwide while radio sets shrank in size and also became more and more user-friendly. This perpetual development and growth of radio played a key role in making it the cheapest source of communication that also attracts public attention.

Radio technology started in 1865 with the groundbreaking publication “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” by renowned Scottish mathematician and physicist James Clerk Maxwell. This theory got its practical shape with the works of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi who successfully transmitted wireless signals in his radiotelegraphy experiments, which began in 1895 and continued up till 1899. These initial experiments culminated in the very first transmission of human voice and music on December 24, 1906, at 9:00 p.m. The credit for this remarkable achievement goes to a brilliant Canadian inventor, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, who made the first long-range broadcast of voice on the Christmas Eve of 1906 from a Massachusetts station. This was the formal start of radio as a medium of mass communication. For this, initially, medium waves and short waves were used. These frequencies could send broadcast signals to a wider area; however, owing to changes in weather patterns, the quality of signals would often get affected resulting in distortions. So, scientists started working on finding such frequencies that would transmit uninterrupted, quality signals in all types of weather to ensure that the voice reaches the listeners in the best quality, irrespective of any hindrance; physical or of weather. Thus, Frequency Modulation, commonly known as FM, was invented by American inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong in 1933. Armstrong also founded a new transmitter-to-receiver radio system. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Armstrong had to build the first full-scale FM station himself in 1939 at a cost of more than $300,000 to prove its worth. This was the beginning of FM radio in a world The Rise and Rise of FM Radio that was dominated by Medium Wave radios. And, at present, there is hardly any country in the world that does not have FM radio stations. As per the reports by Federal Communications Commission, there were 10,468 FM radio stations – 6,744 commercial FM stations and 4,120 educational FMs – broadcasting in the United States of America alone; nearly 70 percent of all forms of radio broadcasting.

With a wider outreach, user-friendliness, diversity and local hue in its content, as well as ease in delineating personal thoughts and, above all, its feature of being economical, radio is still the cheapest source of communication. However, since the past some decades, a radical change has been witnessed in the use of radio as well as the status it enjoys in societies across the globe. The idea of medium and short wave broadcast is losing its vitality and with the FM facility, community and commercial radio has become the need of the hour.

On the basis of its functions as a sector, radio can be divided into community, national or public, commercial and international subsectors.

Community radio is located within a particular community. Such a radio station is owned, operated and managed by the community it serves. Such radio stations aim for community development through inclusivity and public participation. Public radio stations are owned and financed by the state and they work for promoting the national or public interest. Such stations operate at local as well as national level. The most opportune example in this regard is that of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Commercial radio stations also operate at local and national levels. They usually work as for-profit organizations. They broadcast popular music and also run advertisements; however, public-service broadcasting has little, if any, place on their content. International radio services usually broadcast their transmission in multiple languages. Besides news, they focus on national, regional and international affairs. However, almost all international broadcasting services are the propaganda tools as they often promote the foreign policy of the host country.

In Pakistan, radio transmission was mainly based on national and international news; however, on the momentous day of 23rd March 1995, private sector entered this industry and Pakistan’s first private FM channel started its broadcast. Although Radio Pakistan had started its FM broadcast in 1993 from Karachi, and the same year from Lahore and Islamabad, in form of a music channel, its first official FM radio channel was formally launched on 24th September 1995 in Larkana. And, after the pattern of private-sector FM stations, the first public-sector FM radio station for youth started its regular transmission from Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, on 1st October 1998.

The Rise and Rise of FM Radio Right from its very inception, commercial FM transmission not only got huge popularity but also introduced a new “audio culture” in the country. Homes, offices, bazaars, markets, vehicles, in fine, FM radios became omnipresent; they were everywhere. Sajjad Bari, one of the very first radio jockeys (RJs) in Pakistan, elaborates on the reasons behind the enormous popularity radio received in the country in the following words:

“FM broadcast was a whiff of fresh air in the history of broadcasting in Pakistan. Even in a big city like Lahore, all the eight phone lines of FM 101 remained engaged for most of the time even in the evenings; the time that was considered peak drama hours of Pakistan Television (PTV). At that time, FM hosts – RJs – got widespread admiration and popularity just like big showbiz stars, people avidly read their interview in magazines, digests and newspapers that, in turn, raised their circulation manifolds. With its modern yet unique presentation style, the FM broadcast soon attracted the youth. The principal reasons behind this immense popularity included informality and friendliness of the RJs, selection of new, melodious songs, improved voice quality due to better signals, road shows and, above all, participation of the audience via phone calls.”

In the beginning, FM broadcast was available only in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, and there was a pressing need to broaden its transmission to other parts of the country also. A window of opportunity opened with the establishment of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) in March 2002 which opened the doors of electronic media industry for private sector. PEMRA issued as many as 22 licences for radio channels within the very first year of its establishment and radio broadcast, thenceforth, kept on gaining more and more public acceptance. At present, there are 239 FM stations operating in Pakistan, out of which 49 are a part of the Radio Pakistan network. On the other hand, the number of medium wave (MW) stations is 22. It means that 91.57 percent radio stations currently functional in Pakistan are FM channels. In private sector, PEMRA has issued 142 commercial licences to the private sector and 45 to educational institutions. Besides, there are 3 stations of Radio China. Hence, a big chunk of FM stations – 59 percent, to be exact – is currently in the private sector while 21 percent are in public sector whereas 19 percent are operating under institutional auspices.

In Pakistan, most FM radio stations – 44 percent of country’s total – are currently operational in Punjab. Sindh follows at the second place with this ratio at 25 percent. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Islamabad are at third place with the figure of 10 percent. Balochistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), with 5 percent, 4 percent and 2 percent, are at fourth, fifth and sixth positions, respectively.

Currently, FM radio stations are present in 94 cities, big and small, in Pakistan. Punjab again leads with the number of cities at 47, followed by Sindh (23), KP (11), Balochistan (6), AJK (4) and GB (2). As regards the number of FM stations per city, Islamabad takes the lead with 23 radio states operating in government, private and institutional sectors. It is followed by Karachi and Lahore with this number at 21 each while Faisalabad is at third place with 10 FM stations.

Most private-sector FM stations are based in Karachi where they are 10 in number. Both Islamabad and Lahore are at second place with 7 stations each. The highest number of non-commercial FM stations, which function mainly for educational purposes, is in Islamabad where they are 12 in number. Islamabad is followed by Lahore (9) and Karachi (6). As far as the number of FM radio stations owned by Radio Pakistan is concerned, both Karachi and Lahore host 4 stations each. In addition, community radio in Pakistan is available only in form of non-commercial FMs in universities. The first such station was established in January 2004 in the Mass Communication Department of the University of Peshawar. At present, FM stations are operational in 26 universities and colleges across Pakistan and they are playing a key role in providing trained human resource to the indigenous radio industry.

The Rise and Rise of FM Radio It is asserted that FM revolution has been spurred by the advancement in technology that has cut the costs of establishing an FM radio station. Today, an FM radio station that can relay its transition within a radius of 50 kilometres can be established with a budget of US$15,000 only. It is only the one-fifth of the cost that could have incurred in the 1980s. A transmitter of only a few watts that can cover a village can be made with a cost of less than US$800.

However, it also needs to be comprehended that low-cost transmitters, and transmission thereupon, as well as its outreach to a particular geographic area, low-priced transistors or other listening devices, and other such facilities although have brought radio within the reach of a common man, these factors, nonetheless, have made it accessible also to individuals and groups who use it illegally to spread hate speech and mayhem in the society. It is important to note that PEMRA, with the support of other state institutions, has shut down more than 180 such stations till now.

The advent of inexpensive yet modern information and communications technology (ICT) has turned radio into a more powerful source of communication. Mobile phone, which works on FM frequency, tops the list of such ICT means. Like a typical radio set, a mobile phone uses batteries for power and is easily portable as well. Since the dawn of the 21st century, common Pakistanis, too, have more and easier access to mobile phones that also provide the facility of listening FM radio on the go. As per a PEMRA report, in the near future, “[t]he concept of technological convergence between the telecommunication and the broadcasting facilities will be grasping roots in the country.” Moreover, a report titled “WSIS Targets Review: Achievements, Challenges and the Way Forward,” published by the International Telecommunication Union, mentions that the trend of bearing radio sets, especially in houses, is on the decline and the most important reason behind this is the spread of newer forms of communication devices and tools, mobile phone being the most significant of them. This assertion is further substantiated by the facts and figures presented in Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PD&HS) 2012-13 which suggests that nearly 87 percent of Pakistani households have the facility of cell phones and own mobile sets. The number of mobile phone-holders was higher in urban centres (95 percent) than the rural areas (87 percent). On the number of radio sets, the survey suggested that only 10.9 percent of Pakistani households have radio sets; with this ratio at 10.7 percent in urban and 11 percent in rural areas. As per the survey, the trend of bearing radio sets is declining in Pakistan – mainly due to mobile phones. On the other hand, a survey by Gallup Pakistan’s Gilani Research Foundation, conducted in June 2016, reveals that 67 percent Pakistanis owned a mobile phone. In addition, as per Gallup Pakistan’s Pakistan ICT Indicators Survey 2014, only 27 percent of households in Pakistan had a radio set. If we take a look at this picture in terms of provinces, it emerges that least number of households having radio sets was in Punjab where this ratio was only 16 percent. On the contrary, the biggest number of such household was in KP province with the ratio of 47 percent. Sindh with 28 percent and Balochistan with 37 percent were at third and fourth places, respectively. In addition, 29 percent of households in urban centres and 23 percent in rural areas owned radio sets. The PD&HS 2006-07 also reported that nearly 31.7 of Pakistan’s total households had radio sets.

The holding of bids by PEMRA under phase 9, in November 2016, for the issuance of licences for 67 new radio stations is but a glimpse into a future wherein it has been decided to establish at least one radio station in every district of the country. And, this effort can be utile only when radio gets as much priority in government policies as do the TV channels.

The seed of FM broadcast, which was sowed in 1995 with the inception of 4 radio stations, has now become, with 239 government and private FM radio stations, a mighty tree. This is a glimpse of the development Pakistan has made in various sectors since attaining independence. It is a true manifestation of the principle of economics that with the increase in demand, increase in supply also happens. The growing number of FM radio stations in Pakistan exhibits the demand that is growing in nook and cranny of the country in the form of soaring number of audience. And, this rising demand also gives bodes well for the glorious future of FM radio in Pakistan.

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