Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Next Big Thing


Slowly but surely a silent revolution is taking a shape in Bangladesh. Several private radio stations in Dhaka have gone on-air a few years ago, now along with BBC and VOA on FM, stations like Radio Foorti and Radio Today are changing the country's entertainment scene.

Twenty-eight-year old Basma Gafur, a workingwoman and mother of a four-year-old, is in love with Radio Foorti. The programme she particularly likes is called Dhaka Calling, where celebrity couples as wide in variety as Ornob-Shahana and Tahsan-Mithila come and chat with radio jockey (RJ) Lubaina.

These stations have gained popularity not only among urban upper and middle class households like Basma's, masses have welcomed Foorti and Radio Today with open ears. Of them is: Md Shahjahan, a night-guard in the city's Rupnagar residential area; "Life would have become unbearable without music, and with my monthly salary all I can afford is a radio," he says. So be it a sultry summer night or a chilling wintry dawn, Shahjahan would be seen blowing his night-guard's whistle, and from around his neck would hang a pocket radio. He hums with the jazzy tune of Habib's latest hit, and declares, "I do not feel lonely any more".

While Lubaina's voice has earned her a feverish fan following in young Dhakaites, Radio Today has become popular for the old Bangla and Hindi songs, which it regularly airs. Basma says, "One does not get a chance of listening to old Muhammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar numbers that have been facing oblivion. My parents used to listen to Rafi and Lata on Ceylon Radio, though I grew up listening to them, all of a sudden these songs were replaced by Hindi film numbers." Like these songs, old Bangla film numbers, too, are going through a revival.

Most of the youngsters who listen to RnB and Rap in Dhaka would never have got a chance to listen to Kholo Akhai or Tumi Ki Dekecho Kobhu Jiboner Porajoy if these stations had not taken the initiative to orient them to these classics. Besides this, Radio Today also broadcasts news thrice daily, which makes it the only local private station to air its own news programme.

But when it comes to news, nothing can match the BBC, which in collaboration with Bangladesh Betar (BB), has started broadcasting on 100 FM in and around the capital in 1994. That has been a welcome change since the BB's FM programmes have never been popular; the BBC's 12-hour broadcast has opened the flow of information to the news-hungry listeners of the city. "BBC's daily dose of news and entertainment has become an essential for the Dhakaites," Basma says; BBC has always been popular in Bangladesh, but its transmission on 100 FM has gained phenomenal popularity among the ordinary citizens. Basma says, "Before this we had to tune in to Short Wave, which means buying of a big radio that you cannot always carry with you." Now listeners like Basma can listen to BBC in their cars while going to work. BBC's listeners over the years have increased manifold, this month, the station's Bangla service has introduced a new 30-minute programme at 7:30 in the morning. Apart from its flagship news programme, this early morning broadcast also includes a ten-minute summary of the day's newspapers with a guest analyst.

But what sets the local stations apart is its coverage of Bangladeshi music. These radio stations, Basma believes, is additionally fuelled by a revival of the country's traditional Folk music and fusion scène. Upcoming singer Elita Karim cannot agree more; she thinks these stations have created a platform where musicians can come together and share their talent. "Now singers and musicians in Dhaka can regularly listen to Non-resident Bangladeshi Hip-Hop sensation like Stoic Bliss or talented composer like Fuad," she says.

Now, after the advent of these stations, sales of music CDs have also increased, which has given the much-needed impetus to the country's fledgling music industry. "In the last two years the sales of Bangladeshi CDs have increased dramatically," says Mushtak Hossain, at Sonar Tari Music in Eastern Plaza. Mushtak attributes this to Foorti and Radio Today, who they believe in a tacit way are working as patrons to local music by regularly playing songs of talented newcomers.

Foorti's RJ Lubaina, too, believes private stations are instrumental in the revival of local music. "We have actually made it a point of playing songs of upcoming new talents, after hearing which listeners, if they like the songs, hit the stores to buy that particular CD," says Lubaina.

These two local stations, however, are not beyond criticism. As they lack professional training some RJ's Bangla and English accents sound fake and, at times, exaggerated. Apart from using English words unnecessarily in an otherwise simple Bangla sentence, some RJs, it seems, are in need of training in Bangla and English diction. It is true that a section of Dhaka's nouveau riche speak in this strange mixture of mangled Bangla, mispronounced English and Hindi-film ridden Urdu, but these stations will surely have to come down to earth to appeal to the senses of the masses.

There are other problems too. Voice modulation, one of the most crucial tools in radio jockeying, has also not been taken into account; the RJs in both the stations keep the tone and modulation of their voice unnecessarily chirpy and--at times-- noisy.

FM Radio has also been an unexplored medium. Foorti does not run any news programme; instead for news it relies on Bangladesh Betar. Radio Today does have its own news programmes, but they, sadly, lack professionalism. Even though radio stations abroad are famous for their talk shows and news analyses, these local stations have so far stuck to music only.

Basma complains that sometimes songs are just played one after the other often, it is not even mentioned which song they are playing, or who the singer or the composer is.

Even popular programmes like Dhaka-ar Chaka (The Wheel of Dhaka, which gives a minute update of traffic in the city), sometimes provide misinformation on the flow of traffic in busy hours. Listeners are generous enough to forgive the stations for these fallibilities; Basma says, "One day I was going to Panthapath, and according to Dhaka-ar Chaka the traffic was to be thin on the old airport road, but when I hit the road I found a long queue of cars and Mishuk awaiting me there." But she did not really mind, Basma says, as she does not expect everything in Bangladesh to work normally. "These stations have just started, " she says, "We cannot expect them to be as professional as, say, India's Radio City 91.1 FM or Radio Mirchi 98.3 FM."

Another problem that has been plaguing the medium is the absence of good FM receivers. There have been no FM radio sets in the electronic shops of the city that have a digital display; the cheap pocket radios that are sold in Boshundhara shopping mall or Baitul Mukarram are bad in quality, from Mirpur No-1 circle to Shaymali over bridge, these radio sets are always out of the network. This is particularly acute in Kalyanpur where while listening to BBC's World Today, one may have to hear a voice seemingly from faraway telling one not to take a particular road as there is going to be a big jam.

In spite of all this, there is some good news too; Radio Amar (RA) 101, a new station has started test transmission and is officially going to hit the airwaves soon. The primary aim of RA is to become popular among general people. Basma is enthusiastic; she thinks it will surely add a new colour to her life. "We live in an entertainment hungry environment, " Basma says, "Anything new in the radio scene is welcome."

In the West, or in the neighbouring countries every big city has, on an average, six to seven FM stations, while Dhaka has only two. If the government relaxes its frigid regulations, the country's radio industry can expect to witness a big boom, a little help from the government and FM Radio can become the next big thing.


Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on |February 23, 2007

ahmedehussain@gmail.com