‘Masth maja maadi for I am a WorldSpace widow’

RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: Dozens of fine people decided to take leave of our company in 2009: Gangubai Hanagal and D.K. Pattammal, Gayatri Devi and Leela Naidu, Tyeb Mehta and Manjit Bawa, T.S.Satyan and C. Aswath.

All these accomplished individuals had led full and wonderful lives. But if there is one death that will touch me even more, one death I will mourn even more, it is the death foretold: the premature passing away of WorldSpace, the satellite radio station.

When my JVC receiver will crackle no more two days from now, an inanimate but inseparable partner over the last nine years will suddenly vanish from my life.

I will become a WorldSpace widow.

It is a loss difficult to explain; even more difficult for those unaware of the phenomenon to understand what it means. But that is the nature of death; the sky darkens for a close few; the rest will wonder what the fuss is all about.

To the former, I offer my commiserations.

To the latter, I offer my heartfelt sympathies.

***

Radio was an integral part of our lives while growing up in Vontikoppal in Mysore in the 1970s and ‘80s. With television mercifully a long way away, it was our window to the world, like it was for thousands of families.

Pradesha Samachara on All India Radio at a little past seven. Old Hindi songs on Radio Ceylon (later Sri Lanka Broadcastig Corporation) with a mandatory K.L. Saigal number as the clock inched towards eight. Aap hi ke geet from 8 to 9.

Kelugara Korike in the evenings, with sports news at 8, followed by Yuva Vani. Soundtrack on Vividh Bharati on Sunday afternoons.

Much of this was standard fare in most homes and it provided us all at school and college, a set of common points to discuss and debate. For those of us assigned to read the news at the morning “assembly”, it provided the cutting edge.

But my father, a radio-head, opened our eyes (and ears) even more.

A long wire-mesh antenna that ran from the front of the house to the rear, spread the net far and wide. The daily catch brought us Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle, Radio Australia and Radio Moscow, Voice of America and Armed Forces Radio.

I vividly remember that October 31 morning when Sir Mark Tully broke in to announce that Mrs Gandhi had been shot. Or the night of May 21, when Rajiv Gandhi lay splattered in Sriperumbudur.

The voices of correspondents like Phillip Short (Paris), Humphrey Hawksley (Hong Kong) and Red Harrison (Sydney), and anchors like Willis Conover (Jazz Hour, VOA) and Suzanne Dowling (Soundabout, Radio Australia) are still fresh in my memory.

V.M. Chakrapani, anyone?

The initiation wasn’t easy. Initially, we had a “Murphy” diode radio at home, that took its own time to flicker to life. Fine tuning it was a precision-art, like threading the needle; just a bit more produced static, just a little less woke up the world.

The entry of a Grundig transistor radio at first and then a Sony 12-band world receiver made listening a lot easier. Thus, writing fanmail to the stations, requesting for schedules and freebies, and collecting QSL cards become a hobby that gave a decisive edge over those collecting stamps, coins and feathers.

It was WorldSpace that completed the radio revolution.

***

Suddenly, on one nifty little receiver, you could receive near CD-quality music and crystal clear news and views of every kind. All you needed was a cute little antenna that had radio-illiterate neighbours wondering what it was.

I picked up my JVC receiver at Suleiman Sait’s Radio Shack on Brigade Road the day it was launched in Bangalore. And thus began a nine-year love affair that ends suddenly at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 2009.

For nine years, I have woken up with one constant partner by my side, and truth to tell, it has not (always) been my gallivanting husband.

It’s WorldSpace.

Carntic music on Shruti in the mornings. Western classical on Maestro in the mid-afternoons. Jazz on Riff during the afternoon snooze. Alternative rock on Bob in the evenings. Plenty of National Public Radio in between.

And the odd couple of Punjabi Tunak and Radio Vatican, plus WRN.

Where will I now go for my daily fix when the peddler has fallen prey?

***

Two things fascinated me about WorldSpace from the very beginning.

The first was that it was DTH before DTH. The radio signals came into our homes, rooms and hearts through the antenna without the cable operator deciding what we should listen, like it was for television.

WorldSpace gave me the power to listen to what I wanted, when I wanted.

The second was the realization that, like satellite TV was a gift India gave to the world (SITE, satellite instructional television experiment, gave Rupert Murdoch the idea for satellite broadcasting), satellite radio was a Third World gift to the globe.

The man behind WorldSpace was Noah Samara, an Ethiopia-born Sudanese space engineer, and he brought satellite radio to Asia and parts of Africa and Europe, long before the Americans got it through XM and Sirius.

But the reason WorldSpace became so much a part of my life as it did thousands of others was the quiet, unintrusive manner in which the world wafted into our homes— educating us, entertaining us, engaging us—without expecting too much in return.

The beauty about radio is that unlike television and unlike the newspaper, it doesn’t demand your full attention. You can do what you are doing, like I am writing this or you are reading this, and still be listening to it.

Going about her daily chores, which Carnatic fan on Shruti can say, hand on heart, that she has not been touched by the dedication of Srividya Prakash morning after morning?

Or the sincerity of Mahadevan with his artiste interviews?

Above all, unlike the illiterate’s picturebook that is television, radio, satellite or otherwise, enables you to imagine.

Somebody paints the words on the air waves, you fill the images in the mind. With WorldSpace’s clarity, there was nothing lost in translation.

***

Initially, when I purchased my receiver, there was no subscription price and I was over the moon. The introduction of an annual subscription fee a while later did little to dampen my enthusiasm for it, such was the way in which it filled a vital blank.

Looking at the complete lack of advertising on the three-dozen-plus channels and given the low subscription fees and the glitzy schedule they mailed subscribers, I often wondered how long WorldSpace would be able to sustain itself, when its American peers had merged to survive or done strange things to stay in the business.

I saw a brief ray of hope when A.R. Rehman came on as brand ambassador to coincide with a subscription drive, which saw WorldSpace receivers even being given away free with magazine subscriptions.

To hear WorldSpace in pubs and bars and in shops and malls, was a sign that the clientele was growing. Rumours that WorldSpace would be soon available on car radios convinced me that the concept had come of age.

When somebody from WorldSpace contacted me to ask if I would be willing to test devices that WorldSpace was rumoured to be making—like a USB device that would bring WorldSpace to computers—I was convinced WorldSpace had it all worked out.

But it was too good a story to last.

And it was.

***

Reading the almost-clerical reports of WorldSpace’s impending demise on the business pages of our newspapers and the reports of the execrable FM stations thriving makes me wonder if we even realise what we are about to lose.

And if we care enough.

What WorldSpace’s fate shows is that while it is fashionable for the chatterati to talk about the lack of “quality” in our media, it is crap that the Indian masses really want, and it is crap that really sells—and survives.

Obviously, we do not know the circumstances under which WorldSpace has to down its shutters and whether it might not come back in a new avatar, but what it tells me is that quality is a very small and finite market and it is possible to overestimate the intelligence of the Indian listener.

Above all, looking at WorldSpace’s fate, makes me wonder about our entrepreneurs and investors who are willing to put in hundreds of crores on junk (24-storey houses, me-too TV stations), they cannot put their money in institutions that ought to another day.

It is a cliche to say all good things must come to an end.

It is also a cliché to say it is not the end of the world.

But surely it is not a cliche to say we are a nation of dumb suckers?

***

While you work that out, may I take the opportunity to wish everyone at WorldSpace who brightened my life over the last nine years, a big thank-you and a happy new year?