Dark days for Radio Pakistan

Murtaza Solangi believes that moving Radio Pakistan from its current building would permanently destroy a valuable national asset

Dark days for Radio Pakistan
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, through his office director, has sent a letter to the head of Radio Pakistan (officially called the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation) to submit a detailed proposal on shifting equipment and staff from the building it has used for 38 years. The minister wants Radio Pakistan to move from its current location on the Constitution Avenue to its broadcasting academy in H-9 sector of Islamabad.

Radio Pakistan employees are up in arms and have been protesting this decision across Pakistan. On Wednesday, following a scuffle with the police during a protest, Minister of State Ali Muhammad Khan met the employees and told them that the decision would be reviewed. The protestors disbanded at this assurance but employees continue to believe his words were only meant to pacify them temporarily.

Why has the PTI government made this decision? Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said, “This is an old building constructed in 1950s. Now that there is new technology, we don’t need such a big building anymore. We are a cash-starved economy. We need reforms. Radio Pakistan does not need that building as it is not being properly used. It falls under the category of dead properties. The staff and the infrastructure will be moved to a new location in a jiffy without much expense.”
Radio Pakistan employees protesting on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad

Later, he threw in a new argument: “The government does not have enough money to pay for pensions. The economy is in shambles. We will make a media university there. We want to give the building on a long-lease.”

Speaking in the National Assembly on Tuesday, the information minister said there was no money to pay outstanding pensions amounting to Rs220 million. In a country where the national budget allocates billions for debt servicing and defence and where pensions of the armed forces is around Rs175 billion, the information minister crying about Rs220 million in pensions for public employees!

The National Broadcasting House (NBH), the building in question, is a purpose-built seven-storey structure whose foundation stone was laid by then president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on April 27, 1972. Its staff and equipment moved in the early years of General Zia’s regime. It is not a building constructed in the 1950s. In that decade, even the city of Islamabad did not exist as it came into being in the 1960s under General Ayub Khan’s regime. The information minister needs to verify the accuracy of his information. But even if one agrees that it was a built in the 1950s, the information minister’s arguments still make no sense. Don’t countries manage and maintain buildings hundreds of years old?

The ground floor of the current building is a studio block - Central News Organization, with its allied departments like monitoring, IT department and online services. The block has more than 20 uniquely-designed studios. Many of these have been upgraded with a generous grant of Rs1.5 billion by JICA, a Japanese aid agency. Hundreds of millions from the national exchequer have also been spent on these studios, besides time and expertise of broadcast engineers. The floor also houses the National Master Control Room, also recently upgraded with the Japanese grant. Japanese experts and the Radio Pakistan technical team did the entire installation. This control room serves as the nerve centre of all 32 broadcasting houses of the organization, from Gilgit to Gwadar.

Since this building also serves as the headquarters of the organization, all its directorates and sub-directorates (Programming, Engineering, Finance, Administration, News and International Broadcasting) are housed on its remaining five floors. The Central Archives are also housed on one of the floors, and they contain more than two million minutes of rare audio, from pre-Independence era to the present. The digitization of these archives started in 2011 with USAID’s help and continues till today. These are rare audio tapes that require dust and humidity-free rooms with low temperatures. There are 20 streaming and FTP servers on one of the floors. Moving the archives while digitization is in progress may destroy delicate audio tapes of immense historic value.

The building has a dedicated system connecting it to the Parliament, the President House, the Prime Minister’s House, the Jinnah Convention Centre and Sports Complex. It also has two priority power feeders to ensure uninterrupted broadcasts. All this will not be available at the new location.

The building can accommodate a crew of 2,000 people each day, which includes part-time workers. It has an elaborate satellite link with all its studios in the building and with 32 other broadcasting houses of the corporation. It has a few FM transmitters, Studio Link Transmitters and three transmitting stations spread across the Islamabad metro area. The building is properly staffed and there is no empty or unused space.

The minister of information has been telling the public that times have changed and we don’t need big transmitters in this building. The fact is that none of those “big transmitters” are in the building. Transmitters are never installed in broadcasting houses and are always built away from urban areas, in secure locations to prevent the public being exposed to high frequencies.

Radio Pakistan uses three different transmitting technologies to reach various types of audiences. It uses FM (Frequency Modulation), AM (Analogue modulation) and SW (Short Wave) modulation to reach its listeners. The information minister talked about the one-room transmitting system and was essentially talking about the FM transmission. This actually does not need much space, but it is only used in urban areas for short distances. Pakistan is a big country and its landscape cannot be covered only by FM transmissions. The large land tracts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and especially Balochistan cannot be covered by FM transmitters. In areas like Siachen, where our troops are stationed, there is no other mode of transmission possible to link them with the rest of the country except the AM (often called the medium wave transmission). Rocky areas of the north can only be covered by AM and hence, for a long time to come, it will remain vital for transmissions. Balochistan, where the population is scattered, even hundreds of FM transmitters can’t cover the entire population. AM is the only king there.

Most countries in the world have not abandoned AM or SW transmission. Instead, they have moved to digital broadcasting. Iran, China, India and even Afghanistan has moved to digital broadcasting, most using DRM and DRM plus technologies which use less electrical power but give better audio output. A detailed plan to move to digital broadcasting has been catching dust in a forgotten shelf in the Ministry of Information since October 2017.

Instead of initiating reforms within the national broadcaster, including the PTI election pledge to run both PTV and Radio Pakistan on the lines of BBC, the government in the very first month has decided to paralyse the organization. The decision to move its infrastructure and staff to a small space in H-9 Sector of Islamabad does not take into the account a fundamental fact: neither the infrastructure nor the staff can be shifted to the new facility. The decision of forced eviction of the national broadcaster from its current location means only one thing: the government has decided to shut it down. Quite a feat, I must say, something that even India could not manage during all its wars with Pakistan.

Just like the police, paramilitary forces and the military, the public broadcaster performs a unique service for national cohesion, brings together local languages and culture and provides the public information without business interests of advertisers. National public service broadcasters are never income-generating entities as they provide unique public services, something that a private broadcaster will never do.

If private broadcasters could fulfil public service needs and strategic national interests, All India Radio, China National Radio, China Radio International, NHK Japan, BBC and Deutsche Welle would all have been shut down long time ago. Instead, Pakistan is under siege from powerful digital transmitters of its neighbouring countries. India recently commissioned powerful digital transmitter, from Ladakh up north all the way to Rajkot down south, besides a string of powerful FM transmitters to cover the heartland of Pakistan’s Punjab.

Radio Pakistan currently produces 1,150 hours of programs in one day, in 11 foreign and 23 local languages to serve the people of this country and convey the narrative of the Pakistani state across entire south and west Asia. Radio Pakistan serves the people of Pakistan in the length and the breadth of the country by 32 medium-wave and 56 FM transmitters which include community radio stations in local languages, a feat no private broadcaster can imagine.

Instead of reforming, restructuring and developing the national broadcaster on modern lines, the PTI government is acting like a greedy real estate tycoon who wants to make a quick buck regardless of what happens to the interests of the public.

The author was the director general of Radio Pakistan from 2008 to 2013.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad