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Sonam Joshi & Shobita Dhar TNN

Even as public broadcaster Prasar Bharati announced its decision to close down All India Radio’s national channel and its regional training academies in five cities as part of “cost-cutting measures”, AIR old-timers recalled the appeal and reach of India’s first allnight radio channel in a pre-internet, pre-FM era.

Launched in 1988 in Hindi, Urdu and English, it broadcast from 6.50pm to 6.50am. “It was primarily intended for students and those who worked night shifts,” says Rajni SK Dutta, a Hindi presenter who made the channel’s first-ever announcement on May 18, 1988.

Kakoli Banerjee, an English presenter who has worked with the national channel since the late ’80s, often got letters from engineering students and aspiring MBAs who tuned in while burning the midnight oil. “At that time, all other channels would stop broadcasting by midnight. We had a variety of programmes for people who wanted to stay awake,” Banerjee says. “But it also meant we had to do graveyard shifts.”

Staff working for the Urdu channel was no stranger to late nights either. They ran a special programme called Sehar Gahi, aired at 3am for 30 days during Ramzan. It aired religious content from both the Quran and the Gita and was started with the objective of weaning Indian listeners away from a similar programme on Radio Pakistan. “That programme used to contain anti-India messages,” says Dr Shujaat Rizvi, retired station director, AIR. “In the first month, we got 20,000 letters.” Top artistes would take out time out of their busy schedules to record for the channel as it paid them four times more, says Mallika Banerjee, retired programme executive, AIR.

This included maestros such as Parveen Sultana, Girija Devi, Pandit Vishwamohan Bhat, Rajan-Sajan Mishra and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. “Vishal and Rekha Bharadwaj would do a segment on cinema,” she recollects.

The channel gave a national perspective on current affairs, says Pervaiz Alam, former broadcaster with BBC and AIR. “Presenting there was prestigious,” he says. However, Alam points out that despite having a monopoly on news and broadcast — private FM channels cannot air news — AIR has not utilized this advantage. Thanks to the channel’s nation-wide reach, presenters often forged a close bond with listeners. Duttais heartbroken by the news. “It wasn’t just a job. We thought of it in terms of taking care of a family of Indians,” Dutta says.