What's your frequency, Lotus FM?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Picture a state larger than Greece with a population of around 72 million people. It has a coastline of around 900 km, It has the highest number of business enterprises relative to the other members of its massive economic community, and is second in terms of total employment. Its language and culture have been relatively unchanged for 2 500 years. Its diaspora has successfully propagated throughout the world, with the language holding official status in two countries and constitutionally protected in at least two others, including South Africa.

I’m talking about Tamil Nadu in India. And anyone stopping to consider for an instance the information I’ve provided here would realise how ludicrous is the proposition that Tamil as a language is dying or is under threat.

For those of you reading my words outside of South Africa, here’s some background to this discussion. The South African Broadcasting Corporation, (which is nominally our national public broadcaster, but is in fact state-controlled, and is the only entity allowed to broadcast to a national radio audience), has among its panoply of radio stations one nominally dedicated to the Indian community in South Africa. That station, Radio Lotus, recently announced its intention to scale back on the amount of Tamil music being played and to increase its quota of Hindi music and English music.

Now in the commercial radio world, programming changes would be considered to be a perfectly natural process. But Radio Lotus is an unnatural beast. It was founded during the apartheid era by the apartheid government (whom, for the sake of controversy, I will simply refer to as “the boers”.)

The boers had learned from the Nazis that control of the airwaves was an important part of keeping the populace in subjugation. So, they created indigenous language stations to provide inexpensive entertainment to the masses. To ensure take up, FM radio sets were subsidised and shortwave radio sets were taxed. This meant that it was easy for the masses to receive the short range boer propaganda, but difficult for them to tune into Radio Freedom broadcasting from Zambia.

The boers, however, forgot about the Indian community. So enterprising members of said community formed a partnership with Swazi Radio, rented a shortwave transmitter pointed at Durban and the Vaal triangle, and began broadcasting Radio Truro.

Broadcasts were time delayed; they were recorded in Durban and Johannesburg studios, and the tapes would be sent by road to Swaziland to be broadcast a week later. Nevertheless, there was huge uptake by the community. A host of fitment centres in the Grey Street area began doing a roaring trade in shortwave players. It became impossible to sell a Cortina in Chatsworth unless it had a shortwave radio too.

The boers realised to their chagrin that this now meant that a number of people were as a result suddenly starting to tune in to Radio Freedom and other undesirable entities, so they started their own FM Indian radio station and called it Radio Lotus. Unable to compete with the immediacy of the broadcast and clarity of signal, Radio Truro died and Lotus reigned supreme.

But the end of apartheid brought an end to political isolation. Indian South Africans, thanks to DSTV, now have access to North Indian and South Indian television bouquets. Thanks to deregulation of the airwaves, a number of short range community radio stations emerged, competing directly with Lotus for its audience. Today, Lotus boasts a Monday through Friday audience with an all time low of 185 000. For a national radio station in a country of 49 million people, that’s truly pathetic.

So ask not whether Tamil is dying, but ask instead whether Radio Lotus has a right to exist. My answer is that it does not. It is an apartheid-era relic which needs to be consigned to oblivion in its current form. On the other hand, if the government is serious about protecting the cultural heritage of Indians, I have a simple solution – sell it to us as a community. We will show everyone how to win over Tamil, Hindi, Telegu, Gujerati, and Urdu audiences — and still make money.