World Radio Day: Tamil Nadu’s RJs and radio enthusiasts celebrate a century of ‘vaanoli’

From finding a comforting companion to cultivating an audience for their voice, radio lovers and professionals from the industry reveal how the medium has inspired and influenced their lives, on World Radio Day.

ByVaishali Vijaykumar

Published Feb 13, 2024 | 11:00 AMUpdated Feb 13, 2024 | 11:00 AM

World Radio Day: Tamil Nadu’s RJs and radio enthusiasts celebrate a century of ‘vaanoli’

Like for many Tamil Nadu residents, the humble radio, known as vaanoli, has held a sweet spot in Dr T Jaisakthivel’s heart since he was in grade eight. Offering both education and entertainment for the little boy who grew up in a village near Tiruppur, radio was more than just a device. It was a gateway to the world. Nights were incomplete without tuning into Tamil Osai by BBC World Service, sparking a lifelong passion for broadcasting.

“Radio is a one-time investment unless it gets repaired. It’s that simple,” Dr T Jaisakthivel remarks with a gleam in his eyes, recalling the thrill of tuning into broadcasting stations from around the world.

Dr T Jaisakthivel’s dedication to radio extended beyond mere listening. He diligently wrote letters to radio stations, receiving QSL cards in return as confirmation of his on-air contacts. Today, his collection boasts over 2,000 QSL cards from stations across 200 countries. What began as a hobby eventually paved the way for a full-fledged career in radio, showcasing just one of the many inspiring stories from the state.

Today, as we celebrate World Radio Day, themed Radio: A Century Informing, Entertaining, and Educating, we pause to reflect on its enduring significance.

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Voices of vision

One such promising story of passion for the medium emerges from a book produced by a group of journalism students under the guidance of Dr T Jaisakthivel. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Madras.

Dr T Sakthivel has compiled and edited two books on the medium of radio. (Supplied)

Dr T Jaisakthivel has compiled and edited two books on the medium of radio. (Supplied)

Titled Yaaru Sir Iniki Radio Kekuranga (Who Listens to Radio These Days?), the book is a collection of heartfelt testimonials from radio enthusiasts in Chennai.

“Every year, as World Radio Day approaches, radio lovers come together to celebrate their shared love for radio. Each listener embodies the spirit of a hundred, such is their unwavering dedication,” says Dr T Jaisakthivel.

Dr T Jaisakthivel has compiled and edited another book titled Panmuka Parvaiyil Akila India Vanoli (Multiple Perspectives of All India Radio). This book features narratives from 45 individuals affiliated with All India Radio, offering diverse perspectives on their experiences.

The professor emphasises that their broader aim is to produce 15 books highlighting shortwave Tamil radio broadcast stations worldwide. They’ve already documented voices from BBC Tamil Radio, China Radio International, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, and Radio Veritas Asia so far, with more projects in the pipeline.

Both books will be unveiled today at the University of Madras. “These aren’t mere student assignments, they represent significant historical documentation,” Dr T Jaisakthivel affirms.

The event will also serve as a gathering point for radio enthusiasts and postcrossers, coinciding with the release of four commemorative postcards.

“We envision people sharing stories through handwritten notes, bridging the realms of communication and creativity,” adds Dr T Jaisakthivel, a multifaceted expert in radio broadcasting technologies, podcasting, philately, and postcrossing.

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Passion meets profession

Among the contributors to Panmuka Parvaiyil Akila India Vanoli, the husband-and-wife duo, J Kamalanathan IBS, Retired Director of All India Radio Chennai, and B Thiripurasundari, Senior grade Announcer (RJ) at All India Radio Coimbatore stand out prominently.

B Thiripurasundari, Senior grade Announcer (RJ) at All India Radio Coimbatore. (Supplied)

B Thiripurasundari, Senior grade Announcer (RJ) at All India Radio Coimbatore. (Supplied)

Having dedicated decades to their craft, the couple feels they’ve spent more time within the walls of radio stations than in their home.

“God has blessed me with this voice and pronunciation – the two pillars of an announcer (RJ),” shares Thiripurasundari.

“As an RJ, words must resonate deeply with listeners, leaving a lasting imprint. Even today, my voice is instantly recognised by households in Coimbatore. That’s the enduring power of radio,” she beams.

Long before the rise of audiobooks and podcasts, Thiripurasundari carved a niche for herself with her show Puthina Thodar, which she faithfully hosted for 13 years. From the works of Sujatha to Rajesh Kumar, she brought to life the stories of renowned Tamil authors, earning the admiration of countless listeners.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” she reflects. “We were diligent in our language usage and kept abreast of current affairs,” she concludes, speaking from her wealth of experience as a radio veteran.

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From waves to wonders

The couple’s shared passion for radio not only united them but also formed the cornerstone of their relationship. “Working together, admiring each other’s efforts, and offering constructive criticism has been the foundation of our partnership,” reminisces Kamalanathan, who boasts a rich history of interviewing industry stalwarts during his tenure.

J Kamalanathan IBS, Retired Director of All India Radio Chennai. (Supplied)

J Kamalanathan IBS, Retired Director of All India Radio Chennai. (Supplied)

Today, he continues to impart his wisdom to aspiring mass communication and journalism students across various colleges.

Reflecting on the impact of his motivational talk show Vetrimaalai, Kamalanathan recalls a touching moment when an industrialist expressed how listening to his program became a daily ritual, bringing completeness to his day.

“It’s the smallest feedback that truly matters,” he asserts.

“For us, radio isn’t about chasing numbers or fame; it’s about finding courage, confidence, and motivation. I urge anyone with a creative spark to consider a career in radio. Students, especially, should trust in the power of this medium,” he advises.

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Broadcasting dreams

Naren Kumar N L stands as another example of how radio can profoundly transform lives. Formerly a video jockey, he has since transitioned into a PhD research scholar in film studies, showcasing the medium’s remarkable ability to shape career trajectories and passions.

Naren Kumar N L, RJ at All India Radio Rainbow FM and Vividh Bharati Tamil FM. (Supplied)

Naren Kumar N L, RJ at All India Radio Rainbow FM and Vividh Bharati Tamil FM. (Supplied)

“My father decided to disconnect our television connection to help me focus on my studies. Left with only a Kchibo radio set for entertainment, I found solace in its waves,” recalls Naren, who once harboured dreams of becoming a video jockey to showcase his talents in a medium he was previously denied access to.

Fate, however, had different plans, leading him back to the world of radio. Currently employed with All India Radio Rainbow FM and Vividh Bharati Tamil FM, Naren reflects, “There’s a myriad of opportunities awaiting students out there,” he shares.

“College students are now taking pride in managing community radio stations. If you’re driven by passion, even if not economically competitive, the radio will bless you with that satisfaction,” he emphasises.

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Nostalgic reflection

A similar tale of passion is that of Srinivasan Venkatesh, whose fervour for weather forecasting was ignited by the radio.

“Back in the 1980s, when Doordarshan, All India Radio, and newspapers were our sole sources of weather updates, radio played a pivotal role,” reminisces Srinivasan.

“Periodic reports from the Indian Meteorological Department transmitted over the radio served as invaluable insights. I would meticulously compare their forecasts with my own and find immense satisfaction in the process. Radio not only facilitated learning but also fostered a sense of community awareness about weather patterns,” he explains.

Srinivasan found the explanations in the broadcast refreshingly straightforward. “Although updates weren’t as frequent as they are now, especially during natural disasters, radio remained a lifeline,” he emphasises.

Today, while the younger generation relies on Twitter for instant information, Srinivasan fondly recalls how AIR would preempt television in announcing holidays, evoking a sense of joy that remains unparalleled. “Those were the days,” he reflects with nostalgia.

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Radio to the rescue

In addition to its vital role during emergencies, radio proves indispensable in various crises, as Keerthi Nathan, an amateur (ham) radio enthusiast, vividly recounts.

“I heard a tale from a member of the Rajapalayam International Radio Communicators Club,” he begins, “wherein a member found himself stranded due to a vehicle malfunction in Idukki. The club swiftly connected him with a nearby ham radio club, facilitating his immediate rescue. The essence of ham radio lies in its ability to network and connect, especially when mobile networks falter.”

Keerthi Nathan, an amateur (ham) radio enthusiast. (Supplied)

Keerthi Nathan, an amateur (ham) radio enthusiast. (Supplied)

As an Innovation Manager at IIT Madras Research Park, Keerthi’s journey into ham radios began under unique circumstances. “My introduction to ham radios came from my mother, a central government employee,” he explains.

“Accompanying her to work on Saturdays exposed me to spectrum monitoring receivers at her office. The way they functioned sparked my curiosity. Though young at the time, my passion for the hobby blossomed during my second year of Master’s degree,” adds Keerthi.

In recent years, Keerthi notes a surge in amateur radio licence applications, indicating a growing interest in the field. To obtain an amateur radio licence in India, individuals must pass the Amateur Station Operator’s Certificate (ASOC) examination conducted by the Department of Telecommunications under the Ministry of Communications.

For Keerthi and many others, the allure of speaking over a radio holds a unique emotional resonance unmatched by phone communication.

“I’ve learned that numerous celebrities, including actor Kamal Haasan and Mammootty, are avid ham users,” he shares.

“Even our former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was one. From casual conversations to shared interests, ham radio fosters camaraderie, excluding discussions on sensitive national security matters. The growing interest in ham radios is truly heartening,” he concludes.

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Tuning into change

Despite the sweeping tide of the digital age, radio continues to evolve and adapt to remain relevant in today’s landscape.

Naren sheds light on this evolution, stating, “Radio transmissions are embracing new forms, with each station establishing its presence on social media, experimenting with web radio formats, DTH transmissions, and even streaming shows on platforms like Spotify. The rise of podcasts marks a significant shift; soon, announcers may find themselves referred to as podcasters. Regardless of our personal preferences, it’s imperative to embrace these changes to stay competitive in the field.”

Naren actively collaborates with his co-scholar Balamuralikrishna and two postgraduate students, Ashwin and Arun, in hosting the Vetti Pechu series on his podcast, Alai.

Reflecting on his formal education, Naren acknowledges the advantage it provides in terms of mic usage and editing skills. He recognises, however, that his friends from diverse backgrounds may not possess the same expertise.

“Despite this,” he assures, “I am committed to ensuring that our content remains polished and inclusive, catering to a diverse audience. There’s a shared optimism within the community regarding the strengthening of monetisation plans for podcasts.”

While podcasts may be the way forward to cater to the modern audience, Naren firmly believes that radio will thrive as long as its loyal listeners are there to support the medium.

“I have three cab annas who called me the other day to congratulate me on my show. The corporation workers also count on it for information,’ says Naren.

The government must also give more attention to radio broadcasting, asserts Naren. “The government invested in Digital Radio Mondiale but it did not take off as expected. We must look into it and tap on its potential.”

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Echoes of impact

One of radio’s paramount strength lies in its ability to reach listeners during emergencies and this came to light during recent conflicts like the war in Ukraine and Palestine.

“BBC Radio, Radio Ukraine International, and Voice of Russia swiftly deployed dismantled transmitters to disseminate crucial information to people who solely depended on the medium for news,” recounts Dr T Jaisakthivel. “Must we wait for disasters to realise the significance of this medium?”

Highlighting the significance of shortwave broadcasting, Dr T Jaisakthivel expresses regret over its underutilisation. “Shortwaves have the power to travel very long distances and are crucial during disasters. Despite the presence of medium wave and shortwave transmitters in Avadi, only medium waves are currently being transmitted,” he laments.

It’s disheartening to see the potential of shortwave broadcasting largely untapped, especially when we consider that China Radio International has extensive shortwave Tamil broadcasts, while our own Tamil Nadu, with a larger Tamil-speaking population, does not, he points out.

Frequencies of hope

Looking forward, Dr T Jaisakthivel firmly believes in harnessing the power of radio to the fullest to empower the youth. “Introducing children to radio at a young age enhances their listening and language skills,” he asserts.

He draws attention to international broadcasters like Voice of America, BBC World Service, and Radio Japan offering free resources to promote language learning.

Having been invited to radio stations in over six countries, Dr T Jaisakthivel underscores the opportunities for cultural exchange facilitated by radio. “We call the medium dead, while it’s us listeners, who are unaware of the wealth of knowledge it possesses and the opportunities it offers,” he notes.

With its untapped potential waiting to be discovered, today marks not an end, but a new beginning — a chance to rediscover the magic of radio and to usher in a future where its influence knows no bounds.