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Modi and Obama's Mann ki Baat was half-hearted

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Amit Khanna
Amit KhannaJan 28, 2015 | 20:30

Modi and Obama's Mann ki Baat was half-hearted

If my assumptions are right then the radio show Mann ki Baat featuring US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had more "listeners" on TV than the chosen medium. No doubt India has an estimated 250 million radios against 150 million TVs but a far lesser number use radios on a regular basis. All India Radio is one of the largest broadcast networks in the world and also one of the oldest. However, age is showing. Its programming is antiquated, technology obsolete and talent has long since migrated to livelier options such as television and private FM stations. If people still tune in, it is either because they have access to any other media or want to hear filmi songs.

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Radio as a medium has changed dramatically. It's become more passive except for chirpy jock-talk on FM. It's no longer the primary source of information or news anywhere. Music round the clock with snatches of news bits and information bites are what today's audience listens to. Maybe the exceptions like BBC Radio One or the PBS in the US only prove the point that serious or substantive communication via the medium is passé now. There are large number people who do tune into FM, but it usually as a driving companion. Now with mobile phones offering an array of information and entertainment options, even these listeners are drifting away.

I was therefore surprised when a smart communicator like Narendra Modi chose radio as the medium of his monthly broadcast to Indians. Mann ki Baat ("saying it from the heart"), the format itself is clumsy. In an effort to reach out to a presumably larger and more plebeian audience, its tone is low key and conversational. Modi has talked about simple social ills, drugs, education, sanitation and health. Unfortunately, the show is produced with an artifice reminiscent of typical government propaganda of the '50s and '60s albeit polished with some spontaneity in the spoken word. Poorly produced with no signature tune or even a proper lead in, it's dull and drab in spite of some interesting topics the PM has spoken about.

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So, when it was announced that Modi and Obama will jointly host "Mann ki Baat" (or "monkey bath" as a joke on WhatsApp! during the latter's India visit, I was a little surprised. For someone who is committed to a Digital India a Google Hangout or some other web chat event would have been more apt. But, perhaps a radio show sounds politically correct and perhaps more exotic too.

Coming to the specific "Mann ki Baat" with President Obama, Modi appeared a trifle self-conscious. His beginning remarks about the etymological meaning of Barack (a Swahili word which means "blessed") were laboured. If his intention was to demonstrate personal chemistry between the two, the repeated use of the president's first name was a bit jarring, more so with the president repeatedly addressing him as Prime Minister Modi. In any case a two language radio show is not conducive to either warmth of banter or the spontaneity of a TV talk show. So, we had two leaders recall their humble origins, talk about their inspirations (Benjamin Franklin in Modi's case), health, development. Cherry-picked but some rather inane questions were answered with antiseptic warmth. Yes, there was some talking but no conversation.

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I think the prime minister must get some professional advice on radio shows and snazz it up and better still make Mann ki Baat a less frequent affair and hangout more on the net. He is an excellent public orator and is a natural on television. He needs to get tuned to today's radio. And by the way, he should listen to some talk shows of Howard Stern or closer home "Yaad Shehar" by Neelesh Mishra.

Last updated: January 28, 2015 | 20:30
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