By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Raving about radio!

It was only in the 1980s --  when I found that my schoolgoing children weren't sharing my sense of amazement regarding the technical aspects of intercontinental live telecasts which had just become reality in India --  that I became conscious of the fact that I had similarly taken worldwide shortwave radio for granted when I was myself a young student 30 years earlier.   Quite logically, that was the point of time when I realized what an amazing marvel of the  modern world radio was;  and I had recalled my thrilling radio memories  in a lively article I wrote in 1984.
Since then  --  which  means during the next 30 years or so!   --  I've got more and more revelations about things modern and ancient, and I've been endlessly exploring this labyrinth of ideas.  But let my reflections on this follow in due course --  for now, let me just fish out for you that 1984 landmark essay.

Evening News, New Delhi
20 July 1984

Romance of radio

Impressed by the live telecast of the Wimbledon final from London last week, I had gone into ecstasies in this column about the wonder of instant worldwide TV broadcasts  --  and I had complained about the way my space-age children just tend to take it for granted.

Turning this aspect over in my mind during the week-end, I realized I had myself taken short-wave radio totally for granted when I was a youngster.

In 1939 or '40 my father had bought a six-valve HMV superheterodine radio receiver made in England.  In 1952, when I was still a student, he gave it to me as a gift for my exclusive use.

The short-wave capability of this instrument was so impressive that I could easily tune in to a large number of stations all over Europe, Africa and the Orient, though I could never gain direct access to any place to the West of the Atlantic Ocean.

And from many of those remote stations I used to receive broadcasts which were often remarkably free from static, almost as clear as those from the local station. 

Thus arose my obsession with intercontinental radio, which lasted for a long time.

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To begin with, I spent huge chunks of my time listening to the BBC, Radio Australia and the Voice Of America --  the last one through relay stations in Tangier and Manila.  Along with the many Hollywood and British movies I used to see (if necessary by cutting a class or two every week) these broadcasts reinforced and refined my English education. 

It so happened that around this time I started learning French on my own, with an admirable book called Teach Yourself French (English Universities Press).

Though I quickly absorbed the written language, I couldn't learn the nuances of French pronunciation from the book.  But I found that a powerful radio station called Radio France-Asie operating from Saigon (now extinct) was broadcasting lucid French lessons twice a week.

I wrote to them and got a set of slim booklets containing the texts of the lessons, and with this bi-weekly exercise I had no difficulty in getting a good grip on the pronunciation.

After that I systematically listened to every French broadcast I could receive  --   from Paris, London, Moscow, Saigon, Stockholm, Budapest and even Brazzaville in French Equatorial Africa.  

Most of the news would be familiar: about politics, accidents, killings and disasters (as they've always been since, and still are!).  But there were certain items --  like cold-weather reports from Stockholm or shipping news from Paris  --  which were quite unusual for  a listener in India to hear, and were therefore particularly thrilling.

Also, it was with the help of this superb wireless set that I got a glimpse of the whole world's music  --  not only Western classical, jazz, pop and Latin American, but also the national and folk music of many countries.

Among the things which fascinated me were full-blooded proletarian songs from Soviet Russia, enchanting gypsy rhythms from Hungary, meditative music from West Asia, throbbing drum-beats from Africa, the sobbing guitar and voice of the fisherfolk from Portugal, and the lilting  accordion and yodeling of the Alps from Switzerland.

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Short-wave reception was clearest in the stillness of deep night, so I regularly used to sit up till the early hours of the mornings, eagerly devouring anything and everything I could capture.

The remarkable thing about this romantic venture of mine into the wonderland of wireless was that never once did it occur to me at that time to sit down and reflect on what a marvellous piece of machinery my pre-war radio set really was.

The thing was just there, and I could simply turn a few knobs with my fingers and listen to half the world any time between sunset and sunrise.  There the matter ended, and I thought no more about it. 

Perhaps, then, I shouldn't really be surprised by the fact that my children's approach to television is so casual!

Nevertheless, I would like to caution the young ones that instant international TV is still by no means a commonplace thing even in the advanced countries, and the true marvel of it is yet to materialize. 

For the day is still to come when ordinary persons anywhere in the world can nonchalantly gain access to televisual images projected from distant places in different continents without the telecasts being relayed by a TV station not too far away from where they are. 

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