May a thousand radio stations bloom

India is a democracy. Yet, we have a history of peculiar attitudes towards freedom of the press. We've historically had a ban on foreign TV and radio stations, and we have a ban on foreign newspapers and magazines operating on Indian soil. This position is incompatible with liberal values. It's also a position which cannot be sustained given technological developments.

Television. The breakdown of restrictions on media starts with television. We had a public-sector monopoly over television. This was a highly unsatisfactory situation since the monopoly generally worked for the interests of the ruling party. This monopoly was broken by the rise of new technology: satellite television. To India's credit, there was no proposal to ban satellite dishes. Hence, we now have a plethora of alternatives in TV channels. We still don't have a fully satisfactory policy framework through which entry into local TV broadcasting can take place, but one basic goal (breaking the control of government on information) has been attained.

Newspapers. The next step took place with newspapers. For several years now, we've seen hypocritical posturing by existing newspaper companies about the dangers that flow from having foreign newspapers in India. This is a meaningless position since foreign newspapers are (and have always been) available in physical form in India. Once again, the democratic impulse in India has always been strong enough so that foreign newspapers were never banned on ideological grounds: they've only been blocked from operating in India on commercial grounds. The high price of foreign newspapers (flown in from Singapore) has generated a gulf between the haves (who can afford to read the International Herald Tribune) and the have-nots (who are forced to make do with The Times of India).

Access to foreign newspapers has been greatly improved through the Internet. Every important newspaper in the world is now available on the Internet, most of them for free. I know numerous people who regularly read The New York Times. Every day, I stroll over on the Internet to and read a relatively obscure newspaper in Silicon Valley called The San Jose Mercury News, which has the best coverage of technology issues.

Hence, we are now down to the hypocritical situation where the haves (those with Internet access) can have their Financial Times or New York Times on screen, while the have--nots (those without Internet access) are forced to settle for the newspaper delivered on dead trees. This is undemocratic.

Radio. The third step to break was radio. Most Internet users in India don't know this yet, but there are thousands of radio stations which can be accessed for free over the Internet, and this is now practical in India. Right now, as I am writing this, I am dialed into VSNL and have KLOS 95.5 FM (a radio station in Los Angeles) playing. It's very easy to get plugged in: you need to get a program called a "Real Audio" player (which can be downloaded for free) and then connect up to a web site that hosts the radio station (e.g. I get KLOS).

If our mandarins had any insecurity about the Indian people being "too immature" to cope with foreign media, their worst dreams are now true. You can get Pakistan radio; a host of Chinese radio stations are also available. We may pride India for being a liberal democracy, however on the subject of radio, Pakistan and China are exactly as illiberal as India in having radio broadcasting which is a government mouthpiece.

Once again, we have a undemocratic distinction between the haves and the have-nots. The haves are those who have computers with sound cards and decent bandwidth to the Internet; they can access radio over the Internet. The have-nots are those who don't have these blessings, and are forced to access the AM and FM stations available in India.

Going beyond political considerations, there is also a very good economic case which can be made for India to not have restrictions on media. Let us take radio as an example. If radio in India were not repressed, we would have a hundred channels of radio in each major city, and we would have a buzz of activity in terms of companies working in India developing a variety of radio programming: ranging over news, political commentary, music, talk shows, and education. These activities would generate a significant skills acquisition, on Indian soil, in the technology and the content of radio.

Just as it is easy for a person in India to access radio stations abroad, it is easy for a person in India to setup a radio station on the Internet. Remarkably enough, the full software required to do radio broadcasting over the Internet is available at zero cost. Further, even the "source code" of these programs is available, so that technologists working in India can examine the workings, make changes, etc. With the ability to look at the source code and make modifications to it, there is no technological "lock-in" through which the user becomes the captive of the software vendor.

If the radio broadcasting sector had flourished in India, it would have been ready to do global distribution when the Internet came on the scene. The Indian diaspora would obviously be a natural target audience, but there is no reason why the audience should stop here. If non-Indians are buying Indian fiction today, they could also buy radio programming out of India. To the extent that radio stations which hired Indian staff found a global audience, this would constitute a high value--added export industry. This fact holds as long as the radio station hires Indian staff, whether or not it is owned by Indians.

To some extent, this process will begin anyway, with or without Indian government restrictions on radio broadcasting. Even if broadcasting in India is forbidden, it is possible for an Indian (or foreign) media company to download the `icecast' software and build a radio business. However, this process would be greatly assisted if there was a synergy between (global) Internet broadcasting and (Indian) radio broadcasting.

Radio is an area where all that is described here is highly feasible -- even with the poor Internet bandwidth that now prevails in India. Video transmission over the Internet is the next frontier that will become possible with improved Internet connectivity. Once this comes about, we will have a further breakdown of the efforts of the Indian government to control our sensory inputs.

In conclusion, the limitations upon the media which are taken for granted in India today are inconsistent with liberal values. They are also untenable in the modern technological world. However, there is an undemocratic schism between the haves (who can break through the barriers using technology) and the have-nots (who are reduced to accessing AIR, DD and existing newspapers). Finally, it makes economic sense for India to not have these restrictions, as a way of positioning India as a exporter of these high-skill services.

Back up to Ajay Shah's BS column