Haroon Rashid, Editor Pakistan of BBC World Service talks to Synergyzer about BBC Urdu Service; its history, the present and plans for the future.
“BBC was incorporated in 1922 and we are gearing up to celebrate its centenary in 2022. It started in the United Kingdom before World War II and afterwards its broadcast extended to areas where media was not free from government influences and restrictions.
The organization is funded in UK through a TV license fee which every household in the UK has to pay, while the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds BBC World Service broadcast in regions outside of UK, including Pakistan. BBC works by the rule that it will not take commercial advertisements because it’s being run on taxpayer money.
Yet, there is a growing need for funding as the organization is spread across AM, MW and FM frequencies on radio, television broadcasts and online websites and broadcasts as well. To incorporate the growing amalgamation of media and continue with the organization’s international presence, the BBC International website is taking on advertisements to meet general expenses. However, the organization intends to keep the advertising for funding option limited to the website only.
Initially, BBC Urdu Service was broadcast from London, but as the media became free in the country, BBC Pakistan was created to get closure to the audiences. BBC Urdu meanwhile, is not only aimed at Pakistan, but it targets every Urdu speaker around the world whether they are in India, USA, Europe or anywhere else in the world.
Since we are still operating on the AM frequency in Pakistan, we have partnered with different FM stations.
At the moment, there are 40 FM stations which are broadcasting our morning and evening bulletins simultaneously with our AM transmission in the country.
The BBC Pakistan broadcasts are available on the internet as well. Yet, since broadband packages are not within easy economic reach and smartphones are limited to a select niche, our focus is on radio broadcasts. We also collaborated with Express News to broadcast our famous program, Sairbeen, in-sync with the strategy of creating a multi-platform access to the BBC Urdu news offer. This policy is being followed by BBC World Service for various other languages in different regions. After our successful stint with airing content on television, we will be expanding our TV output to five days a week from three days but on a different Pakistan TV channel from early next year.
In Pakistan, although print and television journalism has come of age even though there is still a gap for high quality content creation on TV and journalism is carried out for news coverage and documentary programs covering recent and hyped events only; radio journalism is completely in its infancy. Due to this, different FM stations air BBC Urdu’s news bulletins on their airwaves. As yet, there does not seem to be much formal planning by FM radio channels regarding programming content that will create their niche in a selected genre. Generally, entities acquire broadcasting licenses to air a mixture of content like songs, news and other programs. Moreover, investors and owners acquire licenses through hefty biddings and want to invest in programming that provides returns for their investment. Hence, the private sector has not yet been able to extract the full benefits of radio.
Also, there is not much information available on the factors and dynamics of radio listenership present in the country. Who listens to what and why? When do they listen to programs the most? Although this data has recently become available, its applicability in terms of the size of the Pakistani market and what potential it possesses for the growth of the medium is still not clear, with a lot of advertising and programming decisions being carried out on speculation and intuition.
Last year, BBC Pakistan did carry out a general survey to understand the listenership habits of the Karachi audience, which led to surprising findings.
It was discovered that most people listen to the radio during 10:00 pm to 11:00 pm, most probably as then they want to relax. Another belief that most listeners accessed radio in their cars was found to be a myth as it is mostly cellular phones that people use to listen to radio.
This research has paved way for more nationwide surveys on radio listenership to further determine the trends and behaviors exhibited by radio listeners across different age groups. Hopefully, programming in the future will be planned according to the results of such surveys.
Having said that, BBC Pakistan is committed to bringing the complete picture to our audience in the form and format they prefer the most. Our future strategy will certainly take into account the changing media consumption patterns. I believe in the next four to five years, we may divert our resources to other mediums. Following the trend internationally, we may finish off our AM networks, but it depends on the listenership popularity we may get for BBC Radio on FM, which will determine our strategy for expansion. If the numbers call for it then we will invest the money on television and online broadcast techniques. I was listening to BBC Radio One in the morning and they are increasingly adding video to their broadcast. If you go on to the website of Radio 5 online, you can see broadcasters through a video feed. Maybe this will be our future in Pakistan too. With the fast growing popularity of social media, the dynamics of media are changing so rapidly that you cannot predict what will happen in the near future.”