India's public service radio broadcaster has left many journalists and jockeys disgruntled by their move, which is being described as "discriminatory ageism" by the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ). In 2013, a decision was taken to disallow radio announcers older than 35, to continue broadcasting on All India Radio’s (AIR) FM Rainbow, if they were hired as ‘Casuals.’

In a press statement issued in June this year, the DUJ drew attention to the “the arbitrary move by Prasar Bharati to dismiss all radio jockeys who are on contract, simply because they have crossed the age of 35 years.” While urging Prasar Bharati to reconsider its “ill-advised move” it also noted with concern the growing tendency among private media groups to dismiss employees as they grow older, “misusing contract employment laws to replace them with younger and cheaper workers.”

FM Rainbow is played out from 15 centres including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore but also smaller cities like Lucknow, Panaji, Jalandhar, Cuttack and Kodaikanal. The programming includes pop music, film songs, classical & devotional music, news headlines and dial-in programmes. The phasing out at the channel was expected to be complete by June this year, but is yet to be implemented in all the 15 stations around the country.

The term ‘Casuals’ is shorthand for the hundreds who work as jockeys, news readers, announcers, presenters, music artists and more. They were never hired as full timers, and in fact can only work for 6 transmissions a month to 72 a year. AIR has now made 35 the new old for this band of professionals.  

A recent statement issued by the office of F. Sheheryar, the Director General of AIR, explains that the broadcaster, “like other established broadcasting organisations of the world is professionally bound to review, recast and recreate the panels of casual jockeys every year to bring in fresh talent and break monotony.”

Journalists who are being turned out for being ‘too old’ for radio, are being told that their assignments at AIR were merely “a monetary help but not a ROZGAAR or livelihood or a full time service.”  The statement ends by citing AIR’s need to devise “ways and means of enhancing its revenues and lessening expenditure in order to be able to fend for itself.”

The role of ‘Casuals’

The present move is strange not just in terms of broadcasting sensibilities, but also in terms of what it says about AIR’s human resources model. Casuals have been integral to the functioning of Prasar Bharati, as the organisation has not hired any staff in nearly 20 years. This is due to unresolved recruitment issues from 1997, when it was formed.

Sajan Venniyoor, who was an executive at AIR for 15 years, explains: “There is only a handful of full time announcers left. Most of them have retired and a large part of the work is run by Casuals.”

“When Rainbow was started, presenters from the primary channel were transferred en masse and given additional responsibilities for Rainbow,” says another executive from FM Rainbow in Goa, who does not want to be named.  

However, it seems that it is this churn in the league of Casuals that keeps things fresh in an otherwise stagnant human resource structure. “After the collapse of the princely states, it was AIR’s patronage that kept cultural forms alive. In this way, AIR has always been about providing a platform for talented people, but not as a job,” says Venniyoor.

To understand the full implications of Venniyoor’s statement, one needs to recognise the fact that AIR as an institution was not meant to be a job creator or a mass employer. It was during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s time, when for a brief period, AIR began to absorb all Casuals coming to the AIR offices, into the institution.

“We recruited everyone from tambura artists to sitar artists. That was a crazy time when creative people became administrators after being taken in and this period destroyed AIR’s purpose for preserving arts and culture,” says Venniyoor. Without an overhaul of the structure, he feels that the institution can no longer afford to hire en masse, be it ‘permanent casuals’ or full-timers.

Sajan Venniyoor, All India Radio

“These young and creative people should use their credentials from AIR and run with it, instead of pining to stay on at the organisation,” he says and cites the examples of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Bhimsen Joshi and Khushwant Singh, talented artists in different fields who worked at AIR in different capacities. Their wide success and repute might have turned out quite differently if they had remained committed to a life-time job at the broadcaster, instead of following their own creative pursuits.

Apart from hiring, there has also been a paralysis on promotions as noted at the Prasar Bharati Board Meeting in April this year.

The age conundrum: Why is ‘35’ too old?

Many, including the DUJ, view age discrimination as the real contention here. India has always been rather charitable towards age. Why be old, when you can call it mature?

The average age of the Indian parliamentarian this term is 54, with 41 of them above 70. Zohra Sehgal who died recently at 102, was still acting on television at the age of 95. The national airline, Air India, fought a protracted legal battle to have their age of retirement fixed at 58, contrary to concerns on air safety or market aesthetics.

Even in this case, the 35-year rule seems to extend only to casuals and not to staffers who can continue broadcasting until retirement. After all, doesn't a broadcaster get better with age, time and experience? All this makes AIR’s ageism somewhat counter-intuitive and suggests an alternative editorial, or often economic, rationale behind the move.

In terms of broadcasting sensibilities, one might be able to argue why television presenters need a cut off age, because there is a visual and aesthetic element to television broadcasting. But radio does not have the same cosmetic constraints - most listeners are followers of a voice and its personality, which is much more stable than one’s looks.

“There is a mystique to the voice, and this charm of radio is tainted by the knowledge of what the presenter looks like or how old he is. Unless there is tremor in a voice, how can you guess the age?” asks Sunil Varma, who is part of the fraternity opposing this move.

Varma has been a casual presenter for AIR since 1986. Over the years, many have heard him on the ‘Matchless Music Hour.’ From listening to him speak, one can’t tell that he is 53 years old and is far beyond AIR’s definition of young. He is now a staunch opponent of this plan and represents a loose group of Casuals who are fighting to retain their positions and overturn the order to discontinue their services on account of their age.

Varma recently met India’s new Minister for Information and Broadcasting, with a representation on this issue and Minister Prakash Javedekar promised to get back to them with his reply.

“While there is a small group of Casuals who have been demanding that they be regularised, we are not asking for that. We are simply saying that we should be allowed to do what we enjoy. Do new recruits have to come at the cost of old ones?” he asks. Varma is of the opinion that AIR has the scope to contain a large inflow of young Casuals, and yet provide a platform for all the older ones as well.

Venniyoor, however, has another reason to explain this age discrimination. "FM Rainbow was started with the intention of reaching out to the youth, not just in terms of the modern technology but also in terms of its content” he says. The idea was to survive in the market with private players who were beginning to use FM.

The AIR website defines FM Rainbow as “a channel to cater primarily to the young listener on the move. The presentation style became fast paced and informal to suit the changing listener profile. The vibrant programming and quality reception caught the imagination of the youngsters and allured them to come closer to their radio.”

But Varma contests the argument that Rainbow is directed at youth alone. He says that there is nothing exclusively for the “young or under 35” either in the content of its shows, or the profile of its listeners. He himself plays “older-than-old” music on his show, while also doing trance and contemporary rock music.

“How is someone born after the 80s expected to handle music from the 1930s? Why are the broadcasters labelled too old, when the content of the broadcasts prescribed itself is pretty often retro?” he asks.

The executive from FM Rainbow in Goa explains, “Our listeners are aged 7 to 70,” and says that the broadcasters too need to be all the more experienced and versatile to deal with such a diverse audience.

A larger impact

The idea of AIR being only a platform to kick off talent and provide for movement of youth into and out of the organisation through Casuals takes on a very different implication when applied to smaller cities and stations. Venniyoor’s work in AIR stations in Goa, Kerala and the Andaman Islands tells him one thing: smaller stations could crumble under this move.

“This move will backfire heavily in smaller places. I imagine that at least eight stations will face serious problems and have to shut down.” Delhi is spoilt for choice in terms of talent, with a number of people graduating from journalism schools at Jamia Millia Islamia University and Indian Institute of Mass Communication. In Delhi, where these policies are formulated, there is a ready pool to dip in to and replace older Casuals.

However, small towns face a complete reversal of situation from big cities. Aspiring jockeys are not thronging the offices of smaller stations.

“Policy makers don't realise the struggle in small towns. Everyone there is looking for a steady job and once they get that, those available to come to smaller stations are scarce. In these places, once we get a reliable jockey, we try to hold on to them, old or young,” says Venniyoor.

The executive from Goa concurs. "We are almost gasping for breath by the end of the year because many of our Casuals have already finished their quota of 72 sittings,” he says.

In places like Goa, there is a steady outflow of people, who leave for study, work or marriage. Here, the presenter needs to be able to cater to people who speak Konkani, English, Marathi, and play music in different languages and for different ages. “This is a lot to ask from the small pool of people who come to audition every few years, and this is why we rely so heavily on our time-tested Casuals, even if they’re ‘old’,” says this executive.

In view of these insights, perhaps what is needed is a consultation with smaller stations, not just the 15 from where Rainbow is originated but also the 20 small towns where it is relayed.

“Clarity can only come when they take into consideration all stations. Then they will understand the ground reality,” says the executive from Goa.

“When AIR formulates a rule like this, it will be applicable across India. It is an inherent part of how the organisation functions. But in the creative space, a ‘one size fits all’ rule cannot work,” says Venniyoor. He points to the need to find a way to balance their stagnant hiring position and the need for circulation, with the specifics of stations across India in view.