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Mastering the art of impossible

on November 14 | in Dialogue, TNS_Columns | by | with No Comments

Radio jockeys have a tough job to do. For rush-hour RJs it’s plain impossible.

The only criterion for a programme host to stay employed in his or her job is public approval. They could be having a friendly banter, a serious talk, giving out information, playing songs … whatever they do, pleasing the audience is uppermost in their minds. Or more accurately, displeasing the audience is the last thing on their minds.

Kind of like, a young and freshly recruited airhostess who feels professionally obliged to smile every time she answers a passenger’s buzzer only to find him grinning, twirling his mustache and winking with his right eye towards the right pocket of his qameez that is so obviously stuffed with crisp bank notes of four digit denominations. (As innocuous as it sounds, this kind of male behaviour has resulted in many a young airhostess on Karachi-Multan route to marry the said passenger in hurry, to regret at leisure.)

But it’s a juicy albeit genuine digression.

Radio jockeys are men and women trying to do the impossible job of pleasing their audiences all the time. They sit in a closed, cramped and dark room talking to people who are most likely to be on the road, in the glare of the sun, or in a fit of hypertension. They are supposed to sound cheerful, positive and hopeful amid the chaos their listeners are going through in the rush hour traffic. And despite all odds, there are moments when they hit it right on the head. They seem to be on your personal frequency in that moment. They get your fullest approval, in that moment.

You are driving along the Canal in Lahore or on Margala Road in Islamabad, with your windows rolled down to let the cool morning breeze welcome you on the skin, and the clouds making funny shapes at the top of your windscreen, and the radio suddenly breaks into ‘rim jhim k geet sawan gaye’ and you think to yourself: this RJ must be psychic, that was the song almost on the tip of my tongue. Or you are coming out of a lengthy but successful meeting, feeling elated and hopeful and the RJ acknowledges your mood by playing ‘do pal ka jeevan’ by Vital Signs. Or just when you are feeling very very homesick, someone puts on air ‘Country roads’.

Unfortunately for the RJ for every one listener they please, there are two who hate the timing of that song, or remark, a casual laugh, or a piece of well researched information. There is nothing the radio man can do about it, except keep rotating the two sets until the aggregate becomes favourable. That technique is also known as catering to the lowest common denominator or LCD. This is a country of illiterate, religious fanatics, goes the thinking, so let’s not talk or encourage talk about literature and religion. Politics is also out because the RJ usually knows nothing about it or considers it the occupation of the illiterate and the corrupt. That only leaves music.

And they are doing a very good job at that.

The FM music of Pakistan is more eclectic and inclusive than any other in the art industry. It does keep up with the global youth culture and world pop but you get to hear reasonable amount of 80s’ Hindi, Urdu and English music too, which is the music of choice for middle-aged men and women. As people who choose music for my drive time, they are doing great.
But they have to open their mouths every now and then, some more than others, and that’s where the LCD factor hits you hard. Trite expression, clichéd arguments, tired jokes, and a horribly limited vocabulary is another hallmark of theirs, regardless of the language of their broadcast.

RJs come in all ages, social and economic groups, educational or professional qualifications … and they all have one trait in common: they love their voice and always overestimate its power on listeners. An RJ friend once confided in me while I was visiting Karachi that by the grace of God she now commands millions who live on this side of Arabian Sea through her radio show. “When I tell them to be quiet, they listen, when I tell them to go party, they go mad. To be honest, just look at the city on Mondays; dull, quiet, like someone died. Why?” She left the question hanging, in the expectation that I’d remember from previous mentions that her only day off is Monday.

That same day I happened to leaf through a magazine and saw her picture in it. She was featured as the ‘least popular RJ’ in a survey conducted by the periodical.

When you have an impossible job to do, perhaps the only way to go about it is rigging the definition of ‘possible’.

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