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Why does it take a public interest litigation to set right an absurdity in broadcasting law two decades too late? The government had considered loosening its monopoly over FM radio in 1993, by selling blocks of airtime for private programming. Then, the auction of 108 frequencies started the FM boom in 2000, but the government was careful to retain a monopoly over what matters — news and current affairs. Until 2011, FM and community radio stations were not permitted to air any programming relating to these areas. The policy guidelines for Phase III of the expansion plan for FM and community radio, rolled out in that year, offered a concession — private operators could rerun news from All India Radio, but without any additions or changes. A miserly and small-minded concession that meant nothing.
Finally, this two-decade-long bout of control freaking is under scrutiny. In response to a PIL, the Supreme Court has asked the government to explain why it believes that private radios should not run their own news programming, though private television channels and print media can. Ironically, many FM radio stations are owned by prominent print and TV publishers. Doubly ironically, TV and internet news have become widely accessible after the proliferation of smartphones and connectivity, even in semi-rural areas. They are at least as easy to reach as FM radio.
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