The Technically Sound Tech Behind All India Radio Tiruchi

For 80 years now, generations of listeners in the districts of Tiruchi, Peramabalur, Ariyalur, Karur, Salem, Namakkal, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Pudukottai start their day by tuning in to All India Radio (AIR) Tiruchirappalli, welcoming its broadcasts with a familiarity that one reserves for a dear friend.

One of six pioneering stations in pre-Independent India, and the second in the erstwhile Madras State after Chennai, AIR Tiruchi was launched on May 16, 1939 with a 5 KW medium wave transmitter from a rented premises in Tiruchi’s Williams Road, with a message from C Rajagopalachari, the then Chief Minister of Madras State and Lionel Fielden, the first Controller of Broadcasting. The station today functions from its own building on the Bharathidasan Salai in Tiruchi, and is equipped with a 100 KW high power transmitter.

Though radio broadcasting began in the country in 1930, the name All India Radio was formally adopted in June, 1936. Initially, AIR had six stations in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Tiruchi and Lucknow.

Known to be among the largest radio services in the world, AIR currently has 672 transmitters (138 Medium Wave, 48 Short Wave and 486 FM) on air, covering 99% of the population and 92% of the total area of the country.

Compatible for all

AIR’s presence in a competitive market dominated by commercial radio is proof of the high quality of its programming and technical expertise. “Though we had a very simple beginning, we have kept abreast of the times by updating our technology constantly. All the changes were put into place simultaneously so that they would be technically compatible for other centres using our programmes,” says TSK Pillai, Deputy Director General, (Engineering), High Power Transmitters, AIR Tiruchi.

The tech upgrades at the public broadcaster were incorporated in phases as part of Five Year Plans from 1951 onwards. From recording rooms that were once built with wood, AIR Tiruchi today has customised studios with acoustically engineered walls, LED lights and high fidelity microphones.

“Earlier, we had to treat the studios according to the sound reverberation which would differ depending on whether it was a lecture or a music programme. Now we have different studios for talk, drama, music and so on,” says Pillai.

Shifting formats

There has been a shift in the way the programmes are stored and played back as well. Like other broadcasters of its time, AIR initially used magnetic tapes for recording, and gramophone records for replaying songs. As the technology became outmoded, it shifted to compact disks (CDs) and digital video disks (DVDs). As even this became obsolete, AIR started relying on computerised audio inputs from 2011. The Tiruchi station started shifting over from analogue to digital format in 2014.

“Recording on magnetic tapes was slow, around 5/7 inch per second. And if it had to be edited or dubbed, you had to cut the recording to cancel outside noises and interruptions along with the announcer’s voice. Now, with the help of computerised recording, interruptions can be deleted from the main recording without affecting the quality of the interviewee’s voice,” says Pillai.

Digital audio treasures

The Tiruchi station’s audio clip archive is being converted into digital files. A team of three staff members has been converting 6000 magnetic tapes to computerised sound clips featuring music recordings, Tamil lectures, radio plays, and assorted folk music and literary content. The team has been re-recording each tape through an internet-enabled system and simultaneously saving it on external hard disks, and as a back-up, on Blu-Ray discs.

“AIR is now using only digital recordings. The CDs that are still being used will be soon put into storage,” says Pillai, who adds that operating audio archives on a cloud server would be possible only if its cyber security is assured.

For the public

Technological advancements are evident in other spheres too. While programmes were once networked by smaller centres to Metro city studios, AIR stations across the country can now uplink or downlink bypassing the bigger centres, with the help of a digital ‘active earth’ station.

The G-Sat satellites launched by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have helped AIR Tiruchi to link up to transponders.

“In the analogue system, we had only Medium Wave, Short Wave and Frequency Modulation stations, that could not be streamed on mobile phones. This has changed after all our stations have gone digital with the help of proprietary American transmitters,” says Pillai.

While AIR Tiruchi has kept its fingers on the pulse of its listeners down the years, Pillai agrees that it will retain its core values as a public service broadcaster. “We cannot compare our work with private stations. AIR is broadcasting in 116 languages; there will always be standards that have to be maintained,” he concludes.―The Hindu

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