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Ameen Sayani

Anchor | 08 Dec 2003

“A Radio Jockey is a mouthpiece of the station; he has to take the burden of representing the right as well as the dark side of the station.”

Ameen Sayani – ‘the golden voice of yesteryears’ – began his radio career in 1951 with Radio Ceylon and later kept millions engrossed with ‘Binaca Geetmala’ on AIR; today he anchors a show on RED FM in addition to producing a number of shows for the network. Sayani has also produced and compered over 54,000 radio programmes and 19,000 jingles during his career.

Besides radio shows, Sayani spearheaded the development of media in the country through the Radio & TV Advertising Practitioners' Association, Advertising Club and Advertising Standards Council of India. Ameen has also won numerous awards for his contribution to Indian media, which includes ‘Golden Abby Award for Outstanding Radio Campaign of the Century’ in 2000 and ‘ISA' Gold Medal for Contribution to Advertising’ in ‘91.

In a tête-à-tête with Jasmeen Dugal, Ameen Sayani shares his learning curve whilst working with Radio Ceylon, how listenership evolved over the past thirty-five years, the varying impact of western influence on Indian tunes and more.

Q. You worked with Radio Ceylon as a senior producer from 1951–86. What was the learning curve?

In the late forties, I was associated with AIR as a child. When I was about seven years old, I was deeply involved in a number of children’s’ programmes. Back then AIR was among the finest broadcasting organizations in the world, on par with BBC, although it dipped in the fifties for a while. This could be attributed to a number of things – key decisions taken made the impact of AIR lukewarm; film songs were banned and a note of seriousness crept in. AIR was no longer considered easy and breezy.

In the fifties, Radio Ceylon commenced its commercial services in Asia. Film music came back and all programming constrictions were removed. All those who joined Radio Enterprises, the production wing of the Indian agency for Radio Ceylon were allowed to do what they liked in any style that looked good. Of course, no insults or controversies were permitted; as long as we remained within the aegis of a code of conduct, we were given a free rein with the programming. Therefore, all of us developed our own style; there was full scope for creativity and adventurism.

I didn’t stop to look back except when radio per se dipped in India, before the advent of independent radio.

Q. What do you think about the impact of western influence on Indian music? How has it changed over the years?

In the early days, western music came in a hybrid fashion, and sounded odd. Music directors were not familiar with the idiom. There were music directors who used huge orchestras, with forty violins in them, without understanding western music at all! The result was often hotchpotch tunes and a lot of noise. But this phase was short-lived. With the arrival of Salil Choudhury and later R. D. Burman, things fell into place. Salil had a good knowledge of the western symphony and R.D. Burman mixed and matched Indian and western music excellently.

Today it’s a different story. Youngsters are adept at the western idiom to the point where they almost forget their traditional music! But not everyone is like that. The new-age singer I most admire is AR Rehman; he has a brilliant style and plays some great Indian music. His music is a marvelous fusion of the East and the West.

Q. Is the plagiarism of tunes rampant in India? How does plagiarism of tunes today compare to earlier years?

Plagiarism is an age-old trend, which has only been stepped up now. See, a sargam has seven surs. And you are bound to get similar tunes if you are employing the same raag. Moreover, each musician is ‘inspired’ at some point. In fact, I used to do a programme abroad on plagiarism; of course, we couldn’t call it plagiarism – it was titled ‘Inspirations,’ and was a tongue-in-cheek programme about who had flicked what music from where! While doing that show I discovered that all the greats had lifted tunes from western compositions at some point or the other! ‘Isle of Capri inspired Madan Mohan;’ Nayyar did a take-off on ‘Clementine.’ Naushad too used westernized orchestra in his days, and used it to his advantage.

But plagiarism isn’t necessarily bad. I don't see any harm in being ‘inspired’ by someone else, but the beauty lies in taking another tune and adapting it perfectly to suit the Indian taste; a complete rip-off is bad.

Q. Has radio listenership changed over the last thirty—five years? What genre of programming appeals to listeners today?

Yes. Each generation has a way of expressing itself. And each trend is relevant and justified in society. Everything i.e. customs, habits, style etc changes from decade to decade. Each generation brings its own likes, dislikes, ambitions – one has to take the best of the past, mould it for today and take it forward to tomorrow. If you get stuck in archaic thought, you’ll become a stick-in-the-mud; we have to learn how to keep our feet firmly on our heritage and step into the future gracefully.

I have carried this thought on to radio; my focus is on maintaining the then-and-now factor i.e. an appreciation of ‘golden melodies’ and veteran artists in a contemporary programming style. ‘Sangeet ke sitaron ki mehfil,’ my programme on RED FM, is now becoming an hourly programme; the listeners love it and ask for more! It features a nostalgia theme; we have tributes by five great music directors giving interviews on Mohd Rafi after his death. Then we have two programmes on Madan Mohan with tributes by Lata Mangeshkar and Begum Akhtar. In this manner, I have featured a convergence, or rather, confluence of the past and the present, because this is what the discerning listener wants today.

Q. What is the basic USP of the runaway hit show ‘Cibaca Geetmala?’

The Geetmala, which was aired from 1952-53 on Radio Ceylon, didn’t rank the songs. It was only in 1954 that Geetmala became a countdown show. Popularity of the song was the main parameter when rating the songs. We got the correct sales figures of the records, and also went by personal voting from listeners. Soon we realized that votes were getting rigged, with people sending in more than one entry in different names. So we stopped the farmaish part and relied only on sales of records. That was foolproof to an extent, because there were only two songs on a record, so the shop-owners knew which songs were doing well on the basis of the demand.

As years progressed, Geetmala gained in credibility and became so reliable that HMV would ask us for an advance list so that they could keep pressing those numbers, and not land in a situation where records were sold out. In the later years, as the programme gained in popularity, we wanted to air it on Vividh Bharati too, but the station wasn’t ready to accept the programme with the same name. It took on the programme only after we changed the name to ‘Cibaca Sangeetmala.’ So it was telecast on two stations, as ‘Cibaca Geetmala’ on Radio Ceylon, and as ‘Cibaca Sangeetmala’ on Vividh Bharati. After the show was discontinued on Radio Ceylon, it was telecast as ‘Cibaca Geetmala’ on Vividh Bharati.

Geetmala ruled for thirty-nine years, after which satellite television came to India, and countdown shows began on television. The show went on till 1994, after which due to dwindling popularity of the radio, it was discontinued after 42 years.

Q. What qualities should a Radio Jockey ideally have?

It is very important that a radio jockey should not sound like anybody else; today, all the RJs sound the same. To counter boredom, you must continually keep changing your style. Today all the radio jockeys sound alike, whether they are in RED, Mirchi or City.

Q. Is a Radio Jockey a support to the station?

Yes. A radio jockey is the public voice of the station. And a mouthpiece has to take the burden of representing the right as well as the dark side of the station. He has to create an atmosphere of warmth to draw in the listeners.

Q. You have produced innumerable jingles over the years. What, in your opinion, constitutes a good radio jingle?

A good radio jingle is one that has a nice, simple tune that touches the heart and sticks in the mind and conveys the message clearly, without any ambiguity. So a good jingle should embody clarity, appeal, simplicity and of course, attractiveness.

Q. Which is your favorite jingle till date?

My favorite jingles are the station jingles I produced in Fiji islands. The station was Radio Navtarang. The jingles had just a touch of the west and featured two singers. And went on to become a rage. Down the line, the station told me, ‘We’ll keep playing the old jingle, but we want another mod one,’ so I produced another one for them.

Q. So what does the future hold?

Well, hopefully I’ll continue broadcasting…

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