NEW DELHI — Tuesday morning at Mirchi’s New Delhi office was business as usual. COVID-19 was still just a word that we had heard over the media. Farooq got up from his seat holding a sheaf of papers, trying to find a stapler.
He looked around and spotted one about four desks away. As he walked resolutely toward it, he stopped after a few meters, looked around, as if looking for something to hold on to. And before he could reach the next chair, he slumped on the floor and collapsed. Farooq was to be the first COVID-19 patient we would witness at our station, and this situation was not something we were even remotely ready for.
A few hours after that, the prime minister was on national television announcing a countrywide lockdown that would come into effect that evening. It was March 24, 2020.
Thirteen hundred kilometers away, in Bombay, Mirchi CEO Prashant Panday’s phone was ringing off the hook. A critical decision had to be taken. We had 71 live stations on air when the first lockdown hit us. And we had no clue what we were going to do about it.
We had three options. We could simply switch to uninterrupted music with no talk, or we could have very limited recorded talk. The third option was a perplexing one, and that’s the one our CEO opted for. We would continue exactly the way it was — fully live — and given the situation, would increase talk as well as listener interaction. We also decreased music minutes and replaced that content with vital public service information. We had always claimed that we were an integral member of the community. This was the time to walk the talk.
During the next few hours, we experienced technological turmoil of a scale we had never seen. We had to put 71 live stations on a remote-live mode. Nobody in any radio station in the nation had ever done such a thing. By late afternoon, the tech support team from across the country entered into an urgent session of confabulating. By 7 p.m. that evening, a remote-live broadcast architecture had been drawn out.
The team feverishly loaded software onto laptops and gave crash courses to small groups across office floors and across geographies.
In retrospect, it was astonishing how the fervency spread out that evening, and how it all came together by the end of that fateful day. In the coming months, it was this energy, this passion that was going to prove far more infectious than COVID-19 itself.
The following morning at 7 a.m. was the moment of reckoning. Some 71 transmitters across 63 cities were ready to receive the very first signals out of an indigenously developed remote-live architecture. When the first words came out of the radio sets, we knew this was going to be the journey of a lifetime.
For the next three months, the COVID-19 tsunami crashed upon the country’s 1.3 billion people. There were two things tearing down the existential fabric, and as radio broadcasters, we were responsible for helping to remedy the horrific scenario.
First was the deep and intense social ostracization of COVID-19 patients. This was a new axis of inequality, and it turned back the clock on human civilization and the centuries of “basic human civility” that came with it.
One example of this is when our mid-morning jock received a call from a student called Surekha. She was wailing over the phone. Her parents were in a hospital in a different town, and this girl was down with COVID-19. But the landlord and the neighbors were harassing her to leave the premises immediately.
After the call, the jock called up the landlord, and put him on air live. She pleaded with him to let Surekha stay on. To build up the pressure, the jock also told him that at this point of time, more than 700,000 people in New Delhi were listening to what he had to say.
Two days later, Surekha called the station back to say that not only had the harassment stopped, but now the landlord was such a changed man, he was providing her with meals three times a day, and was also organizing medicines and other daily provisions. Surekha has completely recovered.
“We would continue exactly the way it was — fully live — and given the situation, would increase talk as well as listener interaction. We had always claimed that we were an integral member of the community. This was the time to walk the talk.”
The second factor that was piercing the collective consciousness of an entire nation, was the rampant loss of livelihoods for literally hundreds of thousands. In that situation, we had a band of jocks that would regularly go to the bus terminals and hand out food and drinking water to those who were trying to depart for their homes. We repeated appeals on air across the country, as well as on social media.
In another instance, our Ahmedabad breakfast jock made a fervent appeal to help a group of women who were desperately attempting to keep themselves and their families alive. The target was to collect INR 2 million over the week. By the end of the four-hour show, the station had received pledges worth INR 2.1 million.
The Next Wave
As I write this, we are in the midst of a second wave, and mayhem reigns across the nation with people running around in search of that elusive bed or oxygen cylinder or scarce medicine. Mirchi continues to provide that one thing that was sitting right at the heart of the chaos — credible and actionable information about hospitals where a few beds are still available, or vendors who have oxygen cylinders left. In this sense, the second wave of COVID is different than the first. And so is our reaction to it. In the first round, we helped people with resources. In this second round, the premium element is information.
“There is really no end to this story. We’re recording history as it happens.”
The battle now has moved beyond radio and has expanded through three different platforms. One is, of course, on air, but since most of this information is very text heavy, social media platforms are becoming the major carriers. And the third platform is WhatsApp. We realized that in all this chaos, people may not be listening to radio as much as usual, but they are constantly checking their social media handles and their WhatsApp accounts for info. Thus, we’ve unleashed 155 Mirchi influencer handles in order to reach the maximum number of people, because many jocks here have their followings in the millions.
There is really no end to this story. We’re recording history as it happens. Mortalities are now at a stomach-churning number. Mirchi has upped its outreach programs and the entire team is only verifying and distributing information. We are not going back home, until the others have reached theirs.
The author is chief content officer for Mirchi, a nationwide network of private FM radio stations in India.
Sayema Rehman, Dhvanit Thaker and Shomak Ghosh also contributed to this article.
Learn more about how you can help India during this health crisis.