Radio is considered as a potentially strong media in Bangladesh but it did not grow much even after the arrival of commercial and community radio stations.
The history of radio is older than that of television. Radio came in the Indian subcontinent during British rule and its network spread during the Pakistan regime (1947-1971) when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan and called East Pakistan. Unlike television, radio had a glorious role during the nine-month War of Independence of Bangladesh in 1971. When war broke out, Pakistan Radio was renamed as Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (Independent Bangladesh Radio Station) and started airing speeches and songs to keep the morale of the people strong and inspire freedom fighters. It eventually became the voice of the people and the government in exile during the war.
After independence, the radio continued broadcasting as Bangladesh Betar, airing both news and entertaining programmes. Radio was more available than television and people in both urban and rural areas were listeners. The radio had also a countrywide network and yet it did not flourish. Rather, it was increasingly becoming a tool for propaganda for successive regimes. Thus, the popularity of the radio station on which people depended for daily news and entertainment, dropped.
NMS (2002) shows radio reached 42 percent in 1998 but dipped to 24.1 percent in 2002. The rapid increase in the opportunity to watch television from the late 1990s and the subsequent years was a major reason behind the fall of radio listenership. According to NMS (2016), 12.4 percent of the population listens to radio with 16.7 percent in urban area. This equation puts radio operators in difficulty and they are now considering going for new initiatives to increase the popularity of the media.
Radio Metrowave was the first private station to begin airing in 1999, using the spectrum of Bangladesh Betar but the radio did not sustain. It was ended from operations for not renewing the license. However, more radios were in the pipeline and the country got two dozen stations in the next decade. Radio Today, Radio Foorti, Radio Amar, and ABC Radio are the stations that came one after another. As many as 35 commercial and community radio stations are now operating and a dozen more are expected to start functioning soon. Of the operational stations, 17 are commercial and the remaining 18 are community radios.
The commercial radio stations are urban based and entertainment oriented. They also give news updates briefly but mainly air popular music and live storytelling by celebrities. Since cricket is very popular sports in Bangladesh, few radio stations live telecast cricket matches that are organised in Bangladesh. Some of the programmes are aired late at night, aiming at certain groups of listeners. Through a mix of music talk shows, interviews and active participation of DJs, these stations have certainly added a new element to the urban dwellers.
Radio Foorti is basically a music radio station playing all types of songs. Apart from the capital city, it has separate stations in seven other major cities. ABC Radio is, on the other hand, a news-based station, regularly airing news bulletins, current affairs, and talk shows.
Community radio channels are mostly operating from outside of the cities, involving the community people, who can express their own views and listen to others in their own locality. In short, through the community radios, the community people communicate with each other and can access the information necessary for them.
Opened in 2011, Radio Padma is the first community radio opening a window for this media. Although 17 more community radio channels were launched after that,Radio Padma is still popular among the community. Programmes on various issues on family planning, health, society, technology, and awareness-building on natural disasters and violence against women, are featured in community radio channels.
There is also one specialised community radio ran by the government. Krishi Radio (Agriculture Radio), which began broadcasting from a coastal district in 2012, is dedicated to transmitting agricultural information in a community where people are involved mainly in farming and fishing.
Professor Shameem Reza, who teaches at the University of Dhaka and has been doing research on Bangladesh media, describes why radio is attracting mainly lower and lower-middle classes. A big feature here is that radio programmes can be heard through mobile phones. Commercial radio stations have been able to attract listeners with entertainment programmes while people in remote villages can connect with each other through the community radio channels. To make radio popular, operators should conduct research and studies on the listeners and their choices, believes Reza.
Recently, the government announced a policy for community radio, the Community Radio Installation, Broadcast and Operation Policy, underlining the importance of the radio stations and describing its importance. According to a government gazette notification, community radio is the “voice of the voiceless” and is playing a vital role to improve the area of education, culture, human values and dignity, and awareness building with a new dimension. Significant numbers of radio stations were established, operating with the participation and management of marginalised communities in their dialect. The new policy allows receiving funds from organisations and advertisers for the sustainability of the stations.
Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication or BNNRC, which has been working for the development of community radio, predicts a rapid growth of radio listeners in the country. It estimates over 6.5 million people are community radio listeners and the number will go up with the introduction of new stations.
International radio stations BBC, Voice of America (VOA), and Radio Veritas Asia have been present in Bangladesh for several decades. An article titled, Radio in Bangladesh: Growth, Decline and Transformation, jointly written by Jude William Genilo, Bikash Ch. Bhowmick and Brian Brian Shoesmith described that all the stations have a Bengali service targeting Bengali-speaking people in Bangladesh and West Bengal (India). BBC was launched in 1940 and has around 17 million weekly listeners in Bangladesh and 2.4 million in India. Launched in 1958, VOA can reach an estimated 10 million. Radio Veritas Asia is the only Catholic shortwave radio in the continent and is committed to proclaim the message of God’s love to people in Asia, Its Bengali service is cited for its developmental programmes promoting dialogue and empowerment of people through information on issues prevailing in Bangladesh (Bangladesh’s Changing Mediascape - From State Control to Market Forces (2013).
Internet radio is a recent phenomenon in Bangladesh.