New radio rights deal brings cricket back to All India Radio

The new radio rights deal between the BCCI and AIR is aimed at taking Indian cricket coverage to "the nooks and corners" of the country Narinder Nanu / © AFP

Cricket will be back on All India Radio (AIR), the national radio broadcaster, after a gap of nearly five years. On Tuesday, the BCCI announced it had signed a radio rights deal for two years with AIR, and according to the contract, AIR will start live audio commentary from South Africa's tour of India, which begins this weekend, until August 2021. The coverage will also include select men's and women's domestic matches, such as the Ranji Trophy final, and games in the Women's Challenger Series, Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy, the Irani Cup and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

Making the announcement through a media release on Tuesday, BCCI said the move aimed to "enhance the coverage" of Indian cricket and to take it to the "nook and corners" of the country.

The deal brings to an end a deadlock over the radio rights issue, which involved several negotiations between the BCCI and Prasar Bharati, the chief broadcasting arm of the Indian government, which runs AIR. According to Rahul Johri, the BCCI chief executive officer, both parties have agreed on a 50:50 revenue share. He said Prasar Bharati will be in charge of the commercial aspect as well as paying the commentators.

"Radio is a very strong medium and it was one of the pieces that was missing in our engaging our audience," Johri told ESPNcricinfo. "Cricket being the life blood of India, we believe radio will play a big role in taking cricket to the masses."

Until the early 1990s, AIR was the chief mode of delivering cricket to fans in the country. Generations of cricket fans followed India's greatest moments in the game, from the first Test win to the 1983 World Cup win, on radio. Commentators became household names, and some great players - including Lala Amarnath and Vijay Merchant - added a dimension to their legend with their work at the microphone. The spread of television from the mid-1980s and the satellite TV revolution a decade later pushed radio to the background.

In 1994, the BCCI decided to sell the broadcast rights for Indian cricket for the first time. At the time the rights included both television as well as audio (radio). But the BCCI could not sell the radio rights within India as the feed is owned by the Indian government.

Also, by default AIR got to broadcast cricket within India between 1994 and 2014 mainly because the private broadcaster, who had bought the television rights, still needed permission from the Indian government's Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to uplink the feed to the satellite. With Prasar Bharati coming under the MIB purview, the private broadcaster was forced to allow AIR to air the telecast over the radio within India.

Impatient and anxious about not getting the permission to uplink the feed, on several occasions the broadcaster sought the BCCI's help to mediate with the MIB. In 2014, the BCCI decided to remove the radio rights from the broadcast rights bouquet. This meant the broadcaster just needed to make the payment to the MIB for the uplinking.

The radio rights were now with the BCCI, which negotiated directly with the MIB. There was an ad-hoc arrangement struck for a while, where AIR was allowed to broadcast Indian cricket but that lasted only till 2014. Since then both parties held several discussions without any apparent solution in sight. The BCCI finally took a stand saying that it was happy to share the radio rights within India with AIR as long as there was a commercial contract where it would be paid 50% of the net income.

The second condition that the BCCI asked of the MIB was that AIR should ensure quality commentary. The BCCI even extended its willingness in producing the commentary, which would allow it to pick the panel of commentators, and a willingness to incur these expenses. Even the Committee of Administrators (CoA) is understood to have supported the BCCI stance.