| 17 Jun 2024
Nisha Narayanan - Leaping over hurdles

A brief note appeared on the website of Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry recently on the status of the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC). It said that Rs.19.65 crore was approved for the EMMC -- well equipped with state-of-the-art facilities -- to check the violations of the program and advertising code and license conditions for private FM.

As always, the government's passion to monitor and control, on which they spend huge amounts of money, outweighs any impulse to promote this nascent industry.

Long before the current phase of FM licensing, I had written with concern about the growth of radio in a regulatory vacuum, guided by expediency, impelled by profits and scrutinized only for the twin bogeys of revenue loss and national security. Almost nothing has changed since then, although FM radio has grown manifold in the intervening years. There is still no regulatory body, no clear guidelines, and no resolution of the dozens of issues facing FM broadcasters, ranging from FDI (too low) to music royalties (too high).

In spite of these hurdles, private radio still racks up an impressive 40 percent revenue growth, but this is mostly due to the rapid expansion of FM radio across new markets. We may see another spurt in growth with Phase III of FM licensing next year, but it will almost certainly plateau and decline once all the stations are rolled out and the market settles down.

In fact, many in the industry are not convinced that Phase III – with anything between 400 to 700 new radio channels, mostly in C and D towns – will bring any joy to the industry at all. I recommend you to take a look at the 237 cities proposed in TRAI's wish-list for FM Phase III and ask yourself what kind of ad revenues can be expected from the 187 category �D' towns, from Adoni to Yavatmal, especially during the current financial slump.

One could easily predict a substantial growth in FM listenership over the next two years, without any proportional growth in revenues. This is not an unusual paradox in the media business: the US radio market increased by three million listeners in 2008, without any increase in ad revenue.

If there is one thing that really eats into an FM channel's profits, it is the very high music royalties paid by private broadcasters. This is anything between 20 to 40 percent of their total revenues compared to, say, not more than 2 percent in the United States. With rates being fixed in a somewhat arbitrary manner by PPL, as well as non-PPL music companies, one would have expected the regulator (I&B ministry or Copyright Board, as the case may be) to step in and sort things out.

The I&B ministry got the radio channels and music companies to sit across a table on 12 December to work out a compromise, but like all earlier meetings on the issue, nothing came of it. The Copyright Board, a reluctant player that had to be ordered by the Supreme Court to decide on royalty rates, has called another meeting next month. As an I&B ministry official is quoted as saying, The very fact that the warring groups have agreed to sit together once again (on January 28) is itself a big thing given the history of their fight.... While we can hope that reason will prevail and that music royalties will be rationalized, I'll keep my fingers crossed till January 28.

I would have had greater faith in the process if the government had taken royalty and copyright issues a little more seriously. I may be wrong, but the fact that the Copyright Office is administered by the Department of Secondary and Higher Education – which surely has better things to do – suggests that music royalties are not very high on the government's list of priorities. Hence my vague suspicion that the matter will eventually be resolved, as most broadcast issues are in this country, by the courts.

The growth of radio is not just about profits, of course, though growth and revenues are tied to a number of important factors, especially programming content. The single biggest challenge before private FM broadcasters today is content, and our apparent inability to broadcast anything beyond wall-to-wall Indipop.

Now, there are at least two ways in which the regulator – which, for all practical purposes is the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and not TRAI – can encourage better and more varied programming. One way is to mandate a variety of channels, through differential license fees for mainstream and niche channels and strict limits on the number of genre clones in each city.

Many years ago, the Amit Mitra committee on FM licensing had hinted at the possibility of offering a greater variety of programming to the listener rather than just maximizing profits for the broadcaster and the government, affirming the principle that it is the right of the listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount. By then, TRAI had been declared the �broadcast regulator' and when the issue of content diversity was raised at one of their public consultations, the then Chairman of TRAI threw up his hands and exclaimed, Content regulation is not a can of worms I am willing to open!...

The can of worms has since evolved into a nest of vipers, and all of us – the broadcaster, the government and above all, the listener – are beginning to feel the sting. (FM companies often receive plaintive letters from the government asking why they are not doing more public service programming. When the government's 45 page FM tender document carries just four minor clauses on �program content and quality of broadcast', that is probably not a wise question to ask).

The �beauty parade' method is highly recommended for emerging markets, where license applicants are judged not just by the bid amounts, but also by the quality of their programming proposals. Unfortunately, assessing what is best in terms of programming requires �core judgment which requires the full breadth and expertise of skills on the regulatory board', and it does not help that India has no broadcast regulator and that programming policy is made by career bureaucrats.

Selling frequencies to the highest bidder is a cop-out. It is easy to do, and it avoids the subjective element that could – if handled wrongly – invite accusations of favoritism and bias. What it does not do is encourage good programming.

If 70 percent of the listeners in Delhi can't tell which FM channel is which simply by listening to the programmes, that is because none of the channels has any compulsion to play anything except the Top 20 hits of the week. (I was once told proudly by a broadcast software vendor that his box of tricks could be programmed to play music 24x7 without a break for months. I was tempted to respond, Now that you have taught computers to play music, why don't you teach them to enjoy it, too, and save us of all the trouble?...).

At the time of the current phase of FM licensing, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and UNESCO had warned that open bidding for licenses should not be considered unless and until there is a mature broadcasting market where programming will not suffer as a result.... Even before that, in its landmark 1995 �airwaves judgment', the Supreme Court had pointed out the dangers of powerful commercial interests dominating the media, and running it only for profit.

The Supreme Court had specifically referred to the right to broadcast news, stating that, The right of free speech and expression includes the right to receive and impart information. For ensuring the right of free speech for the citizens of this country, it is necessary that the citizens have the benefit of plurality of views and a range of opinions on all public issues. Diversity of opinions, views, ideas, and ideologies is essential to enable the citizens to arrive at informed judgment on all issues touching them....

This was an admirable sentiment, but the government responded by banning news on private radio. It is important to note that to this day, 8 years later, the ban on radio news has never been challenged.

Early this year, the broadcast regulator (TRAI) noted in its recommendations that one of the barriers for further growth in private FM radio is the ban on news and current affairs programmes. As TRAI observed, the information needs of a large number of people, especially those without access to the Internet and television, can be conveniently met without any cost to the receiving population only through FM radio services.

It is rumored that the I&B Ministry may soon give its nod to private FM channels to air news and current affairs programs, but only those produced by All India Radio. Whether this has been done with an eye to the coming elections – when it would be truly useful to have AIR's news bulletins broadcast over 260 popular private FM channels at no extra cost whatsoever – is an intriguing conjecture, but I am not sure how many private FM channels will take the bait.

In any case, these are all ad-hoc decisions – sometimes sanctified by the Union Cabinet, sometimes not – that add to the m?©lange of acts, codes, rules, guidelines, advisories, ordinances, policies and court judgments that pass for broadcast regulation in our country. And casting its long, dark shadow over everything is the 123 year old Indian Telegraph Act which, as the Supreme Court had pointed out years ago, is totally inadequate to govern important media like radio and TV.

It is argued that regular news cannot be allowed on private FM channels until the radio industry sets up a self-regulatory mechanism. This would be fine, except that we don't have any clear guidelines to regulate with. All we have is the vague and woolly AIR code which even AIR ceased to follow years ago, with its pious but impractical commandments like no criticism of friendly countries..., no trade names in broadcast... etc.

The government has drawn up a draft Content Code that is so self-serving that, in spite of some tetchy directions from the Delhi High Court to quickly implement a Code, it would be very difficult to notify it in its present form. The code was supposed to be notified after the Broadcast Bill was passed into law, but 11 years and 20 versions later, the Broadcast Bill has become a governmental hot potato that no one wants to handle.

With general elections around the corner, the senior levels of the I&B Ministry in disarray, and the minister himself gravely ill, it seems very unlikely that the current version of the Bill will be introduced in Parliament any time soon.

Though this is the seventh year of privatization of radio in India, any change in policy has been stupefyingly slow in coming. The only concession the industry has received since Phase II is the decision to allow FM broadcasters to set up subsidiaries and de-merge their businesses. Meanwhile, in the virtual absence of regulation, all other forms of radio – satellite, Internet, and mobile – are flourishing at the expense of FM radio.

The only good news for radio in recent months was the launch of two community radio stations in Medak district (Andhra Pradesh) and Orchha (Madhya Pradesh). These are genuine, community-based rural initiatives, unlike the hundred odd campus radio stations that threaten to crowd the spectrum in big cities, nine in Delhi NCR alone.

Sangham Radio, the community radio station in Pastapur (Medak), for instance, is run by the dalit women of Deccan Development Society, in one of the poorest districts of Andhra Pradesh. No commercial FM broadcaster is likely to penetrate the semi-arid plains and impoverished villages that comprise the Zaheerabad Mandal of Medak. Sangham Radio thus represents certain values (community participation and social relevance) that commercial broadcasters seem to have ceded to the point where private FM has become just some background noise/a backdrop for the girls and boys/who just do not know or just do not care....

Why doesn't anyone call the radio an �idiot box'?... asked the keynote speaker triumphantly at a recent radio conference in Delhi. It's just a matter of time,... I said under my breath.

India is probably unique in that private radio came to our shores long after private print, private television and even the Internet, though radio pre-dates every other broadcast technology. Sadly, FM radio debuts at a particularly inauspicious time, when it has to compete with hundreds of TV channels, a flourishing regional press, the Internet, satellite radio and the ubiquitous mobile phone. A few years down the line, it will have to make way for digital radio and other wireless technologies like 3G or WiMax that could make FM as obsolete as short wave radio.

In the long term, radio has to reinvent itself as audio content that is delivered by a number of means, across a variety of platforms. Regulating radio by broadcast technology, as they do today, will be as meaningless as regulating newspapers by printing technology and having, say, one policy for papers printed on rotary letterpress and another for those printed by offset litho.

Regardless of whether radio is broadcast over FM transmitters, streamed over the Internet or downloaded as podcasts into mobile phones, what matters is the nature of content and the quality of programming.

A recent poll among 14-24 year olds in the US found that they spent 11 percent more time listening to radio this year, and 13 percent less time listening to their iPods. And it's not because iPods are getting any worse. The fact is that the MP3 experience is far too limited, far too predictable. There simply is no automated way to come across good programmes or great music.

Good radio, as Forrest Gump's momma would say, is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get.

Project Head 93.5 SFM Nisha Narayanan