| 22 Mar 2023
Continuing govt apathy to news on FM irks industry

Is the chapter on permitting news broadcasts to private FM radio channels over, at least as far as the government is concerned?

This appears to be the view of both Information and Broadcaster Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi and I&B Secretary Sushma Singh, who both answered with an unequivocal 'no' recently to media queries whether news would be allowed soon on the FM airwaves.

The move has been perceived by the radio industry as a regrettable step as news is permitted on all other media.

While sources say the government could reconsider the matter after the Broadcast Services Regulatory Bill becomes law,,the final view of the Ministry on the issue would have to go through the Cabinet for final clearance.

According to the present FM Radio policy, news and current affairs are the sole domain of All India Radio and should not be broadcast by private FM channel in any manner. Private FM radio is the only mass medium not offering news and current affairs as part of its programming/ content. All other media - TV, Newspapers and Internet, and even satellite radio - are allowed to broadcast news.

TRAI has in its recommendations on the 3rd Phase of Private FM Radio Broadcasting... said the broadcasters should only be permitted to take content from All India Radio, Doordarshan, authorized television news channels, United News of India, Press Trust of India, and any other authorized news agency. No other source of news should be permitted at present', TRAI said.
There also seems to a debate that if the FM industry is not allowed to broadcast news in the air waves, why should it be allowed on the satellite space? It seems to be absurd that satellite radio which has 100 per cent FDI are allowed news and on the contrary FM with 20 per cent FDI are denied from it,... says Friends FM business head Amritendu Roy.

The Radio Forum of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had said in a memorandum in December last year that the penetration of radio had only risen marginally from 45 to 53 per cent despite the number of FM Channels in the country growing from ten to more than 200.

Interestingly, addressing the media after the 26th State Information Ministers Conference (SIMCON) in September last year – before TRAI gave its report – Dasmunsi had said government was not in principle opposed to introduction of news and current affairs on private FM radio stations, but there is no effective and established system to monitor the FM stations. �We may have to find a selective monitoring mechanism. The matter is presently under consideration and we would like to have the views of the State Governments also on this particular issue'.

Earlier the same day, in his inaugural address the Minister had indicated that a final report on permitting news and current affairs to private FM Radio channels would be taken by the end of the year (2007) by finding an effective and established system to monitor the stations. At the same time, he had reiterated that �there is not even a remotest thinking in the Government to interfere with the programming or the news or the editorial desk of any newspaper or electronic channel'.

The radio industry argues that the radio fraternity has invested about Rs 20 billion and in a short span of time has earned revenues amounting to Rs 12 billion. This growth in the industry has outgrown the growth of many other mediums and as such the government must help the medium to expand more. As SFM project head Nisha Narayanan puts it, Radio as a medium is growing at a rate of 24 per cent and the government must be supportive as we are generating revenues for them and allowing news will only help in differentiation and to evangelize the medium....

The denial of news for FM stations stems from the perception of the authorities that FM radio players are irresponsible and incapable of regulating themselves,... says Radio Mango director programmes Ravi Nair.

News, an important factor

Earlier in May this year, the Minister while speaking in Parliament had said that while the TRAI report was still under consideration, any such permission would only be for news transmitted by the public service broadcaster and authorized news agencies like the Press Trust of India and the United News of India.

Interestingly, the Ministry had in August last year taken umbrage to private FM channels airing news snippets and current affairs in violation of rules. In a press release, the Ministry said �these violations have been viewed very seriously by the Ministry' and advised all concerned parties to refrain from any such activities, which are in violation of terms and conditions of FM license. The carriage of news snippets and current affairs violates the provisions, which have been incorporated in clause 1.4 and 23.4 of Grant of Permission Agreement signed by private operators with the Government.

In its report made at the request of the Ministry, TRAI has said one of the barriers for further growth identified by the Authority during the consultation process related to the restriction of existing guidelines that do not permit news and current affairs on FM Radio broadcast. Information requirements of large section of the population lacking access to information through other means like internet, television services, etc. can be conveniently met without any cost to the receiving population only through FM Radio services.

It recommended that the FDI cap including FII for FM Radio broadcasting permission holders, who are interested to broadcast news, may be enhanced to 26 per cent from the present 20 per cent. Similarly, the FDI cap including FII for FM Radio broadcasting permission holders who do not opt for news broadcasting may be enhanced to 49 per cent from the present 20 per cent.

Currently, with only music being allowed on FM space, every station seems to be following the mass market and playing only the contemporary hits, leading to all the stations sounding the same. Permitting news will allow the stations to break through and experiment more with the medium, say industry leaders.

Roy echoes the thought, Allowing news will increase the range of content available on radio and it wont be only limited to music....
The radio industry was looking forward to the broadcast of news in Phase-III, thereby giving a wider choice of meaningful content to the public. Says Narayanan, Both the public and the government have been demanding greater variety of content on FM radio, but disallowing news on private radio is certainly not the way to achieve this....
All India Radio has a captive listenership just because they broadcast news and it is very absurd of government to hold back news from the private FM industry,... complains My FM CFO Vijay Garg. News on radio can certainly be not compared to TV where news forms the main content but in radio, music forms the main content and news capsules would only occupy five to six minutes in an hour....

Is monitoring really an issue?

After the 26th State Information Ministers Conference (SIMCON) in September last year, the Minister had indicated that a final report on permitting news and current affairs to private FM Radio channels would be taken by the end of the year (2007) by finding an effective and established system to monitor the stations.

However, this proposal has not gone well with the radio fraternity as they question, If monitoring seems to a problem with FM space, how do they monitor news on the satellite space?...

Narayanan opines, Monitoring radio would not be more tedious than monitoring 55,000 news journals that are registered with the Registrar of Newspapers or the millions of news sources available on the internet. Also, it is a part of the Phase II policy that every radio station has to record their programmes and send it to the Ministry at any point when demanded for monitoring....

Club FM's COO George Sebastian says, The I&B Ministry has expressed its apprehension on monitoring news on radio but how does it monitor 300 channels broadcasting news on television? It seems to be just an excuse to prolong the situation without drawing on any conclusions....

Garg explains further, BECIL is monitoring radio at the moment. The I & B Ministry can engage the same body to monitor news on radio....

Sebastian disapproves the move stating, Many FM stations are owned by companies who are into the business of news making for decades, so the government must hold them credible enough to handle news effectively on radio.... Similarly, other stations like Dainik Bhaskar's My FM, Malayalam Manorama's Mango FM, Sun Network's SFM and others who have their own media houses are disappointed with the move.

Suggesting solutions to the dilemma, Nair proposes, With so much of investment at stake, it is very unlikely that an FM station would risk getting penalized for irresponsible news reportage. The I & B Ministry could start in a phased manner by allowing sports, culture, health etc. for starters. Also, industry body AROI can set up their own content monitoring/regulating system...

There are international monitoring agencies who would be interested in setting up their units for assisting the government to monitor the content. Instead of banning news, I & B Ministry can clearly define the rules and regulations in their policy and ensure that the code of content is followed,... affirms Narayanan.

Ficci's Radio Forum has said that FM channels dishing out Bollywood-centric music bereft of other forms of entertainment and news and current affairs programmes' may result in stumping the growth of the radio industry which had been experiencing a CAGR of 28 per cent. An eight per cent rise (number of listeners as a percentage of the population) was definitely not commensurate with the large increase in the number of radio stations, the Forum said, adding that in order to create a larger audience base for FM radio, diversity in content has to be significantly higher than at present.

The Forum has suggested allowing six to eight minutes per hour of news and current affairs to be broadcast on FM radio under general entertainment license in addition to allowing news and current affairs stations since news and current affairs helps to fulfill all the three objectives of the Government: FM broadcasting for entertainment, education and information; to make available quality programmes with a localized flavor; and to supplement the services of All India Radio (AIR).

In its report in June last year, the Forum pointed out that with a large percentage of the rural and urban population unable to read and write, it is impossible for them to read newspapers. Likewise, with most people unable to buy TV sets, they cannot be reached through TV. In addition, electrical connections are limited to either urban areas or to sections of the population that can afford to pay for electricity. Thus for the poor and under-privileged, the only available medium of news and entertainment is radio.