| 23 May 2022
Nisha Narayanan: "Musings of a Radio Programmer"

Red FM 93.5 Network senior VP- projects and programming Nisha Narayanan

Year 2012:

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way… 2012, in short, was a mixed bag for India. Our radio industry, though, was mostly going direct the other way.

The good news is that, in spite of prophesies of doom not restricted to the recession, the music industry or the Mayan calendar, we survived 2012. The Copyright Board ruling that radio companies need pay only 2 per cent of revenues as music royalty kept our running costs down in 2012. Royalty costs for radio stations were often as high as 50 per cent of revenue. The Copyright Amendment Act 2012 provided for Statutory Licensing of music so that radio channels can play any music released in the country, came as a relief.

So much for 2012; what of 2013? Phase III has been the light on the hill for a long time now, but we seem no closer to it now than in 2011. The industry cannot move forward and plan its future without clarity on Phase III and where we are heading.

Unfortunately, Radio never had a level playing field with TV or print or the Internet. It is the Cinderella of the electronic media, neglected both by advertisers and the government, heavily regulated and poorly supported. As the recent Ernst & Young – CII report on Radio ('Poised for Grown: FM Radio in India') points out, growth is possible only if thousands of radio stations come up, high license fees are removed and news is permitted.

What will happen in March 2015 to existing Phase I radio players when our licenses expire? Our licence period is almost over, and most of us are yet to break even or recoup our losses. We have not been given a license period extension and we are in the dark about migration fees for shifting to Phase III. If the government decides to overcharge, as it usually does, all our calculations will come to nothing.

The present FM radio policy is restrictive and regressive, and it seems our policy-makers have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Phase III promises to be the same old story, put together with better packaging and hype, perhaps (eAuctions! More cities! AIR News!), but it looks no better than its predecessor. The industry has a modest wish-list featuring, among other things, a license period of at least 15 years, a shorter lock-in period, multiple licenses in a city, greater freedom to network, permission to broadcast news and parity with other media in foreign investment. But, going by past experience, the industry is keeping its fingers crossed.

For instance, Phase II left many cities without an FM channel, many licenses remained un-operationalzed and many more were surrendered. Is the government saying it is OK for cities like Aizwal or Port Blair not to have private radio?

We need to ask ourselves why radio markets like, say, Colombo, with a population of 7.5 lakhs (that's a Delhi suburb) have 21 flourishing FM channels. Why does the listener in Colombo have a variety of radio channels to choose from, ranging from an all devotional channel to an all sports channel, an all Tamil channel to an all Sinhalese channel? Delhi NCR, with a population of thirty Colombos, has about eight private FM channels, most of which seem to play the same damn song morning, noon and night. (I plead guilty, too).

Take the reserve price. The government has announced that the reserve price in a new city in Phase III will be the highest bid amount in that category in that region in Phase II. Fair enough, you might say… if you were a bureaucrat on deputation from the Department of Minor Forest Produce, Chhattisgarh. 

 The highest bid amount in a category 'C' city in the North region was Chandigarh at Rs.15.6 crore. And which are the new cities coming up in Phase III in the same category in the North? Gaya (pop: 4 lakhs) and Muzaffarnagar (pop: about the same) among others. A reserve price of Rs.15.6 crores in Gaya? Are they kidding us? Gorakhpur – demographically similar to Gaya and Muzaffarnagar – got a single license in Phase II. The highest bid in Gorakhpur? Rs.18 lakhs.

Patna (Rs.5.1 crore in Phase II) cannot be compared to Dhanbad (Jharkhand), though both are category 'B' cities. Dhanbad is a new entrant in Phase III. Dhanbad is a fast growing city and all that, but it's a mystery to me why it's in category 'B'. Dhanbad district has been declared one of the country's 250 most backward districts.

Likewise, do they expect Kakinada, Kurnool and Nellore (Andhra Pradesh) to bring in a minimum of Rs.7 crores (Kozhikode -- highest bid in Category 'C', South, Phase II), when the highest bids in Rajamundhry and Warangal (also in AP) were in the region of Rs.1.2 - 1.5 crores in Phase II? These are deep mysteries.

What does the government say to small players who need subsidies, to small towns and cities where no FM player will venture without support?  Nothing. Our FM station in Aizwal is still not operational as no power was provided to it, and Red FM is the only player there. So Aizwal gets no FM radio though it has a radio license. Aizwal is not the only city to be short-changed. Many other towns and cities in Phase II, cities with few entertainment and media options, failed to get a radio station due to the vagaries of the FM policy. If I were in one of those Group 'C 'or 'D' towns waiting for an FM channel in Phase III, I wouldn't hold my breath.

To bring up another of my pet peeves, how about News & Current Affairs on radio?

Only AIR's news capsules can be re-broadcast in Phase III, says the government, instantly turning several hundred private FM channels into AIR relay centres. Bully for AIR; not so good for us.

Which reminds me, how will All India Radio news cover the 240 odd cities where private FM channels are likely to come up?
AIR has only 45 regional news units. Regardless of what the nation-builders in Shastri Bhavan think, a listener in Kannur does not endlessly want to hear news from Trivandrum; she craves local news. While 20 percent of her news consumption may consist of momentous events in the state and national capital, what she really, really prefers to hear is local news, the stuff that really matters. The State of the Nation at 9 pm from Delhi doesn't quite cut it.

FM radio is very local by nature, but the government is doing its damndest to keep it from having any local relevance.

Anurradha Prasad, President AROI, in a recent article ( mentioned DAVP advertising rates, and I quote: "The advertising rates of DAVP for radio are much below TV and print, on a per audience basis. This needs to be resolved. Government advertisement rates need to be equal across all media. Currently they are heavily skewed against FM.
For example, local newspapers are given a rate of Rs 159 per column cm per lakh reach, while for FM it is over 10 times less even for a 10 second spot."

We could call this 'step-motherly treatment', but why give step-mothers a bad name? One merely looks longingly at the unregulated medium of the internet, that Johnny-Come-Lately, which is flourishing like a green bay tree while Radio, the oldest of all electronic media, struggles to find its feet.

Radio's place as low man on the media totem-pole became even more evident when a fire broke out on 5 Jan in Doordarshan's Pitampura Tower, where many private FM players have their transmitters. Within hours, Radio Mirchi, Radio City and Red FM went off air. The alarm and panic were all directed towards All India Radio getting back on air at the earliest, with nary a thought given to private FM broadcasters which were losing listeners and bleeding money for days. How the 'public service' broadcaster compounded our misery with procedural delays is material for another thousand word essay.

What is the future of private FM radio in India? To be honest, I don't know.

But what I do know is that television has plateaued while radio is still growing, particularly in smaller cities and towns. I do know that more than 60 per cent – 70 percent of total radio listenership is through mobile phones and people are willing to pay that extra few hundred rupees for an FM-enabled handset. If most of those 839 FM licenses we have been promised soon are sold, the FM sector could well grow at an annual rate of 18 per cent, to Rs 23 billion within three years as the E&Y-CII report predicts.

I do know that multiple stations will allow us to experiment with different genres and different programme formats, and this will give infinitely more choices to the listener than the Top 10 Hits of 2013 vs. Top Ten Hits of 1983 and Justin Bieber. More choices mean higher listenership, more time spent on radio and a bigger radio market. It's not rocket science.

I do know that 2012 has not been a good year for radio in terms of profits. What made us look good was innovation and programme diversity. Radio stations are no longer averse to taking risks and changing formats. Radio One turned English in Mumbai and Delhi (seriously challenging my son's loyalties on the car-radio dial). Red FM went from Kannada to a superhit Hindi format in Bangalore and from Bengali to Hindi in Kolkata. These changes have worked really well for us, both in focussing listenership and in generating revenue.
I do know that private FM radio has given a huge fillip to the local music industry and made it more organised. And it's not just about the music. With all its restrictions and controls, radio has supported local culture and the local ethos, promoted local events and given our listeners a forum for expression.

Bob Dylan complained in his memoir (Chronicles – Vol 1), that he had no songs in his repertoire for commercial radio. "There was nothing easygoing about the folk songs I sang. They weren't friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn't come gently to the shore. I guess you could say they weren't commercial."

This is a young industry. Give us time and a free hand, and we promise you much more than things that come gently to the shore.