Who moved my airwaves?

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In India, the radio revival might die a slow death if the government does not get its licensing act together

Recently the Convergence Institute of Media & Management, better
known as Commits organized a seminar on ‘Radio- The magic of the medium’. Speaking about radio revival, renowned radio anchor of yesteryears, Ameen Sayani, traced the history of music programming on radio right from his early days in All India Radio.


“People think due to the emergence of new electronic media radio got subdued. But I would say Radio was killed by radio itself rather than by any other media. In those days there were programs like ‘Apkee Farmaish’- a popular listener’s choice program and radio plays like ‘Hawamahal’ which were quite unique to AIR. A fatal blow was dealt upon the fledgling AIR in early 1950s, when the Information & Broadcasting Ministry abolished all broadcast of film music. A whole generation which had grown up on film music, was left disconcerted.


Meanwhile, Radio Ceylon had a popular program of English songs Binaca Hitparade, presented by a man called ‘Happy-go-lucky-Greg. They wanted to duplicate this program since a lot of Indian listeners were requesting Hindi songs. So Radio Ceylon within six months took it up and the first countdown music program outside English and French came into being-Binaca Geetmala which was broadcasted every Wednesday came into being and had a cult following amongst Hindi music fans.


The next fatal blow which came after the bureaucrats took charge was the AIR grading of classical musicians. Renowned Hindustani and Carnatic musicians were regularly playing on AIR, but after AIR started grading them, many star performers left. In those days there was a joke going around that, in case of nuclear fallout due to war, you can hide in an AIR station since no radio activity happens there!”


Monopoly arrogance


While on the domestic front, AIR’s appeal was eroding, internationally also it was losing out to major radio stations like BBC, Radio Peking and Radio Moscow which had powerful 1000KW Short Wave stations. While they focused on broadcasting through Short Wave medium, AIR stuck to its narrow casting through Medium Wave stations. This was not a cause of worry since New Delhi had a focus on localized sponsored programs on Vividhbharati. Finally twenty years later film music came back to AIR as Sangeetmala broadcast on 40 stations.


AIR’s primary mandate was to focus on information- education- entertainment and strictly in that order. So it kept social relevance programs clearly cut apart from commercial ones. While AIR has done a commendable job in community radio by reaching out to the remote corners of the country, its commercial programming went awry. In 1981 the Vasanth Sathe Commission suggested a steep hike in advertising spot rates pushing it up more than five times. This angered regular sponsors like Ovaltine and Colgate who moved onto the newly launched colour transmission of Doordarshan.


After the liberalization of the economy, licensed slots were given to private FM players like Times FM and Radio Midday. These channels were extremely popular with the urban population.


Finally one day as all good things come to an end, the private slots were shutdown, drying up the revenue source for AIR. Doordarshan and AIR were all this while exempted from the service tax, but then it was brought back.


And now after so many years, there is a fresh breath of air coming from the private FM stations. But I only hope the bureaucrats will let this free medium remain free.


With the present setup of 297 stations, AIR can be the most powerful medium. It has 98% penetration, but its listenership is abysmally low at 2%. It is languishing behind in ad revenue collections and soon even rural audience will move onto Cable TV and Doordarshan.”


Killing of a Revival?


Inspite of popular perception, private radio in India is not facing a revival but being strangulated by cruel licensing fees. Within few years of information & broadcasting ministry opening up the radiowaves to private FM broadcasters, two players in Mumbai- Win 94.6 and Radio Mid-day - have announced their intention to close shop. The other players are also sending feelers that it would be difficult to survive beyond a year thanks to an unrealistic licence fee regime.


Arun Katiyar, station director of Radiocity 91FM Bangalore, “At best we can survive for another year, since the licence fee for operating an FM radio station is around Rs 10 crore with an annual escalation clause of 15%.”


The same plea was reiterated by A P Parigi, MD of Radio Mirchi. He said, “The total revenue from the five FM radio players in Mumbai was about Rs 48 crore last year. This ad revenue represents a miniscule 0.5% of India’s advertising industry. We have lost around Rs 10-12 crore in our first year of operation and if the revenue sharing model in not in place there would be further loss.”


FM broadcasters have requested the government to complete the licensing of the 80 odd radio channels in other 30 cities. But wouldn’t that mean more competition? Arun Katiyar clarifies, “we want everybody to come in so the sector grows. Large advertisers will not be interested in radio for supporting their nationwide TV and print campaigns, unless they can buy airtime in radio stations across the country. So as more come up in other cities we surely get benefited.”


Arun says, “Apart from national advertisers, it is the local small enterprises which will find radio an appropriate medium. For instance, retail businesses like Ram Ceramics and Base Terminal have found that their small ad budget has reaped its benefits only through radio. Tailor made sponsored programs like Matchmaker boosted Bharatmatrimony.com’s business enormously.”


Issue BG31 Oct03