I&B slants towards news on private FM channels

NEW DELHI: India's information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry has said that if a government-mandated task force on radio broadcast policy recommends allowing of news and current affairs (N&CA) programming on private FM radio channels, it'd be "looked into sympathetically."

However, a senior ministry official told that both the issue of allowing N&CA programming on private radio channels as also allowing foreign investment in such ventures would have to "ultimately cleared by the cabinet."

At the moment private FM radio channels, unlike radio pubcaster All India Radio's FM channels, are not allowed to air any N&CA fare, except weather bulletins, stocks news and local traffic reports. Also, only foreign institutional investors (FII) can invest up to 20 per cent as part of portfolio investment that is allowed under a Reserve Bank of India guideline.

Since foreign investment is not allowed, Radio City has come under government scanner. The government has alleged and sought clarifications from licence holder Music Broadcast Pvt Ltd, (a P K Mittal company) as to why its licence should not be terminated on the ground that a Star India subsidiary is the de facto controller of the FM channels run in Lucknow, Delhi and Mumbai.

Though the task force on radio broadcast policy is headed by one of the champions of liberalisation, Ficci secretary-general Amit Mitra, learns that the working premise of the panel seems to be not liberalisation, but more control citing security reasons and stringent guidelines. Unless it treads a different path.

The task force is likely to recommend that foreign investment in FM radio be brought at part with the norms in the print and electronic medium. In the latter case the yardstick would be guidelines for the news channels.

Investor- friendly guidelines needed

Take community radio, for example. Announced with much fanfare last year by the then information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj ("It will revolutionise radio in the country," she had said), community radio is a non-starter till date. Reason: the guidelines for the community/campus

radio have been termed by some people, who had evinced interest, as "restrictive and unworkable."

The ministry had predicted 1,000 community radio stations by the end of 2003. However, the government has so far received only 25 applications and not a single community radio licence has been issued.

Unlike commercial FM radio, where security clearance has to be obtained only from the home ministry, a seemingly harmless community/campus radio venture requires clearances from five ministries, including defence and external affairs.

The terms of reference for the FM task force mentions that non-commercial, non-ad driven radio channels to be run by commercial FM stations. It is not clear why commercial broadcasters would invest in non-profit ventures. On the contrary, special concessions should be offered to broadcasters willing to provide non-commercial, public service and community radio services.

Since news and current affairs programming is permitted on private TV channels - with shareholding riders, of course - there is a strong case for permitting news on private radio channels too. An issue that has been asked to be looked into by the FM task force.

I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had told some months back that the government is looking into this issue. At that time the

issue had gained topicality because BBC radio was in discussion with AIR to use the latter's FM platform to do a variety of programming, including current affairs show. The discussions, since then, have collapsed with no arrangement being reached.

Currently only radio pubcaster All India Radio (AIR) is permitted to air news and current affairs programming. While AIR does cover national and international news extensively, there is hardly any local news on AIR that can be used by listeners of radio in different parts of this vast country. As a general principle, most AIR stations have local bulletins running into maximum of five minutes a day and even this news is dominated by state-level news.

Considering radio is an intensely 'local' phenomenon and there is tremendous demand for local news on radio, allowing private FM radio channels to air such local bulletins may just turn out to be the dose that the doctor prescribed for the financially beleaguered private FM radio stations, all of whom have to make do with airing music --- mostly sounding the same --- continuously.

On the issue of frequencies, the government and the bureaucracy always cites security reasons for not releasing additional frequencies. The FM task force can look into this issue too sympathetically.

With over 50 FM frequencies in each city or town (and these frequencies can be repeated every 100 kms or so), the Indian government is unnecessarily parsimonious with frequency allocation.

Of the 108 frequencies in 40 cities that were allotted in March 2000 by the government to private parties, only 22 stations are actually on air in about 12 cities. This is not just loss of revenue for the government, but a huge loss of choice to people in states like Punjab, Bihar, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and the entire North-East where not a single private channel has come.

In the second phase, 200 FM frequencies are expected to be allotted in 70 more cities. However, the idea that is floating round in the corridors of power that big cities should have six to seven channels and smaller cities one or two stations is quite inexplicable.

Cities like Colombo, Jakarta, Manila Kuala Lumpur --- many of them more strife-torn than India --- have over two dozen FM channels. By trying to limit the number of channels in Indian cities, the government is again trying to control the choice of the people.

While a small country like the Philippines has over 350 radio stations (90 per cent privately owned), India is a relative backwater with only 234 radio stations in a country of over a billion people.

But because the guidelines are so restrictive, indirectly the government ends up encouraging monopoly in radio in the private sector. The call of the day should be to open up FM and other radio technology to private participation in such a way that would encourage competition and give more choice to the people.

Radio Mid Day West India Pvt. Ltd., a subsidiary of Mid-Day Multimedia Ltd, has already sent a conditional notice to the I&B ministry that it will surrender its licence for FM Radio broadcasting in Mumbai with effect from 29 June 2004.

Judging by the noises coming from the government, Mid-Day's Go 92.5 FM could well have to down shutters by next year. Assuming of course that the closure notice is not just a threat that is.

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