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Kerala's media firms make a beeline for FM radio market

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MUMBAI: As the deadline for submitting applications for the second phase of FM radio expansion ended on 11 November, a majority of media organisations in Kerala have expressed their interest for the 17 frequencies up for bidding in five cities.

According to sources, the applicants from Kerala include television players Asianet, Sun Network (runs Surya TV & Kiran TV), Malayalam Communications (runs Kairali TV and People TV) and print majors Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi.

The non-Kerala players planning to enter the state's FM market include Radio Mirchi. Interestingly, Mirchi is presently running a promotional campaign in the Malayalam media. Outside of the media territory, the Kochi-based hospitality firm, Holiday Ventures, has also expressed its interest to enter the FM radio market.

The second phase of FM radio kicked off in India with the government issuing the tender notice late September. Bids were invited for over 300 frequencies in 91 cities having a population of more than 300,000 and as the deadline ended, a total of over 100 players are believed to have emerged in the fray. It is expected that, by January 2006, the picture will get clearer when the government invites financial bids from the short-listed companies for awarding the frequencies. Existing FM radio companies have also submitted their bids for the second phase.

As per government documents, there are 17 frequencies available for bidding in Kerala with the towns being Kochi (3), Kannur (4), Thiruvananthapuram (4), Kozhikode (2) and Trissur (4). While Kochi is placed in the B category where the minimum net worth required for one channel is Rs 20 million, the other cities in the states are slotted in the C category where the minimum network is Rs 10 million. In the state, broadcasters will share common infrastructures using pubcaster Prasar Bharati's transmission towers.

Asianet vice president programming Sreekantan Nair, who was in-charge of AIR's Devikulam FM before moving out, feels that luring the conventional Kerala population will be a challenge for the private FM players. "Keralites are used to the traditional AIR programming. Cable television, when it entered the state, managed to develop a separate identity from Doordarshan through unconventional programming and presentation styles which the viewers could very easily relate themselves with. Now, for FM, it all depends on how the players would handle it and what kind of innovations they would bring in. Programming-wise, I feel that comedy will play a key role," says Nair.

The South Indian market is yet to be fully exploited by radio broadcasters and if business plans are sound could also make money for companies in the long run, a media observer said. A main reason being Prasar Bharati offering just five FM radio stations in Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode, Kannur and Devikulam.

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