's Perspectives on the state of FM radio in India

Is anyone listening?
Private FM radio hunts for government reprieve, advertisers and listeners

(Posted on 16 January 2004)

The fight's on in real earnest now.

Just as private FM in the country gets ready for an infusion of fresh life with government intervention, the players have begun a scramble for a bigger slice of the pie. And as there is no standardised measure to rate the pie with, the war is an open battleground based on independent studies, dipstick surveys, listener feedbacks and self promotional exercises.

Private FM radio, touted as the best thing to happen to Indian media in a long while, however, is yet to live up to the hype. It still has housewives and retired people among its top listeners, is gasping under the weight of crushing license fees and strapped by an unwillingness by existing players to develop the market in the 12 cities it is currently operating in.

The new found willingness of the government to think about a more profitable revenue sharing model, the allowing of FDI and possible permission for news and current affairs (thus far a prerogative of state run AIR), has buoyed feelings in the sector, but cautiously. Till the amendments come into force (expected before the year is out), FM is destined to be malnourished. Advertising has crawled from a paltry one per cent of total media adspend two years ago to slightly over two per cent, despite aggressive promotional gimmicks and programming experiments by all the players.

Toying with genres despite predicting doom for FM - Radio City COO Sumantra 'Sumo' Dutta

Although most players are backed by hefty media groups, the losses are beginning to tell. The Millennium Broadcast backed Win, unable to cough up licensing fees for the current fiscal, tuned off the airwaves for a month in 2003, and bounced back only when an unnamed source pumped in enough money to sustain operations. At the Ficci Frames in March 2003, a sombre Radio City COO Sumantra "Sumo" Datta sounded a chilling death knell to the industry when he said that a discussion on radio would be redundant next year unless radical changes were brought in, as a number of players may succumb to financial pressures.

Some good lobbying by big media houses and a sympathetic information and broadcasting ministry resulted in some of Sumo's fears being assuaged when a task force headed by Ficci chairman Amit Mitra was formed and submitted its report by November. The recommendations brought in the much needed cheer but Sumo says he wouldn't count his chickens till these are actually implemented...

The Initiative Radio Track 2003 affirms the keen fight between Radio Mirchi and Radio City in most TGs.

As for radio stations, in the absence of a standardised audience measurement system, the fight is out on the streets, literally, with hoardings proclaiming each one's number one status. In Mumbai, the Times group's Radio Mirchi claims number one listenership status going by readership survey SPARR, while Radio City smugly points to ORG-Marg's Wave V report which has placed the station above rivals in listenership, time bands and varying SECs of listeners. Win, the underdog of 2002, suffered when it suspended operations in mid 2003, but has stabilised midway down the rankings.

Go, the brainchild of Mid-day's Tariq Ansari's passion for radio, has obstinately remained niche, while others went the mass way soon after it became obvious by late 2002 that Bollywood music was all listeners wanted. RED from the Living Media Group, is now fighting the war on a different ground, claiming that while other studies merely tracked brand recall of the radio stations, RED was on firmer ground when it comes to actual listenership of different programmes.

Building the Mirchi brand - A P Parigi

The SPARRing though has essentially been between the hefty lead players Mirchi and City for the total radio listenership for Mumbai which now stands at 5,144,000 with an average time spent listening of around 140 minutes. This happened at the end of 2003, when MRUC's SPARR survey put Mirchi ahead of Star on some counts. While Entertainment Network director A P Parigi pooh poohed the new Radio City initiative of bringing half sibling Star Plus' hit soaps in a radio format, Sumo points to a 60 per cent increase in number of advertisers as proof of the success of the venture.

"Evidently radio channels that have managed to cross-promote themselves effectively through mass media, whether in print or on TV, have been able to drive listeners towards them more rapidly" opines AC Nielsen senior manager Abhay Sawant. Interestingly, awareness levels of government owned Vividh Bharati ranks third in terms of overall awareness, ahead of private players RED, WIN and GO.

Madison Media, which conducted a dipstick study in December in Mumbai among 100 housewives in SEC ABC to understand their impact, revealed that a large number, when prompted, recalled the new programmes on Radio City with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi topping with 78 per cent recall. Interestingly, though nearly a fourth of the respondents claimed to have already tuned into Kyunki at the time of the dipstick.

The Madison chart shows that Kyunki.... has high recall value on Radio City, without many actually listening to the show

The fight is on in earnest in other metros as well. In Chennai, Mirchi at 83 per cent is the leader followed by the Sun Network's Suryan with 78 per cent share (Initiative Media figures). Bangalore by default has Radio City ruling the airwaves. Kolkata has become another battleground with both Mirchi and Aamar (an independent station) claiming dominance. While Mirchi claims a presence in 66 per cent households, ahead of Aamar's 10 per cent, RED's 11 per cent and Power's 13 per cent, Aamar, in Internet ads, says it has been 'declared number one in Kolkata.'

Living Media has taken the fight to a fresh level. Development and Research Services (DRS) conducted a study in Delhi and found that high brand recall does not translate into listenership, and that the average 70 per cent of listeners of a particular programme are not able to associate it with the right FM channel. These findings throw the premise of the studies conducted by rivals right out the window, contends RED COO Nishchint Chawla. In the absence of a programme based TRP ranking system, it's each to his own study right now. The DRS study helps RED in that it puts Good Morning Delhi as the top rated show, followed by Mirchi's Hello Dilli with Nitin.

The DRS study indicates that RED's show tops the list of top 10 radio shows in Delhi

So, who is listening?

While the average time spent listening to radio remains roughly the same across age groups, young adults listen to more radio than other age groups and spend almost 160 minutes a day, listening to radio, says a Nielsen October '03 report.

Across SECs the time spent listening to radio displays shifts over time. SEC A registers a drop in the time spent listening from 152 minutesin round 3 to 135 minutes in round 4. Radio listeners within SEC C however, have increased their exposure to radio with time spent listening to radio having increased from 135 minutes in round three to 155 minutes in the last round.

Is the advertiser cued in?
Although FM in its present infantile state may appear a dot on the media horzon, a miniscule contender for the total adspend, the sector is slowly being regarded as the next big boom in the media industry. The National Readership Survey for 2003 affirms this. The onset of FM radio has given the radio sector a boost, with the medium registering a five per cent increase in penetration. All other media penetration has either remained constant or - to the chagrin of the industry - dropped. The NRS findings, coupled with the recent taskforce recommendations, have boosted the radio industry morale, bringing in its wake, a marginally improved ad spend too.

Retail advertising, however, that was expected to grow at a galloping pace last year, did not, and today, the largest chunk of advertising, 22 per cent, comes from other media, prominently television. FMCG follows with 14 per cent, durables with 12 per cent, finance with 10 per cent, telecom with eight per cent, while retail tails with eight per cent, according to Madison.

RED FM Nishchint Chawla believes more in programme loyalty than brand recall

Sumo says retail has in fact picked up better in cities like Lucknow rather than metros like Delhi and Mumbai. Also, as media planners say, most advertisers prefer to spread their FM monies to minimise risk, in the absence of reliable research on listenership. RED FM COO Nishchint Chawla however says that one needs to differentiate between 'retail' and 'local' advertising. Local brands can also be large and contribute in a big way, particularly to Delhi RED's revenues, says Chawla, with hardware shops and even beauty parlours coming on board.

Interestingly though, most research also shows that over 60 per cent of ads are in the non prime band - afternoon, while only about 10 to 15 per cent of total spots are in the hyped morning and evening bands, thanks probably to the deal structures entered into with advertisers.

One of the victims of the opening up of the radio airwaves in the country unfortunately has been the state owned All India Radio, which has been unable to match the aggressive marketing and sales pitches of the private players despite good listenership. The ORG Marg Radio Review in fact states that "awareness levels of government owned Vividh Bharati ranks third in terms of overall awareness, ahead of private players RED, WIN and GO."

Studies show that the unemployed, the retired and the homebound are the major listeners of FM radio

Programming, aside from Radio City's experiments, has remained homogenous fare across stations. Sporadically, stations announce contests, game shows, tambola and celebrity interviews, but staple fare remains Bollywood music and incessant RJ chatter. Praveen Tripathi, President South Asia, Regional Director Strategic Planning, Zenithmedia says, "The ultimate bonding that radio as a medium will have with its audiences will be driven by editorial creativity." The message finally got through to stations in the last half of 2003, when RED finally got a nod from viewers after roping in veteran compere Ameen Sayani to host a music show that has been recently expanded into a four day show. Innovative measures like interstitials, RJ mentions and fillers too are being used, radio ads are beginning to sound original and not the soundtracks of TVCs. Mirchi has floated the Kaan awards for creativity in advertising, but its a slow climb uphill to the advertisers' door.

The first year generated barely 220 million rupees in revenues in Mumbai, while the second year of operations will take that figure up by an estimated 18 to 20 per cent. Still leaving a huge gap between the nearly Rs 500 million that had to be coughed up annually by Mumbai alone.

Will 2004 be better?
Although many are loath to predict the future, going by last years' bitter fruits, Parigi seems confident that the task force recommendations will be accepted and implemented. In the Entertainment Network offices, names of two more proposed stations are put up. Despite Sumo's despondency, Radio City's Lucknow station too continues to live.

The show hasn't stopped for FM. Hopefully, 2004 will sing a cheerier tune for it.

Also read-

What the fight's all about........

"Radio's share in the ad pie will grow to six or seven per cent in four to five years" - an interview with Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer, Entertainment Network (India) Limited A P Parigi





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