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A blank in 2009, wait for FM radio policies this year

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Promises, more promises, and no action. That is what the private FM radio operators felt as the government blanked out any reforms in 2009 that would have fuelled growth in the sector.

Want Phase III expansion? Wait for 2009. Want a hike in foreign direct investment (FDI)? Will take time to study the Trai recommendations. Want to broadcast news? Can‘t tell now.

Private FM radio operators, though, go into 2010 with a lot of hope that the door will open for more liberal policies. They don‘t forget the words of Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni at the World Economic Forum‘s India Economic Summit in November 2009: that a note is being finalised for the Cabinet to recommend an increase in FDI limit and allowing Akashvani-sourced news on private FM radio channels.

The Phase III of FM radio expansion policy, deferred due to certain issues including multiple frequencies and royalty for music, is expected before the fiscal ends. It will cover 92 cities, according to the plan drawn up by Trai.

A massive infusion of capital will be required as the national footprint expands into smaller towns. Trai has recommended that the FDI be hiked from 20 per cent to 49 per cent, but the government is yet to confirm on this. Funding will continue to hound the sector if the government does not spell out more liberal policies in 2010.

The government is particularly not happy with the slow growth of community radio. "Community radio can change the face of local broadcasting. But the growth in this segment is disturbingly slow despite adopting a painless procedure for obtaining licences to operate community radio stations," says a senior I&B official.

The government is organising consultation workshops in different parts of the country to increase awareness of the advantages of local radio stations. Beginning with Rajasthan (Tilonia) in November 2009, a series of workshops have been held in Meghalaya (Shillong), Haryana (Faridabad), Madhya Pradesh (Chanderi), and Tamil Nadu (Tiruchendur) before the year closed.

A workshop had also been held earlier this month in Kerala (Wayanad), while four others planned so far are in Karnataka (Budhikote), Maharashtra (FTII in Pune), Uttar Pradesh (Allahabad), and Uttarkhand (Tehri Garhwal) before the end of this fiscal.

A total of 48 Community Radio Stations are presently functioning in 16 states and Union territories (42 from educational institutions and six from non-governmental organisations). Twenty letters of Intent have been issued in 2009, taking the total to 189 LoI so far. A total of 584 applications, including 240 applications from educational institutions, have been received from various organisations for setting up CRSs. While 79 had been rejected, a total of 316 applications are under process.

The game-changing year for FM radio could be 2010. Says ENIL chief executive officer Prashant Panday, "I am quite sure that 2010 will be known as the year of radio. Phase III policy of radio reforms will come. And by 2011, the radio industry could start offering a serious alternative to regional print publications."

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