Quo vadis, FM Radio?

Is what started with much promise, destined to end with a whimper?

FM station Win, that pulled down shutters in Mumbai two months ago in protest against crushing license fees, is unlikely to restart operations. The Mid-Day run Go too had to bow to investor pressure and offer closure notice by June end this year, leaving just three private players in Mumbai. Bleak days ahead for FM?

Apparently so. But FM Radio, with its fair share of government pitfalls and technical roadblocks, is not willing to let go so easily. Go, in all likelihood, is poised to soldier on for some more months, and is not willing to buckle under. The remaining players, backed by major media houses, continue to innovate and experiment.

As the latest Indian Listenership Track (ILT) 2004 shows, listenership is not the problem it had seemed. Nor is advertising, if media planners? enthusiasm is any indicator. FM radio is on the growth track, with an amazingly equitable reach across SECs. FM in Mumbai has grown three times, while in Delhi the number has doubled in the last three years. Among the young, radio scores over magazine readership, and in terms of exposure, even over television in some day parts, the ILT study shows.

To get to this ?young? audience, and to attract more listeners, most of the stations have been, however, catering to the lowest common denominator. One of the few stations that has stood out, in Mumbai, is the Mid-day run Go, which early on adopted the strategy to cater only to a niche educated, English speaking audience. Today, while the other players attract a gamut of advertising clientele, mostly that of mass based goods and services, Go has established itself as one catering to those ?who like to be spoken to in English? and hence the upper crust of the advertising pie.

The station, unlike the mass based Radio City and Radio Mirchi, currently embroiled in stiff competition in providing Bollywood in liberal doses, focuses on young professionals, educated but currently housebound housewives and college kids.

Even Go has not been able to resist the lure of Bollywood. Despite fora like the Singles Club it recently launched to good response, it has succumbed to a sure shot winner in Bollywood Badshah, a Hindi film quiz. While Radio City tops awareness in Mumbai, it is Mirchi that steals the show in Delhi. However, industry insiders say that although many listeners are loyal to one station, awareness of at least two to three other stations is high, owing to the propensity to flick between frequencies during songs.

City, Mirchi and RED, the prominent three players across cities have a clear advantage in terms of revenue. A presence across cities not just doubles revenue, it also brings in additional brands. A reason why Go, despite having pulled out of the Delhi franchise, still looks ahead to launching in other cities once the license fee hurdles are crossed.

Is news the saviour?

However, many players believe that news and current affairs, one of the main issues under consideration of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the broadcast and cable regulator, would be just a fragment of the overall picture. Concurs Go?s station head Shariq Patel, "News will constitute a part of the overall programming mix, but I doubt if, in the present circumstances, a standalone news radio station would work."

So, what is it that will work if the license regime is revoked in favour of a model that will allow stations to breathe easier? More players to grow the market, assert all the players. All also agree that serious discussions are not what is going to work as a programming tactic on FM. Kids? programming is one area that is waiting to be tapped, say the players.

Stations also realised that RJ rapport is what is going to count. While Win and Go were the pioneers of RJ based programming, particularly for the popular morning slots, Radio Mirchi too has realised its potential. RJ Harsh is being promoted heavily from billboards as the guy to listen to on hot topical issue discussions. Which also raises the matter of the slim line of distinction on what constitutes news and whether it can air on the private stations. Argues a station director, "If Star can run news on Star News, is there any reason why it cannot run news on Radio City?"

News however, is not on the priority list of

many programmers in FM radio, who believe that though non music content is going to be differentiator in the coming days, serious discussions will not bring in much of the listenership or the moolah.

Trai is expected to recommend allowing news on radio, to accommodate which, the FM stations are likely to be divided into two categories -- one purely entertainment based and has no news element, while the other will have news-cum-entertainment.

The pure entertainment channels are likely to be allowed 100 per cent foreign equity, but the foreign equity limit to be imposed on channels carrying news in the FM sphere is yet to be fixed by Trai, say sources. Safeguards like a cap of 100 to 150 seconds of news per half hour of programming are likely to be imposed, they say.

Home bound listeners

In the two years that the stations have been in operation, listenership has grown majorly but most of it is ?at home?. Says Lintas Media Services - Research & Technologies head Premjeet Sodhi,"In-car listenership has definitely grown by leaps and bounds, but the number of car owners being a fraction of the universe, the number of mobile listeners are bound to remain low."

The rising popularity of radio in metros like Mumbai and Delhi have had a natural fallout - media planners are now actively including radio in their plans. Agrees Sodhi, "The number of studies that are being invested in radio, as well as demographic patterns mapped out by the stations themselves are helping. Planners are definitely looking very seriously at radio now."

The recently concluded ILT, validated by the Media Research Users Council?s (MRUC) technical committee, will help in providing the objective data about listenership that was missing thus far, believes Sodhi. Patel points out that unlike earlier, advertisers are opting for original radio commercials being devised for radio, understanding the listeners? mindset and offering value adds with the programming.

The recent Wakaw Pakaw campaign on Go, that stemmed from a brainstorming session over innovative programming is an example. Radio City has experimented with several non music genre shows, but studies on ratings available thus far do not indicate that these have revolutionised the FM industry. City?s Crorepati venture was by far more successful than its aural version of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Saans, but the station keeps innovating. Mirchi has stuck to Bollywood for bringing in the bucks, but as Bennett Coleman and Co MD Vineet Jain himself pointed out after the meeting with Reddy, the parent company?s backing and subsidy is what keeping the stations afloat, failing which individual losses could be even higher than what they are. The FM radio industry stands to collectively lose Rs. 1,500- Rs. 2,000 million, due to the government?s dithering over the FM imbroglio, say players.

?Ad?ing up the gains

Entertainment has emerged as the largest spender in the last one year on radio. Not just TV channels that want to reinforce their programming on radio, but international studios like Columbia Tristar have inked annual deals for all forthcoming releases in India. Even restaurants advertised their new year bashes on radio this year, indicating the rapport that FM has struck with the masses.

Retail advertising however has not picked up as much as it was expected to, shattering the myth that retail would drive the advertising growth in FM. With the exit of Win, the Millennium Broadcast promoted and Gautam Radia run station that was unofficially the most popular station among advertisers, the share of advertising of rivals, particularly Go, that shared a closer profile with Win, has gone up, say insiders. To grow the pie, however, what would be needed is not a decrease in the number of players but more entrants in different genres who would build their own niche listener base, is the refrain among the FM players.

Is the government tuned in?

On 7 June, a delegation of private FM radio players met information and broadcasting minister Jaipal Reddy to exhort him to expedite work on the recommendations for expansion of the second phase of FM radio in the country. This is not likely to happen anytime soon. Till which time the radio stations will continue to bleed with the inbuilt 15 per cent escalation clause in annual license fees.

As India Today Group promoter Aroon Purie mentioned after the meeting, "There is no question of not paying the licence fee. We will." But Purie also pointed out that the main issue was to take forward the second phase of FM radio expansion for which the government has to give the FM radio players "certain directions."

Down South, Suryan claims dominance over rivals

TRAI meanwhile, is sitting tight on its recommendations. And even these are not guaranteed to be accepted by the new government, which will take its own time to assess the FM scenario and decide the direction it should take. Nor is there much hope for the lackluster AIR FM channels (and Mumbai has two, neither of which attract the kind of advertising they could due to their reach). The marketing, programming and ad sales are all in the domain of babus who are content to fill in the hours and let government machinery take its course. AIR?s chief revenue springs sporadically from cricket commentaries, a monopoly the pubcaster is using increasingly cannily. Sports commentators secretly complain that their job these days has been reduced to giving a minimum commentary, broken by incessant sponsor messages. FM however chugs along as an afterthought in babudom.

The private FM radio players, lobbying for a change of regime, are hoping that the government would accept soon or slightly modify the Trai recommendations, which would be based on a report submitted by an expert committee headed by Ficci?s Dr Amit Mitra

With an eye to put some pressure, the private FM players had even moved the court and then TDSAT, a dispute redressal tribunal under the sector regulator Trai, for some interim relief earlier this year. But neither the court, nor TDSAT came to their rescue and put the ball back in the government?s court.

In fits and starts, the players have coughed up the monies (four months of licence fee, that is), but are now crossing their fingers for more long term relief. It?s over to the Trai and the I&B ministry for now. Till then, the music plays on and it?s not very soothing to the ears of the private players.

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