Virgin-HT tuning up for FM take-off?

Entering July and the private FM radio players finally have more than a sob story to recount to the world. The government today set in motion the opening up of the FM radio sector while acceding to a longstanding demand of the industry to migrate to a revenue sharing model.

In a bid to make the investments norms more attractive, the government also cleared FDI investment of a maximum of 20 per cent in FM ventures, but struck down a plea of the industry to allow news on private FM stations.

The immediate question that arises is of course around who could be the big media players that might make an entry into the FM arena in the second round.

One name that comes to mind first up is Subhash Chandra's Zee Telefilms. It would surprise no one if Zee were to re-enter the FM game this time with serious intent (it was one of those that pulled out in the first round). IF, this were to happen, what this would mean is that Zee would be squaring up against the Times Group on three fronts - print (DNA), television and radio.

As far as the international players go there will always be the "will it, won't it" questions around Star India and its plans. Another player that would have an even bigger interest in the radio business, more so because it is such a major player internationally is Viacom through its subsidiary and radio behemoth Infinity Broadcasting.

Questions to MTV Networks India regarding a possible foray into the FM following today's developments went unanswered at the time of filing this comment. Still, that Viacom has a more than cursory interest in opportunities in this field can be taken as almost a given.

But it will likely not be Zee or Viacom or even Star that the current FM players like Radio Mirchi, Radio City, Red FM and the Mid-Day Group's Go FM will be watching closely, but rather Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Hindustan Times team-up. For Branson, it has been a long wait no doubt, because if one looks back, it was as early as 2001 when the Virgin Group first unveiled plans to roll out a pan-Asia FM radio station network from Hong Kong under the Virgin Radio brand.

HT Media?s IPO red herring prospectus filed a couple of months ago with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) also mentions this. "In December 2004, we entered into an MoU with Virgin Radio Asia to provide FM radio services in India with the expected change in the regulatory environment,? the prospectus states.

Now that announcement for the second phase of FM privatisation has been made (though the operative part of it would be when the tender documents are actually issued), one could well expect an announcement in due course that Virgin is setting up a joint venture with HT in which it will have the maximum allowed limit of 20 per cent stake. Virgin and HT have reportedly done a fair amount of ground work already in this regard.

This would also tie in well with the launch of the Virgin Atlantic air services in India and by all reckonings should in due course be followed by Branson's other products and services such as mobile phone service, soft drinks, retailing, as well as music recording and distribution (including retail stores).

It is worth noting here that it was in the beginning of April that Branson announced plans to create a new Australian FM radio network in partnership with John Singleton's Macquarie Radio Network with the promise to shake-up the local industry.

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