Reality comes to Radio

Picture this: D-day is set.The trousseau finalised. Guests invited, food and music taken care off, and yes the local FM station and radio jockeys have confirmed their presence.You got that right. If the latest trends in radio programming are to be believed, reality could well be inching its way from television towards radio.

Radio Mirchi experimented with the reality format when it invited couples in the city to send in their entries so that the FM station could be part of their big day. Mirchi Haain Baraati had the listener tuned into all the tips and trends one needs to know to make the ceremony a special event. But the highlight of the show was the on air wedding.

Mirchi decided to cash in on the wedding season frenzy and invited one lucky couple to tie the knot "on air". The station shadowed the couple as they went shopping, drew up guest lists and shared all the joys and anxieties with its listeners.

Wedded to reality : Mirchi Hain Baarati contest

Radio Mirchi vice president and regional head programming Riya Mukherjee is excited as she talks about this new format. But she is wary of calling it ‘reality radio‘ and prefers the term ‘participatory radio‘. Obviously referring to the slew of ‘bare all‘ reality television shows she says, ‘As a radio station, Mirchi doesn‘t endorse invading into people‘s privacy or the hidden camera approach. As long as it is with the consent of the people involved it is perfectly viable to do this kind of participatory radio.‘

Purists may take offence to the term ‘reality radio‘, which hasn‘t really been coined or bandied about, at least in the Indian context. To put things into perspective let‘s begin with what is reality television before switching to a wholly different medium.

Reality television programming or non-scripted programmes comprise reality TV entertainment, game shows and talent shows where the main events within the programme are not pre-determined by writers and producers but are the result of actual events happening during the show.

Television producers first started looking at reality shows as an alternate means of programming which would be cost effective as they are based on ‘real‘ people in ‘real‘ circumstances. No scriptwriters, no paid actors or extravagant sets and the plot thickens as viewers can alter the course of the show with votes through calls and text messages.

In terms of a programming innovation, television networks lapped it up. Reality entertainment like dance shows, talent hunts and game shows ruled across channels.

Reality on radio though is a different ball game. Partly because of the nature of the medium, the first refrain one is likely to hear is ‘But all of radio is reality‘. Red FM COO Abraham Thomas laughs and takes a long pause before he decides to tackle the issue. "Radio is not scripted. So in that sense most of radio is reality. If it is about a RJ hunt, campus hunt or a Children‘s day special with a kid RJ hunt then yes, the concept of reality in radio is catching up. What make shows like American Idol or Indian Idol interesting are the judges trading insults, shocked expressions, participants crying in despair or relief. Now that‘s a challenge for radio to emulate. So if we can capture the full essence of a reaction on radio, we would be open to it."

Radio City programming head Vikas Varma adds, "A show like Bigg Boss works great on TV, however on radio the same format transplanted would not work. It would need to be heavily modified and simplified. Having said that, the basic hook of Bigg Boss is very strong, using that hook as the seed and planting it in the fertile soil of radio would create a new plant called ‘radio ka big boss‘.

While reality hunts are used by FM stations to make auditions for its RJs more interactive, reality challenges are now creating a buzz. Radio One 94.3 FM had its Mumbai RJ Jaggu take up a weight loss reality challenge on air. The idea was a promotion pitch for Saffola Gold called Mission 10k where Jaggu would have to lose 10 kgs within a span of 3 months. Since Jaggu along with Tarana hosts the morning segment, daily updates on his challenge were available to listeners. Jaggu also maintained a print diary of sorts on his column in the daily Mid-Day.

Weight Watchers on Radio One 94.3FM

The highs and lows of his weight loss programme were followed by listeners who could call in to share their own experiences or goad him on to his rather strict diet. Lapses on his part were analysed and criticized.

Similarly, Red FM RJ Malishka threw the perennially crowded Mumbai city a challenge when she asked the listeners to travel in a packed Virar-train at peak hours and get off at Andheri station. The radio production crew waited at the station to capture the emotions of those who completed the task.

But is reality radio limited to promotional campaigns and gauntlets thrown out by radio jockeys? "I think this is just the tip of the ‘reality ice-berg‘. Reality formats are not only about contests or do-and-dare or reporting live from an event. The art of creating good reality radio is about creating a story out of reality that plays itself out without a script and the end cannot be easily predicted. Its main hook should be the emotional connect with the listener," says Varma.

Out of studio: Red RJ Nitin takes a spin on Delhi roads

Mirchi‘s Mukherjee endorses the view that radio jockeys are the real stars on radio. "Today it is easy to touch the star called RJ. You can meet him, invite him home or share a cup of tea. But if you look at the Mirchi Haain Baarati format, the radio jock was just an anchor or a stringer of events. The real focus was on the couple Gaurav and Priya."

Big 92.7 FM decided to stretch the concept a little further when it launched ‘Big Break‘, the first of its kind Bollywood reality hunt on radio.

Big FM national creative director Vishal Mull asserts, "Big FM decided to go the reality way with two new concepts - Big Break and Nakli No.1. Big Break invites applications nationally for the next hero in a Bollywood movie called ‘Who will be Shekhar‘, the station will track the chosen hero through the making of the movie. No identities will be revealed until the completion of the movie. The idea is to create a mystery and drama around the lead of the film and capture this on air. Little snippets about the ‘hero‘ will be revealed to whet the listener‘s appetite."

Of course, this ensures a sizeable buzz around the film as well. With judges like Raj Kumar Santoshi, Vishal Bharadwaj, Anurag Basu and Ajay Devgan, a mystery ‘lead actor‘, highs and lows of making a movie reported right from the sets and an unknown character catapulted to stardom - what could be a better recipe for reality radio.

So what is holding back radio stations from exploring this format further?

Most of the programming heads we spoke to want to play it safe and make sure that the programming doesn‘t take away from the music. While Radio One vice president programming and brand Vishnu Athreya is doubtful about the medium‘s ability to catch the finer nuances of reality shows he also agrees that if a particular situation is tweaked to suit the demands of the medium, reality on radio can be explored. "Currently, most radio stations focus on music as their key driver. Also packaged radio is an alien concept. By that yardstick, everything on radio is real," he says.

Red FM‘s Thomas concurs, "Today radio is a music driven entertainment proposition in India." That pretty much sums up why most radio stations flirt with this format but are not willing to go the whole hog just yet. But with reality television in India having come of age this is a success formula too tempting to pass up.

Meanwhile …. who wants to hear Big Boss go on air?


Radio City programming head Vikas Varma - I strongly believe that one of the way forward in creating great entertainment on radio will be ‘reality radio‘. This needs to be created in context of the radio medium and not be transplanted directly from TV.

Red FM COO, Abraham Thomas - If we can make it relevant to the medium, reality on radio can work.

Radio One, vice president programming and brand Vishnu Athreya Shows need to be structured to suit the radio medium. Unlike television, where a special segment can be created, in the case of radio, circumstances will have to be tweaked to fit the audio medium.

Radio Mirchi vice president and regional head programming Riya Mukherjee - All you require is a portable audio instrument or a recorder and you can have an interaction right outside the studio. In that sense, working on a reality radio format requires lot less in terms of production and costs.

Big FM national creative director Vishal Mull - It is difficult to create personalities on radio but reality in radio is a strong possibility if we can manage to convert visual imagery into interesting audio formats.

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