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The good news on radio

Almost all of India’s 242 private FM radio stations play film music all the time. The lack of variety on FM radio has been the biggest bugbear in the growth of the medium over the last decade. But, there are indications that news will finally be allowed on private FM radio in India. Should we be singing in delight?

Not yet. To start with, the policy states that private operators have to take news from All India Radio (AIR) without changing it in any way. That means a Radio Mirchi or Radio City will sound like AIR whenever they broadcast news.

We could soon be hearing the news on private FM radio stations. Pic/Thinkstock
We could soon be hearing the news on private FM radio stations. Pic/Thinkstock

However, something that Prakash Javadekar said soon after he took over as minister for Information and Broadcasting last month gives hope. “Why should FM channels be banned from broadcasting news? The Centre is considering allowing privately-owned FM radio channels to start their own news broadcast,” he said.

Radio broadcasters are interested but wary for three reasons. One, because they are still not allowed to own more than one station per city. Till policy changes allow a second or third channel, offering variety is
difficult. The primary and only channel has to be something that can make money. And film music is the only thing that gets a large mass of listeners and, therefore, advertisers. The R1,460-crore radio industry is completely dependent on advertising.

Two, from a revenue perspective, radio news makes sense only for large newspaper firms that own editions across the country perhaps. For example, The Times of India or this paper have a huge news gathering capability in place in Mumbai. For them to use the same news ability to feed 24-hour channels in Mumbai is a low-cost operation — all you need is anchors and packaging. Ditto for a Jagran Prakashan or a DB Corp in small-town India.

For the others, it might well be a mix of feeds from wire services in periodic news bulletins, which would be more viable. Any radio news service needs to be low-cost because radio ad rates are among the lowest in the media. The third thing that makes radio broadcasters wary of news is the state of news television in India.

From a 2-3 TV news channel market in 2003, India now has a world-beating 135 news channels, most of which make losses. Many of them, owned by politicians and real-estate barons, don’t care.

However, unlike news channels, radio licences are held by a large number of listed companies that have shareholders to answer to. So, they do not fancy the prospect of investing in 24-hour news operations unless it makes business sense to do that.

What might work is the emergence of wire agencies devoted to local news in different regions of the country say by state or language. That should help radio operators plug the gap, reach out to more people and also fulfil a need, especially in smaller towns. It also makes them relevant.

One of the biggest irritants for any radio programmer is to keep playing film music when the counting for the general elections is happening or a national tragedy is taking place. The ability to offer news, therefore, removes an anomaly from the market.

And, if the long-delayed phase three of radio licensing is allowed along with news, then the impact is more impressive. From 242 stations in 86 towns currently, radio could reach 1,081 stations in 300-odd towns. Eventually, this additional reach and relevance will help operators make ‘some money’, as one operator puts it.

That is because news on radio will bring ‘stickiness’ or an increase in time spent on radio, and additional reach. A low-cost, local medium reaching out to millions of people who could be spending increasing amounts of time on it should get advertisers interested.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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