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Tuning into the familiar

Plug into the radio on your mobile phone. Or the one in your home or car, for just 15 minutes. Surf between channels and hear what's on offer. Chances are you will hear snatches of jock-talk (radio jockeys talking), some ads for a builder, a few of the latest hits from Hindi films. And maybe, just maybe, a golden oldie or so. If you like film music interspersed with some rubbish chatter by over smart people, radio rocks for you. If you don't, then plugging into an iPod or MP3 player makes more sense. Especially if you want to hear alternate genres -- rock, pop, jazz, carnatic, Hindustani classical and so on or even talk radio. 


Video killed the radio star: Indians will start looking for alternate genres 
of music on radio once they are sated with free popular music.

To be fair there is some stuff in the name of variety. So there was the audio Ramayana on Fever FM or the PJs by Sud on Radio Mirchi. Then there are local variations -- a mix of Kannada and English in Bangalore or city issues being discussed in Lucknow or Indore. But largely radio is still about chartbuster film music. 

For the 180-odd million Indians who tune in, why is there so little to hear on 245 private FM stations? There are two possible reasons: regulation and an as-yet-evolving audience. Till the middle of last year, news and current affairs was not allowed on private radio in India. Also an operator could not own more than one station in the same city. This meant all operators had only one station per city to monetise. Therefore they targeted the most popular genre -- film music. Fair enough. The rules changed last year but procedural delays in implementation have kept operators from offering news. Soon you should hear the change. Also watch out for second and third channels from your favourite stations. Most operators claim that if they had two or more stations per city, they would experiment far more. 

The second and more important reason is we, the audience. There simply isn't enough demand for variety, not right now. At Rs 135 per month WorldSpace offered more than 40 ad-free music and talk radio channels in several languages such as Tamil, Telugu and even French. After 8 years in India it had just about 175,000 subscribers. Not surprisingly WorldSpace shut down. 

The fact is, for all the noise we make about alternative content on radio, what a large mass of listeners really want is a quick, snappy number. Most experiments with niche radio haven't worked. Remember Radio Mirchi and Radio One (owned by Mid-Day Multimedia) started as English music stations before switching to the popular filmi route. Meow FM, a station from the India Today Group, offered only talk targeted at women. It is now called Oye FM and plays the usual music.

The scenario is not very different from the one in films or television. When television opened up in the early nineties, could you have imagined anyone paying extra for an HD channel or a specialised golf one? Now you can. The market has changed, structurally and otherwise. Indians are more evolved consumers of television and films thanks to years of exposure to international and Indian content. 

Radio is at the same stage that films and TV were at say 10-15 years back. So operators are doing what general entertainment channels did for years -- catering to the largest possible mass of viewers to start with. In TV, the demand for differentiated content emerged after 15 years of free private television. Let us enjoy the filmi hits till the craving for talk radio, news or other things gets stronger.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar is a media specialist and author http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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