Profile_Arjun S RaviWe sat through the barrage of rhetoric and industry keywords at the India Radio Forum in Mumbai this week and came out questioning FM’s future in the country.

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We’ve been writing about FM radio’s fight to stay relevant over the last couple of weeks and some of the insights we discovered while putting together our Alternative Frequency Big Issue were equal parts surprising, encouraging and disappointing. While the scope of our Big Issue was restricted to English music channels on FM, this piece by Siddhant Mehta illustrates how station managers around the country program music on their channels and while the nuances of managing a radio station may change, the piece highlights some core issues that all channels face when it comes to managing their airtime. We also took a look at digital radio stations in the country, and whether any or all of them can provide a viable alternative to FM radio (short answer: no, not right now). Our keynote interview was with someone who’s been part of FM radio in India since the country’s first ever FM broadcast, and one of Indian radio’s most recognisable voices, Brian Tellis. The general feeling we got was that the radio industry was fairly bullish about its future, especially given the fallout of the highly anticipated Phase III of FM licensing in the country (which will see nearly 850 channels open up in around 300 cities). However, that generally optimistic vibe didn’t have too many definitive plans about how to cope with, well, the hashtag generation. In this age of YouTube and 3G, why should music fans tune in to FM? Can XYZ FM compete with your Facebook and Twitter streams which are chock-full of people recommending you check out some music? Those were questions we asked when we started talking about radio two weeks ago, and which no one could really give us any definitive answers to.

So when we went to the India Radio Forum 2013 at the JW Marriott in Mumbai, we wanted to understand what the biggies in the radio business thought about the future of FM. Having attended our fair share of industry conferences like this, we were mostly prepared for a few hours of self-congratulatory BS, coupled with keyword-heavy industry rhetoric, which we did hear plenty of. But it was in the cracks and unchallenged statements, the subtext and sly grins, the cleverly avoided questions and the “research”-backed insights, that we found most of what we were looking for.

The Inevitable Sunset
“The sunset of the FM industry will happen in the next five or so years.”

Radio Mirchi CEO Prashant Pandey dropped that bomb during a panel discussion featuring CEOs of various FM channels, moderated by Santosh Desai. Pandey was talking about the fact that, “Eventually, all of us will have to migrate there”; “there” being an ambiguous definition of the much-abused term ‘digital’. While Pandey may have made an offhand comment, one that didn’t prompt even a raised eyebrow from the panel present, the glaring admission of FM’s near-inevitable demise at the hands of the internet was telling.

“People often forget that this industry is only 10 years old,” said Apurva Purohit, CEO of Radio City, in her defense of a question about why programming on FM hasn’t evolved to ensure that every radio channel has its own distinct personality and voice. Purohit was referring to the fact that private FM broadcasters in the country were only granted frequencies in the early noughties, but if that’s the case, then the panel’s constant references to the internet as “new media” seemed strangely comical given that “commercial internet” has existed in India for over 15 years. The industry’s inability to cope with the threats, and lest we forget, opportunities that the digital medium provides wasn’t just restricted to using dated keywords though. The two crucial factors working against FM radio and in favour of the internet, in a commercial sense, are measurement and targeting. “It’s a medium for everyone, and therefore, not for everyone,” said one brand manager, referring to the general impression that it’s difficult for marketers to target specific types of audiences on FM. None of the radio CEOs could provide any definite solutions to these two major concerns.

Screwed By The Man
In a lighter moment during the CEOs panel, Prashant Pandey revealed that before the panelists got on stage, they decided that each of them would be allowed only one opportunity to crib. The scorekeeping went out the window though as each CEO voiced a different woe about the state of government involvement and regulation in their industry. “Technically, we’re not even allowed to do traffic updates,” said one CEO referring to the fact that broadcasters aren’t permitted to air news content. Apart from limitations on content, issues like high royalty fees and difficulties obtaining licenses have severely restricted how far broadcasters can experiment and push boundaries.

While Phase III of FM licensing promises to expand the reach of broadcasters, especially in smaller cities and towns, CEOs were quick to point out that even though potentially around 850 new channels would open up, they didn’t expect that to change content dramatically. Big cities would only see limited additions to the spectrum, with Mumbai getting only two new channels, and cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Pune getting just one more. So if you were expecting the state of FM to change dramatically once the auctioning of the frequencies is completed, you’re going to be disappointed.

Same Old Song and Dance
The keynote speaker at India Radio Forum 2013 was Futurebrands man Santosh Desai. His speech was introduced by the emcee as relevant to the “revenue prospects” of the FM industry, with potential learnings for broadcasters. However, his talk was anything but. Recently, Desai wrote a column in the Times of India (you can read it here) about how FM radio can really represent the pulse of a city, especially in “small town” India. The column was based on his travels to small towns and cities around the country and listening to the “agreeable drivel” of the RJs in these areas. Apart from the column though, even Desai was unable to pinpoint exactly why he was speaking at the event, and called himself a “vacant evangelist” for the industry (he wasn’t the only one who felt out of place; Jasmin Sorabhji of Omnicom was part of a panel with brand managers and said, “I don’t really listen to the medium.” After a brief pause, she added, “but I’m its staunchest supporter.” #programmingfacepalm).

The contents of Desai’s keynote address were similar to his column, and he talked about the fact that the “sense of a city is captured most profoundly by radio”. He did express his displeasure at the false introduction, and at one of the organisers for signalling him to wrap up his address (“You started 20 minutes late, why didn’t you do that (hand gesture to indicate wrap up) then?”), but was largely congenial through the rest of the morning. Desai was the first to bring up the question of differentiation at the CEO panel. He talked about the prevailing impression that due to near-identical programming, the “bak-bak economy” had created radio stations without definitive personalities and brands. The CEOs were quick to suggest that their research had shown that consumers did in fact understand various brand personalities on FM, and gave a host of other defenses to that charge, but the question of differentiation was a running theme during the course of the conference. Prashant Pandey countered saying that if there was one medium in which there was absolutely no differentiation, it was television. The CEOs went on to refer to print’s woes as a medium facing its own redundancy at the hands of the internet, but weren’t able to define exactly why radio would be a preferred medium in the digital age.

“Radio isn’t as sexy it needs to be,” said Ajit Varghese of Maxus, echoing Pandey’s comment about radio needing to improve its profile as a medium. A brand manager from Axis Bank went as far as to attack the quality of RJs on air, saying that she would be cautious before associating her brand with some of the inane chatter and farcical sound effects of popular stations on FM radio. While it was masked in smiles and handshakes, the subtext that FM needs some serious changes in terms of content and personality was undeniable.

The Future Of/Or…
The feeling that “digital” would be the future of radio was near unanimous. A few radio stations have already started online channels, while others have created apps and are looking to exploit the potential of social media in reaching out to new audiences. But aren’t those audiences, the people on social media and the smartphone app users, already over FM? Aren’t they already consuming music through YouTube (more Indians consume music on YouTube than on all three of the biggest music channels in the country, combined) and Grooveshark and a host of other platforms? Shridhar Subramaniam of Sony India suggested that broadcasters can use their skill sets in terrestrial radio to create viable options for music discovery online, but with a host of established digital players, and services like Gaana and Saavn in the market, it will be difficult for FM broadcasters to gain any significant traction online.

So what is the future of FM in India? Will a combination of ineffective government policies, shortsighted broadcasters and unimaginative programming lead to its redundancy in the near future, or will creative thinking in the digital sphere give the medium fresh legs to engage and entertain the hashtag generation? If the discourse at India Radio Forum 2013 was anything to go by, we suggest getting used to the idea of radio silence.

India radio forum

This post was originally published here

Arjun S Ravi is a music journalist and co-founder of NH7.in, India’s leading resource for independent music and emerging culture news and opinion. He has written for several leading national and international publications, believes in brutal honesty, and thinks your band sucks.

(c) NH7 2013