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The FM war


Dominating the skyline ... a hoarding in Chennai.

ACROSS that narrow band of spectrum from 91 FM to 106.4, separate worlds are colliding. Hip page three India versus the rest of us. Young versus middling and older, private versus public radio, gush versus substance. Hindi pop versus more Hindi pop, and some golden oldies. Inane patter versus programmes on child marriage, careers, and craftspeople, both unhurriedly and unfashionably presented on All India Radio.

Until the sexy new kittens came along, FM 1, newly renamed Rainbow, was the trendy kid on the AIR block whose voices thought they were swinging.

But in the space of a single week, they've been overtaken by a charged-up new gang that thrives on telling you how hhhhot it is. Never mind if you are the wrong age group and the sizzle leaves you cold.

What began with Bangalore then moved to Mumbai via a few smaller towns is now rapidly expanding to Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai. A breathless wave of private FM that threatens to do to AIR what the satellite channels have done to Doordarshan. Put it on the defensive and taken away its advertising. Having paid fancy sums for their licenses, the competitors are painting the town red, literally.

They are riding into town on a wave of cross media promotion. Kareena Kapoor in a red frock aloft a rickshaw was a photograph that most Delhi papers found irresistible , not just the Times of India whose group is promoting Radio Mirchi. Promos for Red FM are on Aaj Tak and in India Today, Radio City is advertised on the Star TV channels. Is Doordarshan promoting Prasar Bharati's FM radio? I seriously doubt it. Besides the private guys are all on hoardings across town.

"We don't consider them competition," says Prasar Bharati CEO K.S. Sarma expansively. "We believe in plurality. We enabled them to get going. They were in disarray." He is talking of Delhi where the new lot just went on air last fortnight, on an antennae made possible by the public sector BECIL, and AIR's engineering department, mounted on AIR's tower .

He may not consider them competition, but Prasar Bharati has started strategising to keep them at bay. Rainbow has already has 12 cities that it offers the advertiser, they are also trying to get a band of FM Gold (AIR's second FM channel) to be carried on 35 local radio stations across the country to widen the footprint for the advertiser. An AIR official meanwhile complains that the brighter frequencies in the spectrum have gone to the private channels.

If it had any gift at all for marketing and promotion, AIR at this point has far more to offer the listener. At least in Delhi. But across the country its FM channels are however pursuing different content strategies, pandering to regional chauvinism. You'd think AIR FM in Bangalore would aim at the cosmopolitan set, but the majority of its programming is in Kannada. Now some strategies are changing. Kolkata FM had a lot of Bengali, but is currently being revamped. The point is AIR already has a primary channel, it could afford to let its FM stations be different.

The contrast in approach is significant. Radio Mirchi's Delhi manager Nandan Srinath is busy talking of building channel loyalty through the kind of personalities a station manages to create. They have begun with five radio jockeys who keep telling you their names, and on which shows you can find them. AIR's RJs are all freelance, and are not given more than six or seven duties a month each, heaven forbid that you hear them too often and actually end up having favourites. A duty officer keeps track of what they do on air, and how many times they mention their own names. You should not presume that you can build your personality on a government radio channel.

At AIR the radio jockeys do all the technical work as well: you learn to handle the equipment, cue the songs and play them, and provide the patter in-between. If you want to play the latest music you have to bring along your own CDs. The private channels have engineers and production assistants to take care of the technical aspects, the training they give their radio jockeys is on presentation.

Gosh, says a music presenter on AIR, "they are saying shit and bloody on the new channels." No scope for such liberties on Mamma AIR where you have to get your script approved before you go on air and no ad libbing is allowed. You cannot play remixes because AIR does not approve of remixes. You cannot play songs that use unacceptable words. "We cannot play `Ishq Kameena', because kameena is not a nice word," says one RJ. The organisation prefers to call them presenters.

Multiple music channels abroad may be identifiable through the different kinds of music they play, but here the market dictum is, don't experiment, and don't try being niche. Don't even look at listeners outside the 15 to 35 age group. Right now, everybody plays the same kind of music and chases the same beautiful people. Mandira Bedi was in the studios of both Red and Mirchi in the space of a few days, sounding equally vacuous on both, but who cares? Both channels were citing having got her as an achievement.

Language is another play safe issue. Everybody new is sticking to Hindi, if you want English programming you only get it on Rainbow which does both.

It also gives you other kinds of music, with separate shows for rock and country. When Mirchi goes to Chennai it will be a Tamil channel. You want the trendy young people with cars and consumer appetites but you won't risk English music on them. Meanwhile AIR's Gold plays old Hindi music and gives you news and current affairs on the assumption that there is life over 35 and even under-30s would want to be treated like they do have an IQ.

The best content may still be on AIR, but today if you don't market yourself you are dead. They lost 50 per cent of their Mumbai city advertising to the competition last year. The money is there, the private guys tell you dryly, but AIR does not have a sales team to chase it. All of AIR, primary and FM, made a grand total of Rs. 105 crores as revenue in 2002-2003. The country's total advertising pie is Rs. 8,000 crores.

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