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Hello India, you are on the air

Private FM stations are growing rapidly, in part because they're young, hip and free.

February 20, 2007|Shankhadeep Choudhury | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — "Get up. It's already 10 o'clock," urges the voice on the radio. "If you haven't had your breakfast yet, do have a steaming hot cup of tea or coffee while I play this number for you." A song from a Bollywood hit movie follows and then more music after that, hour after hour, blaring from radios in cars, homes, mobile phones, offices and markets here in the Indian capital.

Like so many other parts of the economy, the radio industry is booming in this country of 1.1 billion people. Deregulation by the government, rising consumer affluence and a growing youth culture have Indians tuning in to the airwaves in greater numbers than ever -- many listening to lively music on their cellphones.

They are drawn to a more traditional medium that is expanding even as other, newer forms of entertainment, such as cable TV and the Internet, are also reaching bigger markets. Radio continues to hold one clear advantage: It's free.

Listeners now have numerous stations to choose from, whereas in the past the field was monopolized by the state-run All-India Radio network, whose mandate was -- and is -- to "inform, educate and entertain the masses." For decades after India's independence from Britain in 1947, All-India Radio was the only game in town.

Private FM stations were virtually unheard of. But that began to change in the 1990s, when the government embarked on broad-based economic reforms that have resulted in an economy now growing at a clip of 9% a year. In the last five years, broadcasters have bought nearly 300 licenses to operate FM stations in 100 cities, with most of that expansion happening within the last two years.

What they hope to capitalize on is the Indian love of music, which plays an integral part in people's lives, be it in their prayers, festivities, marriages or folk traditions. The overwhelming influence of Bollywood and its musical extravaganzas has also ensured that there is a background score playing in the daily lives of ordinary Indians.

"Radio has been a big part of all our lives for many years. However, with the advent of television, it had started becoming increasingly irrelevant," said Apurva Purohit, chief executive of Radiocity, India's pioneer FM station, started in 1999. "The arrival of FM with its unique delivery style, young and hip RJs [radio jockeys], better production quality and sound delivery has brought radio back to the forefront."

The fledgling industry is worth $68.5 million, Purohit and others say, a value they expect to double in the next two years. Its growth has been boosted by the increased listening of FM radio on people's mobile phones, which have exploded in popularity over the last few years (FM radio is currently available on some cellphones in the U.S.). There are now 69 million mobile phone users in India.

As in the U.S., young people are a key audience for radio broadcasters and the advertisers hungry for listeners' rupees; after all, more than half of India's huge population is younger than 25.

"I listen to FM radio on my mobile phone for at least two hours a day, especially at night," 19-year-old college student Maitreya Biswas said, adding that FM radio plays "the latest tracks, has amazing sound quality and the best part is [it's] free.... It speaks the language of the young -- guiding us, for instance, on movies to watch, happening events in town and ... providing us with a lot of local information."

Local stations in New Delhi now give updates on the city's horrendous traffic. Industry leaders such as Purohit are hoping that the government will relax regulations that currently prohibit news programs.

"Further easing of government regulations by allowing news and current affairs to be broadcast or multiple-frequency ownership in the same city by a single player will also aid growth," she said. "We believe that for the medium to expand, it needs a lot more experimentation, willingness to try new formats and play different types of music."

Almost all major broadcasters have lined up massive plans for expansion. Radiocity, which now broadcasts in five languages across seven cities -- at times in three languages from the same station -- plans to have its footprint in India's 20 largest cities. BIG 92.7 FM, another industry heavyweight, is also about to expand, with 45 stations to be added later this year, which will enable the network to reach more than 200 million listeners.

All-India Radio remains the industry champ: It can be heard by 99% of the population and broadcasts in 24 languages and 146 dialects.

But perhaps realizing radio's potential in the private sector, the government has slashed its previously high licensing fees in the last five years and set up a revenue-sharing agreement entitling it to 4% of each station's annual revenue.

In a country plagued by unemployment, the radio industry has also helped the government by throwing open new job prospects, especially for the young and educated.

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