Enamoured of television, media-watchers in the 1940s and ’50s confidently prophesied the imminent death of radio. The medium, they said, couldn’t match the thrill of seeing moving pictures in the comfort of the living room. The advent of rock-and-roll, embodying the rebellion of an entire generation of youth against the conservatism of the preceding decades, left a bigger following for radio than before and proved the predictions of the doomsayers wrong.
In the decades since, radio has emerged as the ultimate survivor, adapting itself to the tastes of the newer generations of listeners and absorbing newer technologies. In the 1980s and ’90s, it saw off threats posed by personal video recorders and digital compact discs through a greater emphasis on listener-driven programmes. By the late ‘90s and early 2000s, radio stations were reinventing themselves to cater to niche audiences: There were stations dedicated to specific genres of content — talk radio, punk rock stations, even stations that played music by a single band 24 hours a day — anticipating the emergence of Spotify and iTunes by a decade or more.
Hence, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of radio’s death are greatly exaggerated. Broadcast AM/SW radio today reaches a staggering 99% of the Indian population. Rural India relies on it overwhelmingly for information. It also remains the most inexpensive and portable medium: A radio set can be purchased at ₹50, which makes it cheaper than a mobile phone or a television. Audio programmes easily surmount barriers linked to literacy — allowing even the unlettered to comprehend and absorb news and information. The cost of content production is lower than that incurred on producing visuals — typically one-fifth to one-tenth of the latter. This allows cheaper broadcasting in a bewildering variety of languages, dialects and creative forms.
The technology, having existed for more than 100 years, is not rocket science either. It is now, in fact, possible for even laypersons to design and manufacture broadcast transmitters and receivers. It is not without reason that radio has been the medium of choice for activists and people’s movements. Further, listening to the morning news on radio remains one of most widely reported habits across the globe. The accessibility of radio and the economy of the medium have led to a proliferation of local radio stations that can cater to niche populations in limited geographies.
As much as 65 per cent population of the country will soon be able to tune in to FM radio network, the Lok Sabha was informed. Maintaining that currently 52 per cent of the population can access FM radio network, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said that the government has taken a number of initiatives for expanding the FM radio network across the country. As of now, the FM radio network covers 52 per cent population and soon it will be expanded to 65 per cent population in the country, he said during Question Hour. The minister said in order to synergise efforts for multiple utilisation of resources and sharing of existing capacities and communication towers of the ministry of information and broadcasting and department of telecommunications, a committee of officers of both the ministries was formed in 2015 to ascertain technical feasibility and decide terms and conditions of infrastructure sharing. Presently, 57 All India Radio towers are shared with private FM broadcasters on rental basis. In addition, 37 Doordarshan towers are also shared with private FM broadcasters on rental basis.
Yes, radio is still relevant in India. Though it is easy to say that the world has gone digital, the radio is not dead. Even today, during calamities like the recent floods in Mumbai, the role radio played could hardly be overstated. A radio is something which you can carry around, requires neither data streaming nor Internet bandwidth, and is free of cost. But there are some obvious challenges ahead for the medium. Our ecosystem is changing fast and radio has stiff competition from the new media. One of the challenges it faces is that there is no proper measurement tool. When you are on a digital platform, you can measure the audience. There is no proper scientific parameter available to measure content on radio. A lot of assessments are still perception-led. That is one of the biggest drawbacks for the radio industry.
Amid an era of impossibly expensive TV and print advertisements, All India Radio (AIR) charges as little as Rs 400 for 10 seconds on its primary network. It comes with the advantage of having the largest reach of any broadcaster in the world. AIR is preparing to celebrate a rare milestone in its journey. Its Central Sales Unit (CSU), the nodal unit at Churchgate which books commercials for all AIR channels nationwide, will complete its golden jubilee October 1, 2018. All India Radio has 201 primary channels and local radio stations, 41 Vividh Bharati stations, 25 FM Rainbow and five FM Gold channels.
But why talk only about music? Isn’t the scope of the medium supposed to be broader? Unfortunately, gone are the days when our families would huddle around the transistor on the 26th of January and ‘listen’ to the Republic Day parade. No one would like to ‘listen’ to her favourite Netflix show. Radio (especially FM) has now been relegated in our country primarily to Bollywood music. Why? Because that’s the only content that is financially viable.
The only people who listen to radio are those who are commuting to work and those who don’t have a data-enabled phone. In every conceivable way, the utility of the Internet trumps that of the radio. With advances in voice recognition technology, the Internet will present itself as a far superior option even in scenarios and contexts where radio is currently useful, like getting traffic updates. An interesting story on this note — at 12.01 a.m. on August 1, 1981, when we witnessed the birth of the music video with the launch of MTV, the first song played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. Fast forward by three decades and into the next phase and we realise that the Internet has pretty much killed the 24-hour video music channel.
The radio is dying, if not dead yet. Radio networks should have innovated with their programming a long time ago. News is something they could have provided with a better policy in place. However, this has not been possible due to reluctance on the part of policymakers. In 2017, the government told the Supreme Court that it was against granting permission to radio stations to broadcast news programmes because of possible “security risks” involved.
No news broadcasting
Another area where radio falls behind is news broadcasting. There is so much happening around us on different subjects, all of which can make for good current affairs programmes. Unfortunately, news is not allowed and whatever is allowed is news from All India Radio, which most private radio stations do not broadcast as they have sister companies within their respective groups — operating through print or television — which specialise in news. Moreover, the fee charged by the Prasar Bharati Corporation is exorbitant. As a consequence, most of them end up playing the same music, which I think is detrimental to the medium because it is not looked upon as a serious one. If there is any information people need, radio is not the first port of call in our country. This restriction has hurt the medium in a big way.
Another point to be considered pertains to the licensing fee. The huge licensing fee acts as a deterrent. A single frequency for a single city, dished out for a 15-year period, can cost more than ₹100 crore in large metros. The initial few years are a bit of a struggle for any operator as there is a lot of clutter in the market. Very few operators are able to differentiate themselves in terms of content. As most radio stations are on the same bandwidth and targeting the same audience, the recovery of investment takes its own time. If the license fees were not so high, and we could encourage regional players, the market would grow. These factors have slowed the growth of radio. It does not come as a surprise that in the last 15 years, the radio market has grown only at a rate of 2-4%. Diversifying and creating different revenue streams is extremely critical. We can consider the example of the numerous radio stations — about 23 — based in Colombo. They include channels specialising in diverse genres — like news, devotional music and adult programmes.
The time has come for the government to reconsider its licensing model. The fee can be determined by the content being offered. There could be content aimed at children or women or sports and the fees can be worked out accordingly. This could also act as a check on the current auctioning process which has led to a lot of speculation. To give you an example, the top three radio operators take away as much as 70% of the revenue and survival becomes difficult for the rest.
Today, there are more than 180 community radio stations across India, broadcasting in languages like Bundelkhandi, Garhwali, Awadhi and Santhali — tongues that typically find little or no space on television. Radio has also been the last man standing in times of calamity and disaster. During situations like the 2004 tsunami, and the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, radio played a stellar role in conveying information on relief work, aid and recovery efforts when other mediums became inaccessible. Most importantly, radio personalises the experience of listeners, driving them to use their imagination while deciphering what’s unfolding. “TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains,” wrote the American author Margaret ‘Peggy’ Noonan. In an era that prioritises customised content, her lines provide the perfect summation of the immense flexibility and the continued relevance of the medium.
Innovations related to sports commentary, interactive game-shows, hyper-local news and events, presence of an incredible array of frequencies and a sound monetisation strategy are just some of the factors that could have delayed the inevitable (death of the radio) by a bit. If, somehow, radio programming was to rediscover itself, it will still probably have to use the Internet as its dissemination technology. In other words, even if people were to listen to what plays on the radio, they would be listening to it over the Internet. Hence, even if the ‘art of radio’ (read ‘audio’) survives, it won’t ‘really’ survive. What we are seeing is the final run of an ancient technology catering to an ageing generation of consumers. With each passing day, radio is losing its relevance to the youth of our country.