Radio Ga Ga
It's time to tune in as private radio stations take over the airwaves with a never before mix of programmes, says Yashodeep Sengupta
RJ Radhica at the Friends FM studio
It's 6.59am on a windy weekday in Calcutta. Inside a cosy studio on Park Street, RJ Radhica takes a last swig of coffee and gears up for her show, Gaaner Dosh Kahon, on Friends FM. As the clock strikes, she hits a breezy tone and kickstarts one of Calcutta's most popular morning radio shows. Its strongest claim to fame — an hour-long tarot card reading session during which listeners call in for hints on what the future holds for them. "This is the most loved segment of the show. In fact, it is one-of-its-kind in the city," says Radhica.
In the dim and dusty past, radio was all about All India Radio, All India Radio and, yes, you guessed it — All India Radio. Then came a glacially slow opening up of radio to private players. Perhaps you lost patience during that era and stopped listening. But if you tune in today, you'll find that radio is finally offering a mix that's worth catching up with. There are edge-of-the-seat dramas, comedy shows and even tarot reading sessions. And, you could also tune in to stations that are present on the web.
(From top) Fever FM's audio play Bal Gopal; Amitabh Bachchan at a Radio City studio; BIG FM's rural issues show, Mere Desh Ki Dharti; IMAGING: KRISHNENDU SAMUI
The result is very different from anything India has ever known before. So, if you switch on the popular BIG FM, you'd catch about seven hours of 'low music' programming daily. Friends FM too has about five hours of shows with no music or small amounts of music.
"Music content has reached a saturation point on FM stations. Listeners are on the lookout for something out-of-the-box," says Jaideep Banerjee, general manager, programming and brand, Friends FM.
Already there are high-rating shows that are steadily pulling in both audiences and advertisers. In Calcutta, Gaaner Dosh Kahon is one of the big winners and there are others like Friends FM's Aloukik Robbar and Dil Se on Red FM.
Karisma Kapoor (left) made a splash as an RJ on BIG FM's Big Memsaab where she offers listeners beauty tips
At a national level, there's Radio City's Sangeet Ke Sitaron Ki Mehfil with Ameen Sayani, where the radio veteran narrates stories of his encounters with celebrated Indian directors and music directors. "Listeners tune in just to listen to Sayani, considered to be the doyen of Indian radio," says Apurva Purohit, CEO, Radio City.
For entertainment of a different sort, there's BIG FM's Yaadon Ka Idiot Box with Neelesh Misra (YIB) — which airs tales unfolding in the fictional city of Yaad Sheher on Prime Time. It's a winner all the way — late last year it racked up more than 2.6 million listeners in Delhi and Mumbai. YIB's YouTube page has notched up nine lakh hits. And coming up this year are audio CDs and books based on the show.
Mythological tales were always popular on TV and now it's the same story on radio as well. So, last year, listeners tuned in in big numbers to Fever FM's Bal Gopal, an audio play on the childhood of Lord Krishna. Similarly, Fever's Ramayana was a huge hit — it was narrated by veteran actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Anupam Kher.
"Listeners set aside all their work and tune in at a particular time to listen to these programmes," says Harshad Jain, business head, radio and entertainment, HT Media Ltd. Fever is gearing up to launch a slew of new plays this year. Adds Purohit: "Such shows create a niche for themselves as the thrust is more on talk than music."
In Calcutta, shows hosted by radio personality and singer Srabanti Majumdar and music maestro Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty on Friends FM have high ratings too.
The launch of the soundtrack of Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola was broadcast live with the film's stars, Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma, on Radio Mirchi; (below) FM stations are also launching niche online channels aimed at different kinds of listeners
The fact is that radio stations have discovered the virtues of going local. So, in Calcutta, most stations have 70 per cent to 80 per cent of their programming in Bengali.
Radio producers and managers are attempting to give listeners programmes with a difference. So, there's the eerie audio adaptation — with creaking doors and howling winds — of your favourite ghost story in Bengali on Aloukik Robbar on Friends FM.
For more down to earth types, there's the morning show Mere Desh Ki Dharti on BIG FM, which focuses on farming solutions and is a hit in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. And, Radio City's late night Agony Aunt show, Love Guru, is also very popular.
Radio stations are also taking full advantage of modern communications. Last year, Radio Mirchi and BIG had their RJs interacting with Pakistani RJs to discuss music from both sides of the border.
And then there are live shows in the city itself — be it from Puja pandals or a city college where the cast of Barfi came calling. "We broadcast more than 500 live updates a month from various events in Calcutta," says Jimmy Tangree, station head, Red FM Calcutta. Red FM also puts people in touch with their friends living abroad, which is broadcast live. Radio Mirchi, on the other hand, airs Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai, which is recorded live from a moving bus in Mumbai.
All the radio chiefs concur that the ratings of these shows are higher than most music-based shows. "Friends FM's listenership has escalated due to these shows," says Banerjee.
And as audiences have risen so have the advertisements. "Popular innovative shows attract a lot of advertisements," says Gopinath Menon, CEO, Melon-Media, a media specialist agency.
As radio racks up ever bigger numbers it is turning to Bollywood for star support. So, whether it is an A-league star making a debut as an RJ or big screen celebrities coming as guests on radio shows, Bollywood is grabbing time on air.
One of the first to make her presence felt has been actress Karisma Kapoor, who recently made a splash as an RJ on BIG FM's Big Memsaab where she gives beauty and style tips. "Radio is the perfect medium for me to be closer to my fans than ever before," she says.
And actors Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan, too, recently came to the studios of Radio City and BIG FM, respectively, to participate as guests on radio shows.
What's more, the launch of the music of the film Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola on Radio Mirchi was broadcast live with its lead actors. "Ratings of a show automatically soar if you feature a celebrity in it," says Tapas Sen, chief programming officer, Radio Mirchi.
Outdoor events like music concerts help FM stations reach out to larger audiences
All this is a giant change from the early days of private radio in India. High license fees and whopping losses forced radio stations to run shoestring operations with a handful of DJs and nonstop music.
That has begun to change in the last few years. Says Manav Dhanda, network programming head, BIG FM: "Most of the FM stations saw a gradual rise in profit after the second round of licensing around 2005." Radio Mirchi, for instance, raked in Rs 93.5 crore in the last quarter of 2012. "Ads have increased and so has manpower," says Banerjee.
And, as their popularity grows, the radio stations are attempting to cash in quickly with off-air events that are good revenue earners and also add to the stations' reputations by linking them to charitable causes.
BIG FM recently conducted the BIG FM Total Quartz Safety Run in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi in order to raise awareness on safe driving. Friends FM's Haal Chherona Bondhu Awards recognise individuals who have served society despite physical or other disabilities. "Such initiatives create a strong image of the FM station in the minds of listeners," says Dhanda.
Some FM stations have also created specialised wings to organise mass events. Fever FM's live entertainment wing, Fever Entertainment, set up a 70ft high Christmas tree in a Delhi mall this Christmas that was a huge draw for kids. Radio City Connect too will be conducting the first Freedom Radio Awards this year.
At an entirely different level, there's Internet radio, which offers niche stations. On Radiomirchi.com, music lovers can take their pick from three channels — Purani Jeans offers retro Hindi music, Club Mirchi airs dance numbers and Meethi Mirchi plays romantic Bollywood tunes. Or, if you want to listen to devotional music, tune in to Radio City Smaran.
"Having stations online means cutting through geographical boundaries. People from over 60 countries listen to our web stations," says Purohit.
Other digital platforms are also being tapped into. While Radio One and Radio City launched their mobile phone apps last year, Mirchi and Fever have services which allow you to dial a number from your mobile phone and listen to their shows.
The big event in coming months for radio will be the Phase III licensing. It is expected that FM radio will spread to many more cities. "From the current reach of FM stations to 90 odd cities in India, the count will go up to almost 300," predicts Purohit.
The FM stations are also hoping that the government will relax its rules and allow the broadcasting of news. "News could be the next big thing on FM," says Dhanda.
Will it be a radio drama with a happy ending? One way or another, it's very clearly, time to tune in!