| 15 Jul 2024
IRF 2018 Wrap-up: When the Global radio clan celebrated the vibrant medium amid the picturesque beauty of Malta

MALTA: The International Radio Festival aka IRF is one of the most eagerly awaited events of the radio fraternity across a number of countries. A brainchild of Swiss national and media expert Darryl von Daniken, the ninth edition of IRF Malta 2018 was no exception. Radio ecosystem professionals from across the world met at Fort St Elmo in Valletta, the capital city of Malta, which is a fulcrum of human cultures, a proposed gateway to the Mediterranean. The event was held between 31 October and 4 November 2018 to exchange ideas, thoughts, to entertain, learn and teach. Two days earlier, the local version of the IRF began on 29 October 2018 with shows by the local radio stations and the IRF anchor radio jocks (RJs) or disk jocks (DJs) or just simply radio presenters.

In a change from my regular reports about my previous visits to IRF at Zurich, I am going to make a report of the event while mixing it with my opinion. A change of venue, a change in time calls for a change in the reporting style. And of course, there is the ‘oh! so boring’ and ‘oh! so apt cliché’ – change is the only constant!

What can one say about Malta?

It is a small nation, a tiny speck of an island situated to the northeast of Tunisia and south of Italy. Small, but it is a country filled with a history of 7000 years and a population comprising of about 450,000 or so human beings, making it probably the most densely populated area in the Schengen. History dates back to World War II when Malta had 6,700 tons of bombs dropped on it by the Axis nations over a six week period, making it one of the most bombed regions in the world! The doughty Maltese survived the bombardment in air raid shelters, which still persist, even today, in many of the homes, as revealed by some locals revealed!

The nation consists of a number of islands that have undergone a clean-up drive around ten years ago. Malta’s its proximity to Rome as well as the Middle East, from which at least four major religions like Judaism, Persian, Christianity, and Islam were formed, has made it indeed a colourful destination.

However, it is now moving to become a global mix of modern people and modern cultures. “Malta has changed from being a resort destination to more of a leisure destination. We want to act as a gateway to the Mediterranean and be a place where people meet, feel at home, more as a cosmopolitan nation, becoming a cosmopolitan city,” said the Maltese Minister for Tourism Konrad Mizzi during his opening address at IRF 2018 Malta.

Mizzi has invited the global media and entertainment community, which included the television and digital content producers, to come to Malta for creating content. “Malta has amazing facilities. We have a film studio with the largest water tanks in the world where large movies have been filmed and amazing outdoor areas and 200 days of sunshine. This is the reason why films like Gladiator and Troy have been filmed here. More recently, we are also attracting Bollywood movies. Also, the tax incentives and cash rebate system incentivize productions to be done in Malta. We have a 26 percent cash rebate. As of next January, that cash rebate is going to increase to 40 percent which will make it the most competitive cash rebate for producers from around the world,” he revealed.

Events like IRF fit in perfectly with the nation’s plans, going by what Mizzi had said. And when it comes to the radio professionals at the festival, all were showering praise for the island nation. Almost singing a rap-paean is what one of the DJs’ did while being interviewed!

What about the fate of good old radio?

Once again, doomsayers spelt the death of traditional radio in this edition of IRF. Will radio as we know end? The jury is still out on that. But to most people, radio means a programme or a show in which a radio jock plays songs intertwined with advertisements and his/her or its own ‘jock-talk’. The mix could be skewed towards more of talk or music, or, if the station’s marketing department is good, more of ads, or, whatever combination of these three.

Agreeing that there is a lot of automation happening today with the global pervasiveness of broadband internet, radio listenership is not as most people know it. But most of the radio industry is in agreement about the loose definition of radio mentioned above. Irrespective of its method of delivery – MW, SW, FM, DAB, BAB+, Mondale, or just plain internet streaming, etc., radio is something that over four generations of humans have grown up with. My radio will not be a not, it will be just a bot if I don’t hear a human voice before and after the music that the RJ has selected to play for me and for other millions of listeners like me. My very personal and skewed opinion, without a radio presenter, radio is just not ‘radio’!

A digression – the IRF could come up with a new moniker – maybe International Audio Festival or IAF (no disrespect to the Indian Air Force here) if Darryl goes in for such a suggestion made at IRF Malta!

However, radio has been under-utilized and underestimated by media professionals. Also, the importance of the medium can be understood by the fact that in India, private radio stations still can’t do news because of radio’s humongous local impact. India has more than its fair share of television news channels, or ‘views channels’ as many critics say, but no private radio news channels. There were talks of allowing private players to play a few minutes of the news feed of government radio stations a few years ago, but nothing much has happened on that front.

Media professionals still haven’t understood properly the power that the familiar warm and friendly voice of the radio jockey has in brand endorsement in the very local environment that radio serves. They have to wake up to the fact that people feel ownership of their favourite radio jocks. If that voice, that well-known tone suggests that a particular product of a particular brand is good, well how many can ignore that message? I personally would be more inclined to buy a product that my favourite jock spoke about rather than a product, which a national or international sportsperson, actor, model or celebrity endorsed audio-visually on a screen. Radio is a medium, where the presenter conveys a message through only one human sense - sound, and that makes the job of the presenter even more difficult than a performer, performing on an audio-visual message. The presenter must convey the message and make the listeners believe and understand, without even pausing to consider the oft-quoted cliché – Seeing is Believing. With just the power of sound, the radio presenter engages the human mind and keeps it engaged for long periods of time.

Very few major creative advertisement agencies have good and separate creative teams solely for radio advertisement, despite the fact that is the oldest medium on ether and has been around for a century or so. Most of the creative work is done by a small inexperienced team from the agency that often dictates terms and content to the radio station or the radio jockey who is/are to deliver the brand communication and is/are probably better qualified than the agency team itself to create and deliver the brand communication. To address this lacuna, this shortcoming, this hole in the fabric to some extent, we at The Indian Television Dot Com Pvt Ltd group initiated a new set of awards along with the selection of the best radio jockey from the country to IRF Malta 2018. We picked the best radio advertisement creatives, the best deliverers of the ads among other categories this year.

What were the highlights of IRF 2018?

Well, besides Mizzi’s announcement of the hike in cash rebates for producers, it was the global radio presenters, who had their time in the global sun and ran their shows to a global audience of about 100 million listeners during IRF Malta 2018.

The Indian performance had always been one of the highlights, amongst the many, during each of the six editions of the IRF, when an Indian RJ has participated in. And this year’s presenter RJ Devaki, from Red FM Ahmedabad, took up the gauntlet to exceed the previous performances by her peers during the earlier editions of IRF. Right from the Gujarati-Rajasthani dresses that she and her producer Imran donned for her show, her playlist and her performance on air as well on the ground between announcing and playing songs from all across India, Devaki, or the ‘Queen of India’ as she chose to call herself during the show, had audiences spellbound!

Audiences and participants were enthralled when they heard about the diversity of India and Indian music, the uniqueness that the country offers, the Indian hospitality and much more!

How can one explain to someone who doesn’t understand huge numbers and the cultural mix that India is composed of? Astonished RJs’ from other countries could not comprehend that some radio jocks in India cater to almost 20 million listeners in their show, that some radio stations are so much in demand that they have just 28 minutes of music, which is mostly film songs, with 32 minutes of jock-talk and advertisements! India produces more than a 1,000 films a year in so many languages. Most of them are musicals. Assuming that each film has an average of five songs, at least 5,000 film songs are composed and made each year! Add to that the mixes and remixes and the music created by the so many bands that the nation has, the number of musical pieces created in the country each year is phenomenal!

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum are the stations that often have ad inventory abegging. They just don’t have enough advertisers!  I lay the blame for that on the ignorance of media planners, both clients and the advertisers and their lack of understanding of the most used medium in the world – Sound.   I also lay the blame on the radio stations themselves. Private radio is still very much in its infancy in India as even the BBC’s Indian partner hasn’t got its programming and identity after being for more than a decade in the field. It also can’t decide whether its stations will run local regional content, or Bollywood content, or International content! And of course, it is still a bottomless cash pit as far as its shareholders are concerned – the company that runs the stations in India has probably never turned a profit.

However, the good news is that BBC’s Indian partner is more of an exception rather than a rule. Big and experienced media groups have got the formula right in the bigger towns and cities. These groups often have the experience gained through their print, television and outdoor ventures, but some of their stations in small towns are still struggling to start contributing to company profits. Not only have the stations owned by big media groups reported profits, but some have also started doling out dividends to shareholders.

Now back onto IRF Malta 2018. “Are you still on FM?” was a query that I had often to respond to during IRF Malta 2018 in the affirmative. Yes, Indian radio is still FM and there will be another 300-400 FM radio station licenses on the offer during that phase of licensing when it happens.

IRF Malta 2018 Hospitality and arrangements

Besides, the planning and execution of the event was a sheer genius as we discovered with the unfolding of each day. Right from co-ordinating the inflow of around 150 radio guests, local as well as, well, as far away, say, from China? From their arrival, attending the event to their leave-taking, everything worked like the accurate clocks that Darryl’s home country is so renowned for making. And Darryl couldn’t find enough words to thank his wonderful daughter Daniela, who recently became a mother for the second time when he spoke so proudly about her fantastic handling of travel and hospitality for IRF 2018 Malta participants, staff and crew. He was also told about how she managed to juggle that function efficiently while looking after her four-month-old daughter at the same time!

Over time, Darryl has managed to attract and form a fantastic team of people that provide support as well as helps to arrange the show. Right from the wonderful team of anchor presenters, be it the effervescent Normski, or the pretty lass Gabby Sanderson or the so serious looking fun person Nik von Frankenberg, to the very beautiful Carly Wilford. And of course the photographers like the fantastic Tobias Stahel, who makes faces seem very much alive in his black and white images of the IRF participants, or the hard working, no time for a girlfriend young Alex Spinelli, well and so many more! And of course, the good news from the IRF front is that its tenth edition will happen in Malta in the fall of 2019!