| 21 Feb 2024
Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gloom - Rajesh Tahil

Figure this scene. It's a bit like an old Seinfeld episode. You go to a party; it's the end of the year or beginning of the new one (depending on when you are reading this). Someone asks �it's the end of another year – how do you think it was for radio?' The response is a bit like Kramer's, �it wasn't a bad year, pauses, but it wasn't a great one either'. FM radio stands at the intersection of reality and possibility and we attempt to understand how that unfolded in 2008.

Reality is that FM radio now is in more cities, more towns, reaching a larger number of people than ever before. This growth is not just because of many more stations but also because of continued audience growth within markets; taking reach levels to 70%+ in many of them. All of this I believe, is because of 2 reasons; investments in infrastructure by the private players and a willingness to listen to the local market in order to get the content right (at this point it is mandatory to thank the I&B ministry for their �visionary policy and speedy implementation of phase 2' as an added success factor, but I don't work in radio anymore)

While probably no one sees FM radio quite the same way as modernization of airports or building of metros, we must remember that someone needs to build the roads for the cars to run on. This is where private FM players have invested serious amounts of time, money, talent and management bandwidth to build the studio and transmission infrastructure from the smallest of towns to the largest of metros to create a multiple city, multiple station system that has become the backbone of our �better late than never' radio revolution.

And this is one of the reasons that I think the economic slowdown is bad for the medium at this adolescent stage. Operators are less likely to roll-out further stations, at least independent ones and look for more networking possibilities. It is likely that even some of the larger players in the big, bigger, biggest game are less likely to push for phase III which would create more FM stations in a larger number of cities. Though a classic chicken and egg dilemma, it is impossible to realize the full revenue potential of the medium until achieving its full reach. Rather than treating FM licensing as the golden goose, the government should look at putting some of that money back, through private FM, to create a stimulus for the growth of the medium.

The other major factor is the medium's successful growth is that the players have got the content right. Even large, established players who are successful in other cities have been willing to change their programming strategy to listen to the market. Looking at the Bangalore example; at one stage there was a perception that Kannada was a no-no, this is now primarily a Kannada driven market. At the risk of sloganeering, if you want people to listen to you, you've got to listen to them first.

And this is where bad news no. 2 lies, in the panic that the slowdown seems to have caused; investment in better, richer and more varied programming is likely to be a casualty. There is likely to be a greater tendency to have more back2back music and link-song-link formats (or a much lower chance of moving away from it). More investment in better programming will increase engagement levels with the medium and not just with listeners but with the other constituency who all media managers say salaam to; advertises and media buyers.

If there is a resolution for 2009, it is to move from the crossroads that radio is at in the direction of new possibilities, in order to realize the full potential of this great medium.

Rajesh Tahil is an ex-radio professional and now Founder/Director of Hill Road Media, a content outsource and custom publishing company.