Radio operators question the Government’s view that airing news on FM Radio has security implications, and ask why the medium does not enjoy the same level of content freedom as TV, Print and Digital
By SIMRAN SABHERWAL
The buoyancy following Phase III FM auctions in the Radio sector has given way to the realization that it is perhaps only an expansion of geographical presence and not necessarily broad-basing of Radio content. Prasar Bharati Chairman A Surya Prakash’s recent statement that allowing private FM stations to air news might have security implications adds to the concerns of a sector that already suffers from a lack of diversified content. While all Radio operators are vocal in their criticism of the Government’s stance, Prashant Panday, MD & CEO, Entertainment Network India Limited (ENIL), which operates Radio Mirchi, minces no words when he says, “Unfortunately for the PB Chairperson, the competition that private broadcasters would pose to his state monopoly is probably what he worries about. Private broadcasters must get to do news. Such a restriction – imposed only on private FM broadcasters – is illegal and immoral.”
AGE OF DIS-CONTENT
The second batch of Phase III FM Radio auctions recently concluded, with the sale of 66 frequencies from 48 cities (out of 266 frequencies across 92 towns), earning the Government approximately Rs 202 crore. While private FM has considerably expanded its geographical expanse, what hasn’t yet changed is its content, which remains predominately film songs - be it Bollywood or regional. While some FM channels have taken the retro/romantic route, the fact remains that compared to any other Radio market globally, Indian Radio suffers from lack of diversified content. In an effort to differentiate (given the limited frequency), the private FM fraternity, with the Association of Radio Operators for India (AROI), has for long been pushing the Government to allow FM players to broadcast news, but to no avail. What doesn’t help the radio operators’ efforts are multiple media reports that quote Surya Prakash as saying that allowing private FM stations to air news might have security implications. According to reports, he said the Government may allow private FM stations to air news, but has to keep in mind the security angle before giving the nod.
From a democracy point of view, the idea of allowing private FM channels to air news looks "very simple" and "must be done", according to Surya Prakash, but given the diversity and internal security concerns of India, which also has thousands of kilometres of borders, the move has a "lot of implications". Surya Prakash says that while private TV channels have been allowed to telecast news and current affairs programmes, Radio has a “different audience, different kind of reach and there are lots of issues about them”. This statement once again puts the spotlight on the grievances of FM Radio players, who have spent considerable time and effort lobbying with the Government to allow private Radio stations to air news. Most say Surya Prakash’s statement is “ridiculous” and a “complete disrespect to the Radio industry”, particularly since the national public radio broadcaster, All India Radio (AIR) - a division of Prasar Bharati - airs news.
STRONG ROOTS IN THE PARENT COMPANY
What makes the restriction of news on private FM channels irrational is that a majority of private FM channels are backed by large media houses with permission to report news in Print and Television. In addition, what cannot be ignored is the fact that we live in a digitally connected era with high mobile penetration and that Television has made significant inroads into rural areas, aided by DD Freedish and the rise of FTA channels, particularly in the news genre.
Prashant Panday of ENIL states, “Other license conditions on Radio broadcasters are as strict as they are on TV news broadcasters – for example, all Directors of Radio companies have to be whetted and cleared by the Home Ministry before they are given permission to join the Board. There are rules laid out by the Government on content which private FM broadcasters follow. There are penalties prescribed in cases of breaches. The Government has always said that it encourages plurality of views. If that’s so, then why not allow FM broadcasters the right to air news?”
Agreeing with Panday, Harrish Bhatia, CEO, MY FM, says, “I have always maintained that news should be allowed on private FM channels especially those channels with parent companies in the news business for four or five decades.” Bhatia also raises the question whether the Government believes that Indian FM players and their parent media companies lack sensitivity when it comes to news reportage.
AIR NEWS, BUT ONLY ALL INDIA RADIO NEWS
The other contentious issue is the Phase III regulation wherein private FM operators can play news but only AIR News and that too verbatim without any editing. The Government’s intent being to offer AIR News to operators at a sliding fixed tariff (on the basis of the channel’s popularity and location) which could range from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50 lakh a year. The Government has also indicated that it could look at relaxing this rule and allowing independent news bulletins based on the experience of FM players airing AIR news. This has failed to generate any interest among Radio operators.
Explaining the Government’s rationale and the FM player’s response, Nripendra Singh, Director, Business Advisory Services - Media & Entertainment, EY, says, “While the intent has been to generate revenue for the Government, FM players are not keen on playing and paying for the same AIR News as one another.” He continues, “FM players believe this results in content homogeneity and amplification of the same news source. This is particularly pertinent as many FM channels are part of larger organizations serving Print and TV News, and the credibility of these groups is tied into their independence and freedom of content.” Airing the stance of FM players, Panday says, “It’s so flawed even in concept. If we were to re-broadcast AIR’s news, then how would that help in generating plurality of views for the public? Coming from news organizations, why should so many of us accept news from another news organization? Many of us may find the quality of AIR’s news broadcasts to be poor. Why should we accept that? If AIR wants to publicize its point of view, they can do that by growing their listenership base. Or they can pay us to air snips of their news bulletins in the form of commercial ads. But this surreptitious way of making us play their news bulletins – and making us pay for it, by the way – is preposterous.” The payout to AIR would also mean a dip in profits. Bhatia says, “We are struggling for our own topline and then we are being asked to pay them tariff for something we have ready access to.”
Being part of a large media organization offers most FM operators access to news, an extensive network of reporters across the country and particularly in the case of regional players, news gathering capabilities in every taluka, block and panchayat, something which AIR cannot match up. On its part, AIR has 44 Regional News Units (RNUs) that put outs 355 daily news bulletins in 67 languages. Nisha Narayanan, COO, Red FM says, “There are more than 270 private FM stations operating in the country and this will grow with Phase III and Phase IV. News is information and all news is not political news. News is what is happening in that local town and that matters to a mass listener as Radio is a mass medium. AIR cannot really cater to the demands of the content of news that the private channels will need because they have much smaller news units.”
“There has to be a logical discussion. The Government should sit across the table with industry veterans and ask them to express their thoughts. When you say risk, what is the risk? Will the RJ speak something which the channel doesn’t approve of? We have responsible channels in the country, owned by very professional, reputed, large media companies. Why will they do something which is against their parent company policy?” Bhatia asks. Narayanan adds, “A certain democratic set-up is required for Radio. If strong regulations are put in place for news broadcast, any violation can be dealt with severe consequences. But not allowing news at all is not being fair.”
Currently, Radio can broadcast information classified as non-news items, these include sporting events, excluding live coverage, live commentaries of sporting events of local nature, information on traffic, weather, announcement on civic amenities and natural calamities. The level of content freedom allowed on TV, Print and Digital is currently not permitted on Radio, a medium anomalous in its editorial restrictions. Moreover, as many of these FM players already have existing TV or Print News arms, extending these offerings to Radio would be an easy way to provide consumers with more content and more choices. Says George Sebastian, Senior General Manager – Marketing, Mathrubhumi, who is also part of the governing body of AROI, “While the I&B Ministry wants FM to be locally relevant, we still only hear music. This is because of the many restrictions placed on the medium. Since the inception of FM, there have been impediments and red-tapism and that still continues.”
MONITORING RADIO: THE AROI STANCE
While the Government has raised concerns around security and ability to monitor news on Radio, EY’s Singh says the efforts required to monitor 300+ Radio stations are not substantially different to the monitoring of 800+ TV channels, 100,000+ registered publications and countless Digital portals. On its part, the AROI is prepared to form a code of conduct to be strictly followed by all members. Monica Nayyar Patnaik, Managing Director, Eastern Media Limited (Sambad Group) says, “If monitoring is a concern area, AROI has been telling the Government that the members will all form a code of conduct and guidelines to follow on what needs to be aired and what is not to be aired. We are taking responsibility and will set up guidelines and ensure we follow the guidelines.” The Radio operators’ emphasis is on having a broadcast code that will be self-regulated.
One proposal has been that operators maintain a record of all content broadcast for a stipulated time period, but this could add up to the Radio players’ cost. Sebastian states, “The Government stipulates that you must have a separate server where back-up of programmes are kept for monitoring purposes. If the Government wants to monitor, they are asking us to set up a server and people to facilitate that at the Radio operator’s cost. Then we have to pay the Government a monitoring fee. Why?” He continues, “These are all one-sided and highly autocratic ways of managing the Radio business and the Government is not yet open about providing content that is diverse and offers variety to the listener.”
Even the security question does not hold water for Radio operators. Narayanan says the solution around this is simple: “If security is a concern, don’t allow news in sensitive areas and border areas. Pick and choose cities – largely, the main cities which are not sensitive areas and allow news on Radio here. Do it as a trial, but at least be open to it. This closed door policy is non-democratic and the unfair treatment to Radio has to stop.”
REVENUES & NICHE PROGRAMMING
While opening up news on FM Radio will allow more diversified content and provide value to the consumer, it could also be an additional stream of revenue generation. However, for Radio operators, it’s not revenue but the need to be taken as a serious medium, as most don’t see news being a major revenue stream generator. Says Bhatia, “The common man who believes that private FM channels are all about music and entertainment will start taking Radio more seriously if news is allowed. However, it is not going to really affect much in terms of revenue.” Panday adds, “It’s not about revenues. It’s about keeping our listeners informed. And the Government knows this very well. When there are floods, or an unfortunate bomb blast, the Government itself turns to private broadcasters to spread the word of peace and calm across. How do we suddenly become good citizens then?”
For Patnaik, it is as much about differentiation in content as it is about monetization. She says, “A news channel will add on to the revenue stream. If we were to broadcast the highlights of the day, we can get a sponsor on board for that property and monetize it. There is an urgent need for this as every player is now a music station and with licenses going up, where else will you differentiate yourself? It has to be with niche programming or niche channels FM.” This is reiterated by Singh, who says, “The airing of news would allow for marginal revenue bumps for FM players. However, the greater impact will be on content diversification for the consumer and such content would help to serve as a differentiator for FM players. As this space matures over time, we may even see the emergence of alternative stations centred around talk, interviews and news.”
Abraham Thomas, CEO, Radio City 91.1 FM, sums it up when he says, “We are ready to welcome any move that benefits the industry and believe that developments like introduction of new formats, adding new listeners and new advertisers should work in everyone’s favour. It [news] is an opportunity to establish a stronger connect with listeners and advertisers.”
On a final note, if the motive of Radio players is to reach out to the maximum number of people in the country, allowing news and current affairs will change the dynamics of the medium completely and evangelize Radio. The value of Radio, especially during any calamity or disaster, cannot be discounted as this is probably the only medium that works without electricity, is easily accessible and doesn’t cost anything for consumers. However, it is also a highly regulated medium and less regulation will make it easier for Radio operators to do business so that more people can experience Radio and information can be disseminated through the medium, thus making Radio a true common man’s medium.