FM’s hour of glory

IN Community Media | 06/08/2005
FM radio rose to the Mumbai floods as no other media could. Will local relevance, FM`s strength, be the first casualty of the proposed FM expansion?

Sajan Venniyoor

"It was FM all the way as far as media was concerned," wrote Harini Calamur of Mumbai at the height of the floods in her city. "I really don¿t know anyone who watched too much TV. Around 70% of Mumbai barely had electricity. Most cable guys were down."

Harini, a TV producer and filmmaker, was responding to a posting by self-confessed ¿brain-dead techie¿ Sameer Gharat in his blog, The Opti-Mystic ( On 28 July, Sameer had written, "The cynics that the [TV] news channels are, all they could concentrate on was the failure of the administrative machinery. The worst of the lot was ¿Star News¿. It was constantly beaming stale pictures of waterlogged roads and announcing the crashing of Mumbai¿s ¿Shanghai¿ dreams. All it concentrated was the question, "Why?!" rather than asking themselves "How" they could help make an actual difference on the street level."

Star News, the Mumbai based TV news channel, reportedly had a team of 30 reporters and four OB vans deployed across the city, and claims to have done "far more justice to the havoc than any other channel." Much of this was probably wasted on Mumbaikars, as most of the city went without electricity and cable for days on end.

"The SMS services offered by these news channels are a mere farce!" wrote the Opti-Mystic. "With electricity and cell-phone networks down or erratic, tickers scrolling at the bottom of the TV screens are the last thing people stuck on the roads are going to refer to! These are merely ways to generate revenue since each SMS is charged at a premium rate rather than the usual Re.1 charge. At the same time, the FM channels served us well by disseminating essential and latest information (area-wise flood warnings, traffic situations, SOS calls from listeners, etc.) on a continuous basis. A tip of the hat to the FM channels and rotten eggs on the faces of the news channels!"

For all those who had sneered at commercial FM¿s "corporate-controlled, cookie-cutter, bland, mass-market garbage", the response of FM channels to the floods in Mumbai was an eye-opener. The Economic Times said, "FM radio proved its worth when everything else seemed to be drowning." ET recorded several instances of the impact of FM radio. "A Honda City driver stuck in the swirling traffic rang in to `Radio City` on Tuesday to give his location and car number to offer his car phone charger to those whose cell phone batteries had died out. Dozens of commuters listening in made their way to the Good Samaritan¿s car to bring their handsets back to life!" (¿Tuning in, to the people¿ - 29 July 2005).

The paper reported that most radio stations had suspended or reduced their music content to turn themselves into "information points, help-lines and morale boosters all rolled into one."

Of the four private FM channels in Mumbai (Radio Mirchi, Radio City, Red FM and Go FM), Go-92.5 was undoubtedly the channel of the moment. Says Bandana Mukhopadhyay, Mumbai resident and former AIR Director, "Go FM was the first off the mark, quickly changing its programmes to provide useful information to the public. The other channels soon followed, but Go FM did an absolutely superb job of giving local information." The ET report went on to say, "On Wednesday, when people were still stuck in the deluge, an RJ with FM station `Go 92.5`, cruised around the western suburbs, giving a running commentary on which roads and localities were still under water and how to avoid snarled junctions. Another RJ on the station kept reminding listeners in the cozy environs of their homes to help those in distress outside in the streets." (ET comes from the same stable that owns Radio Mirchi).
In December 2004, when the tsunami struck the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, radio played a similar role in the archipelago. "Battery-operated radio sets are possibly the only source of information and entertainment for the people in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands who are trying to get on with their lives after the tsunami disaster," reported Satarupa Bhattacharjya in The Pioneer (¿When radio kept them connected¿ - 7 Jan 2005). "Since electricity supply, disrupted by the killer waves, was restored only by Thursday [6 January] on the island chain, the affected people have not been able to watch TV for over a week." The same tale was repeated across the tsunami hit areas of the Indian Ocean, with thousands of portable radio sets being distributed in Banda Aceh (Indonesia), coastal Sri Lanka and the MalDIVes. (7 January 2005) reported how Commercial Radio Australia shipped 50,000 AM/FM radios and six transmitters to the affected areas. It was weeks before electricity supply was restored, and TV screens flickered back to life.

Consequences of deregulation

When disaster strikes, it is not often that corporate radio rises to the challenge. Radio monoliths and the demands of the bottom-line have destroyed much original and local programming on radio channels across the world. Why did Go 92.5 do a better job in Mumbai than the other channels? Surely it was not because Go had more money to throw around. (As far back as June 2003, after having suffered a reported loss of Rs.110 million in the preceding financial year, Go FM had threatened to close down and even issued a conditional notice to government). Perhaps it had something to do with the station¿s degree of local commitment.

Writing on the sweeping changes wrought by de-regulation of radio in the United States (¿Consumers Trampled As Telecom Industry Runs Amok¿, Coastal Post, 1 Aug 2005), Sandy Leon Vest, a radio journalist with public and community radio, says, "Study after study has documented that profit-driven media conglomerates are investing less in news and information and that local news in particular is failing to provide listeners and viewers with the information they need [.]" She writes that the "trend of corporate modeling has resulted in the near extinction of true community radio and the erosion of local programming, staff morale and political integrity. Corporate allegiance to the bottom line has forced local TV and radio stations, often owned and/or underwritten by non-local corporations, to produce less local public affairs programming and to hire less local staff."

Go FM is run by Mumbai¿s own afternoon paper, Mid-Day. Big corporate media houses run the other FM channels in Mumbai, with sister operations in several other cities. Red FM, from India Today¿s radio wing, runs stations in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Radio City has channels in four cities, and Radio Mirchi (from the Times of India¿s Entertainment Network) has 7 channels across India. Between them, the Big Three run 66% of all the private FM channels in the country. The ¿erosion of local programming¿ observed by Sandy Vest is inevitable on the channels run by these media conglomerates. The only private FM channel in Bangalore, Radio City, is a  ¿Bollywood¿ channel, broadcasting Hindi film hits in a south Indian city; and you¿ll have to listen long and hard to hear a Marathi programme on Radio Mirchi Pune.

In spite of the ban on news, and the resultant public hand-wringing and breast-beating by private broadcasters, there¿s plenty of news on private FM. Tune in to ¿City Scan¿ on Go 92.5 FM.  As the Go website ( says, the channel ¿gives you all the news you can use¿. "Chris [RJ Christina Fernandes] gives you a round up of events, sports and stocks through the day! Get the pulse of Mumbai city delivered to you hot off the press on the hour every hour!"

The fact is, all private FM channels across the country carry local news when it suits them. And the ban on hard (read ¿political¿) news, as Bandana Mukhopadhyay points out, may not be such a bad thing after all. "There¿s a fine line between news and information. ¿News¿, as a rule, is easy to do on radio, compared to broadcasting local information. ¿News¿ could quickly come to mean national and international news-feeds from Reuters and PTI, which is not what communities need."

Phase-II of FM licensing, notified recently, promises to put 336 channels in 90 cities. In this affordable revenue-share regime, it seems more than likely that Mid-Day, like the other players, will try to extend its network across the country, snapping up frequencies in many cities. (Mid-Day certainly has - or had - national ambitions. Mid-Day Multimedia Ltd. had won licenses in three cities during the first phase of FM licensing in 1999. Due to high license fees, they were unable to start their operations in Delhi and Chennai). It is too early to speculate on how this will affect their commitment to local programming or ¿allegiance to the bottom-line¿, but if the de-regulation of radio in the United States in 1996 is any indication, local relevance could be the first casualty of FM expansion.

Following de-regulation in the US, writes Sandy Vest, "a mere ten companies began to dominate two-thirds of the radio audience with two companies, Clear Channel Communications and Viacom (owner of Infinity Broadcasting), controlling 42 percent of listeners and 45 percent of radio industry revenues. Radio monoliths such as Clear Channel have driven out minority radio station owners and made it difficult for non-corporate artists to get airtime on commercial radio."

The most notorious example of the perils of excessive concentration of radio ownership comes from Minot, North Dakota, where Clear Channel owns six of eight commercial stations. During a chemical spill in January 2002, emergency workers were unable to reach a live person at any of the stations.

Clear Channel owns 1200 of the 10,600 commercial radio stations in the US. In 2002, the Future of Music Coalition had noted how "all radio markets are dominated by four radio companies controlling at least 70 percent of the radio audience - with concentration even greater in smaller markets." Even with just 21 private FM channels in India at present, the situation is depressingly familiar; it is likely to get worse with 336 channels in 90 cities.

Barbara Skerath, former Director of Deutsche Welle Radio Training Centre and long-time observer of Indian media says, "330 channels to be licensed in 90 cities - to me, that sounds more like mass instead of class. As far as I know, private radios in India have been limited to - or have limited themselves to - mere entertainment, glamour gossip and music. So what¿s the difference between one or ten or 330 stations which all offer Hindi Pop or film music? If you have heard one channel, you have heard them all." 

As Harini Calamur writes in her blog (¿Radio Go Go¿,, "FM radio is a local medium. Serving a local population. […] Unfortunately, the localisation of content and advertising on radio is still a long way away. All channels are me-too clones. With RJ¿s who speak as though they picked up an accent while passing by the airport. With music that is much the same."

Skerath points out, "In an environment where the media are money driven, any nonsense will go on air as long as it catches more attention than the other competitors. We have seen such a situation in Berlin where five or six private [radio] stations were competing for ratings and commercials. Programmes soon gave way to all kinds of absurd, shocking or obscene games and talk shows just to gain - albeit short-lived - attention. For example, listeners were told to demolish their bathrooms while on air and the one who did it most effectively or most dramatically gained a ticket to some holiday destination. Hundreds ended up with destroyed bathrooms and nothing in return…"

Radio in India hasn¿t plumbed those depths yet. But the 336 new channels (which will more than double the number of public and private radio stations we have in India at present) are dramatically going to change the radio landscape in the country - though not necessarily for the better. As Brecht said in the very early days of radio broadcasting, and as the Mumbai floods have proved now, "Radio could be the most wonderful public communication system imaginable, a gigantic system of channels - could be, that is, if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of making listeners hear but also speak, not of isolating them but of connecting them."



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