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Interview: Nisha Narayanan, COO, 93.5 RED FM

We are provocative entertainers. We are not here to do social service…The beauty of FM is that it is extremely local in nature”

Sohini Sen | Delhi | August 1, 2014

Nisha Narayanan Nisha Narayanan

Nisha Narayanan is a prominent figure in the radio industry, having dabbled in both public and private radio networks in various capacities. BestMediaInfo.com recently caught up with the warm and quintessentially ‘radio woman’. During the conversation, she talked about the lessons imbibed during her AIR days, her days as a consultant helping set up FM stations, her expectations from FM Phase 3, the importance of identifying the pulse of a market and more. Excerpts:

You started your career with AIR. What was the challenge when you shifted to the private radio station?

The dynamics was different when I started out in radio. There was no private radio as such in those days, and though AIR’s FM channels were breaking new ground, they still carried the burden of State Radio, of public service broadcasting. I won't say there was a radical change when private radio came along – the medium is the same – but the dynamics are different, the approach is different.

Private FM is probably better organized and more focused than public service broadcasting. That is the one big difference that I can see.

Even with commercial radio, we started off with one private radio player, and we learned and evolved as we went along. To start with, we had foreign experts to train us, but I think this was a mistake. For radio, which is a very local medium, maybe it works better when we learn from our own experts, who are more clued into the local ethos, who are aware of the culture of the region and its social realities. But yes, we did learn a lot from international experiences. It has been a fun, learning experience.

And do you feel your experience in the Government run AIR helped you when you took over this role?

I think you become a little more sensitive to issues. You understand their context, where they come from. And it's more than what you do here and now; private FM has just entered its teens – it’s 13 years old this year – but All India Radio is an institution which has been around for some 90 years. The young have energy, but with age comes maturity.

While it may run in a particular, often conservative manner, AIR is sensitive to certain things, and we who worked there got sensitized to social and cultural realities ourselves. So, I think a lot of these learnings from the public broadcaster came in handy when I was setting up private radio stations across the country.

The public service broadcaster is not commercially driven, and it has a certain sense of social responsibility which rubbed off on a number of young broadcasters – who are not so young now! – who cut their teeth in AIR. There are values that we imbibed which I think are relevant even today, in commercial radio.

You were involved in the initial days of setting up radio stations in places like Orissa etc. Can you share your experiences?

When we set up radio stations across the country, it is not a cookie-cutter project. It's not like you set up an FM station in Kolkata and replicate the same model in Bhubaneshwar, Aizawl, and Shillong. The spirit of place is something you need to capture; the local ethos, culture, traits and attitudes. We work in small teams, and it’s fun, it’s instructive and inspiring. You arrive in a relatively unknown place and you don’t go there as a tourist. You try to get a feel of the place; you do your research and talk to local experts. You learn to appreciate local tastes in music, you learn about the local music industry, the theatre scene, their movies, local culture and so on. And then we short-list people who understand radio or are willing to learn. Very often, in certain markets, all they have ever heard is All India Radio. When we arrive to set up a 24x7 music channel, people are mystified and they wonder what they are supposed to do.

The beauty of FM radio is that it is local, sometimes hyper-local in nature. And because it is local, Delhi is not the same as Mumbai; Jaipur doesn’t sound like Jodhpur. We try not to repeat programming across markets. Some shows – like a Top 10 countdown – get aired across stations, but what we really push for is a lot of local content. Like the breakfast show which we have in various markets, but with different RJs, different topics, different music, different sparklers (like Mawaali Bhai in Mumbai).

How do you make sure that the content is different? 

We like to think each show on Red FM has a personality of its own. We are format driven; we are not really a ‘block programming’ sort of radio. Our motto is 'Bajatey Raho'. The way Mumbai plays on is not quite the way Delhi plays on, or the way Allahabad does, though there are commonalities. We are provocative entertainers. We are not activists; we are in the entertainment business, but we are entertainers with a conscience. We don’t do social service, but we are socially aware and, unlike some other networks, we focus a lot on our local markets. We pick up a lot of local issues. Our campaigns are issue driven, be it 'Jasoos' or 'Malishka ko bataun kya'.

You also hold strong views about news broadcast by private FM players. Could you elaborate on that?

Radio is a popular medium, an affordable medium, an Everyman’s medium. Curiously, as the Law Commission pointed out recently, India is the only known democracy in the world where news on the radio is still a monopoly of the government. The I&B minister has said in Parliament that private FM will only be allowed to re-broadcast AIR news.

Frankly, I am not in favour of turning private FM radio into relay stations for AIR news.

I could argue that AIR has limited coverage of local news, and that their focus is mostly on state, national and international news which doesn’t really touch the lives of local people. In Phase-III, hundreds of FM stations will come up in small towns which are never covered by AIR news. How can we possibly keep local citizens informed if we can’t generate our own news? Please remember that most FM networks are part of responsible media houses with decades of experience in news reporting on print and TV.

But my primary argument against the ban on news, or limiting it to AIR news, goes beyond local needs and local preferences, or the rights of media houses. It’s about free speech. The people have a constitutional right – a human right, if you will – to news, views and opinions. With reasonable restrictions, they have a right to all news and information, and a right to express their own views and opinions. It’s a Constitutional right; it cannot be taken away by a Cabinet decision.

Anyway, the matter is sub-judice, and I’m sure the Supreme Court, which took away the government’s monopoly of radio and TV through its momentous ‘airwaves judgment’ in 1995, will also take away the government’s unconstitutional monopoly of news.

What is your expectation from Phase 3?

Primarily, Phase II players need an extension to run their channels, because our licenses come to an end in March 2015. It's great to have Phase III, it's great to have new players in the industry, but existing players who have created this industry in the last 10-15 years also need to survive, to make their business plans and figure out their future in the sector. And therefore, in the transition from Phase-II to Phase-III, their licenses need to be extended as well.

I’m glad to see that over 500 licenses in Phase III are for small cities and towns, which will give a fillip to local radio and local content. Ideally, we should take private radio to rural areas as well, but this is a good start.

When do you think radio as a whole became profitable?

Unfortunately, some players have still not broken even. Many of them are still bleeding, because of issues like licensing, royalty etc. For example, on cable & satellite TV, if a song is played once across India, the royalty is also paid only once. On a radio network like ours, if we play the same song in fifty different markets, we end up paying royalty fifty times! That’s a huge amount of money.

Many smaller players have sold off or shut down because of this. Since we are a large group, we enjoy economies of scale. I'm not saying all our markets are profitable, but our metro markets make up for the non-metros, which are not doing too well.

Recently, you increased the FCT by 10%. Why?

It's a demand and supply equation, really.

Despite being a mass medium, why is that big-ticket advertisers tend to spend too little on radio?

I would disagree with you on that. I think they do. If they want to reach out to a larger audience, a certain kind of audience, they do choose radio. Yet, radio probably takes a smaller slice of the advertising pie. But you must remember that we are no longer competing with just television or print. FM radio is challenged by newer technologies and the internet.

Two, many new categories of advertisers are trying out radio, and are extremely happy with it. It’s a nimbler medium, and there is a lot more innovation that you can do. It is response driven, it’s immediate, and that’s a power we are using effectively. With Phase III coming up, I see the advertising pie also growing.

How do you think digitization would affect you?

That depends on what you mean by “digitization”. If you mean the switch-over to digital broadcasting, we are in the dark as to when this will happen. We were told analog radio will give way to digital by 2017, but if the government is working on it, it’s a closely guarded secret.

It is one thing to replace analog transmitters with digital ones, but what about receivers? The state broadcaster experimented with DAB in the 1990s, and now they are investing heavily in Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), but where are the affordable receivers? FM receivers are embedded in most feature phones and smart phones. In any case, you can buy a fairly good FM receiver for a dollar or two, but a digital receiver costs a hundred dollars or more.

The internet, on the other hand, is a digital space that is definitely growing in India. And we need to keep pace with it. Red FM is extending its presence in the digital medium. The Net is unregulated and it is growing and innovating at a much faster pace than broadcast radio. Having said that, we believe in offering good and engaging content regardless of the medium, and digital or analog, we will be there.

Tell me a bit more about Red Digital?

Red Digital is everything from mobile applications, to YouTube, to social media – these are all arms of Red FM that we are strengthening, which come under our digital wing. These are not just marketing tools for us. We have several wings – Red Active, Red Live, Red Digital and Red Mobile.

You have not been afraid of bringing about drastic change, like making Bangalore and Calcutta stations completely Hindi, with new RJs and new programming, etc. How has it worked out?

It has worked out very well, I must say. In Kolkata, we were 100% Bengali, and in Bangalore we were 100% Kannada. We switched both channels completely to Hindi. I think the change was extremely positive. I mean, our listenership share grew, our ad revenue grew, our popularity grew. Our language policy is not carved in stone: market preferences are dynamic and fluid, and we made the change after a lot of research and discussion.

How important are off-air engagement initiatives for you?

It’s extremely important for Red FM. Because today we are not just a radio channel, we are a brand. As a brand, we need to do a lot of things that attract attention. Unfortunately, only our metro events get talked about. But across the network, in every market, we are doing off-air activities and engaging with our public in interesting ways.

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