What makes a good FM radio station? What brings it stickiness? I guess there should be a spirit of irreverence about the place and what one hears on the airwaves. Actually this spirit of irreverence is a must in the media business, for if you don’t believe in what you do and enjoy what you do, then it is a no-brainer. If you treat FM radio or any other media business like a chore, then that is the beginning of the end. More importantly, if you intellectualise content in media, then again you will end up on skid row. FM radio has to establish connect with the mind space of the listener. It has to have spark, for it has go beyond the apparent playing of music on the station. There has to be an identity, an individualistic identity that sets you apart from the rest of the clutter. It could be something as simple as Sharmaji or Dr Hunny Balkar on Red FM.
Red FM 93.5 in the Rajdhani provides the jagged edge of irreverence, individualistic identity and sense of belonging to the Dilliwalla. I’ve lived and worked in Mumbai for many years after growing up in Delhi. The Delhi that I left behind in 1980 has changed completely, it has metamorphosed from a Punjabi dominant society to a megalopolis with a more cosmopolitan hue. The reason that BJP’s Madan Lal Khurana lost out in the electoral whirligig is because of this same reason. Delhi has moved on from Karol Bagh, Lajpat Nagar, Punjabi Bagh, and Rajouri Garden to a more well-rounded representation of the new India. The bureaucracy brought in many different people, as did the influx of MNCs in to the National Capital Region.
So, one has to understand the import of this game changer and cater to the needs of the new Delhi. I like what I hear on 93.5, not just for Nitin’s irreverence, or Abhay or Swati on DL 935 or Sachin in the afternoons. In fact, I don’t mind Swati and Abhay’s bak bak. Nor do I dislike Rocky and Smriti. Or Garima on SMS countdown at night. The rest of the competitive set has tried hard to ape. Imitation is the best form of flattery is an adage as old as the Aravali Hills. Big FM is a straggler, it tries hard to ape, but fails abysmally. They even brought in a Nitin as a RJ just to confuse the listeners. They got one of those ‘Comedy Circus’ comedians to clone Sharmaji, but it resulted in nada, zilch, cipher. But that did not work, just as poaching Saurabh and Anant did not. Simply because originality pays and imitation does not. Saurabh and Anant were RJs on a rival station, they were turned into PH – programming heads – by Big FM. Result was as flat as a Coke bottle uncorked in a hurry.
The underlying ethos of a city, its denizens, its moods, its problems, its thoughts, its aspirations, its hopes, its joys, its despondency and its moments of exultation has to be captured by a radio station. Somewhere, I find that best embodied by Red FM, which, even though it was sold by Living Media to a NDTV-Astro-Value Labs consortium, has retained its character and pizzazz. I used to listen to Radio Mirchi earlier because it had attitude and spunk, but gradually one saw an erosion in its identity and they lost me as a listener. Although I still think their Saturday Night remix non-stop is the best.
Which brings me to innovation versus predictability. It will never work. Me-too will not pass muster. Why should I listen to a concept or a format which is already available on a rival station. 95 FM runs because it provides music, unadulterated and non-stop, both English and Hindi. The job of the management is to bring a perspective to the station, a direction, and as I said before, provide a sense of touch and feel. It has to embrace the city’s underbelly and culture, even as it dishes out music for one and all. Red FM plays first rate music, though it must be said that ever since Big FM moved to the chartbuster platform, the quality of music has improved drastically. But FM stations are not just about the music, because the music that one hears in the clutter is more or less the same. It is how the music is presented which is critical.
The biggest travesty is that me-too programming will not and cannot act as an enabler. Poaching, too, will not help, for the same RJ on a different station loses his or her appeal completely. It is astounding how that has happened regularly in the Capital. And I don’t go by the RAM numbers, I go by what I hear. That, at the end of the day, is the clincher. Fever 104 has a lot of RJs with faux accents, Radio One has some flair during some shows, as does Mirchi, but the winner is 93.5. While I may not agree with the vacuous Sochalaya on the station, and I don’t know why Purani Jeans was discontinued, for sheer bling value, it is still Bajate Raho for me.
Listener fatigue is commonplace and there are times when I switch to Big FM on my car console. But only for the music, the moment the jabber starts, I am out of there and back to Red or Radio One. Nitin’s Morning No One has acquired cult status in Delhi and despite many lucrative offers, Nitin refuses to move, which is a good sign and a display of his commitment. Nitin got it in the neck when he over-extended himself with Prashant Tamang, which led to rioting and arson in Darjeeling, but as a rule, he is as safe as a house for someone who is doing a morning show flat out day after day. I used to like Mantra’s voice, wonder where he is now. Saw him pop up on a music telly channel the other day.
Some of these stations are actually breaking even this year, which is a good sign for the industry. For marketers, radio provides an honest to goodness cost effective medium with pretty good penetration in large cities and even smaller towns. The fact that Red FM constantly sweeps the radio awards sweepstakes is a testament to its creative juices. And validation that they doing something right. After all, Big FM is busy copying it. Music as they say can only take me to the water, it is the spirit and essence of a station which makes me drink it.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)