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Nishchint Chawla

COO | 22 May 2003

“We need new formats for the listeners in terms of news, sports, talk, genres of music etc. Right now we’re just focusing on general entertainment.”

Nishchint Chawla, COO of Red FM is one of the many professionals who have made a transition from TV to radio with the emergence of private radio FM in the country. He has been with Radio Today, part of India Today Group, since February last year. Prior to that, he was with Radio Mid-Day right from the day they launched. He has been with media since 1992, starting with Star and then moving on to MEN (Modi Entertainment Network) handling more of cable length and distribution. A firm believer in listener’s choice, Chawla in a chat with Akshay Bhatnagar and Jasmeen Dugal of exchange4media, shares his views on the current trends in the Indian radio industry besides talking about the issues concerning the private radio FM stations.

Q. To begin with, how has been your experience in switching over from TV to the radio media?

It’s good fun. It’s more good fun because the cable industry has not changed at all. It’s the same old cable operators, who are still there. In my view, there was no growth happening in the cable industry. I’ve always looked at areas, which have start-ups, which have challenges. The addition is that in the cable industry, it was more focused on sales, distribution and marketing; now, there is more interaction in terms of marketing and programming.

Q. The private radio FM operators have been lobbying with the Ministry of I&B for changes in industry regulations. What are your views on this?

I don’t know what process the ministry is going through, but yes we have done some representations. My personal opinion is very simple: the industry has to grow. And for the industry to grow, all of us as content providers, regulators and listeners, have to be proactive; the need of hour is proactivity. The listener has to have more choice. There have to be more channels, which obviously have to be economically viable. Obviously, I cannot make suggestions on how to reach that solution; there are various ways to do that and that is the regulator’s domain. But we do need more channels, both in existing cities and in new cities. There’s got to be more options available in terms of formatting. We need new formats for the listeners in terms of news, sports, talk, genres of music etc. Right now we’re just focusing on general entertainment.

Q. The private FM radio industry has been pushing for revenue sharing also. What do you say on this?

Revenue sharing is possibly one of the models. There can be other models. Also, you have to see things from the point of view of the listener. What does he want? It is only after you realize what the listener wants, that you can start thinking on how to make radio stations viable to deliver that format, and what is required to achieve that end. So you have to move backwards from the listener’s point of view.

Q. Ok. The operators have been saying that the license fee is very high and it is not viable for them to survive. If that is the case why such terms were accepted in the first place? Does it not mean that your calculations have gone wrong?

Yes, but the point is, there were lot of people who aren’t there now; and they were equally responsible for this. So we are sort of carrying the cross on this thing now. But our commitments from the India Today Group were simple. We committed ourselves to three stations and we launched three stations. We haven’t dropped any stations and we haven’t asked for more. We were absolutely clear what we wanted to go for and we stuck to that. Now I can’t comment on behalf of those who are not there right now; why did they come in and why did they leave. That is something you’ll have to check with them. But the net result is that there is a high license fee structure.

Q. So what solution do you suggest now?

Well, as I said earlier. We have to look at it that the industry is moving forward. There have to be many more radio licenses that should be given, both in the existing and in the new cities. So the govt. basically has to look at it in terms of what it can do to achieve this end. It has to keep the growth of the industry and the listener in mind. Automatically the viable, economical models will fall into place.

Q. The music companies are complaining that with the radio stations playing the full version of the latest songs, their sales have gone down. What do you say on this?

I’m not privy to the information they have on whether their sales have dropped or not dropped. Worldwide, sales do not drop (due to radio stations).

Q. But VJ Lazarus, the President & MD of Universal Music India Pvt. Ltd. and President, Indian Music Industry (IMI), has gone on record to say, “Cities in which private FM radio stations have been introduced have seen a fall of approximately 30-32% sales of music cassettes and CDs?”

I’m saying I’m not privy to that and I cannot comment on that. They are saying so, so let’s take them on face value; but I’m going back to the very simple, basic scenario that is there worldwide where radio helps music companies to promote music and vice versa. And those models work very well. So I don’t think it’s an issue of rates or commercial terms or ‘x’ amount of rate; it’s more of an issue of mindset for both of us to be clear that both actually do help each other. And once we are both clear about that internally, it’ll work very well.

Q. But are you making efforts to help each other in the real sense?

We keep having regular talks in terms of what new things can be done or what cannot be done, so I don’t think the issue is unresolvable. I’m clear about that. However, we’re probably missing the forest for the trees. What we have to concentrate on is how each medium can help each other rather than what is the rate, and what should or shouldn’t be the rate. That is purely commercial. As per the IPRS, we all have contracts signed and have a regular structure of payments. Where PPL is concerned, we are all over the place; all of us have different rates.

Q. But on an average, how much do you actually pay; is it per hour or song basis?

It’s per needle hour; if in an hour I play 35 minutes of music, it’s counted as 35 minutes of music, not an hour. There are two criteria – one is needle hour; one is time of the day (prime time, non prime time, dead time etc). Based on that, the rates are worked out.

Q. Do you have complete authority to play the full songs?

Yes, whatever the court directs us in terms of the orders, we comply with that.

Q. But the music companies feel that you should play an edited version …

If we both understand and help each other, there will be no tension, which happens worldwide. There are thousands of radio stations all over the world, which play music; this is not the first time. So where is the issue? It’s more of a mindset issue than anything else.

Q. Coming to Radio Red, how has been the experience so far with the launch in Delhi and Kolkata?

It’s been phenomenal. For the Delhi station, our focus is very clearly Delhi. Our focus has been on three areas – One is the music which the listener wants. We very clearly say that we don’t programme the station. It is the listener who programs the station; Number two is the RJs, the content and the style of delivery. And number three has been the packaging, which has been focused in a very International way. So the music has been by the people; the RJs focus on intelligence, and attitude, and of course, interactivity rather than just a good voice. And they all belong to the city. So the overall listening experience has been the key to this whole thing. And the same goes for Kolkata. We focus on what the people want. And we gauge the reaction by the phone calls we get, the critical response etc. So that’s the approach to this whole thing. It’s not only about music; it’s an experience in terms of humor, interactivity and obviously good music – interacting with a friend on air. That’s why we stress on ‘asli masti’ – it’s real and it’s fun. And that’s what we want to deliver to the listener.

Q. What about the response from the advertisers?

I think the response has been phenomenal in terms of branded people who did not expect us to do something like this and I can easily gauge this by the calls we get asking us for more details. From the point of view of the retailer, not just the restaurant or shop owner but also in terms of local brands, the response has been phenomenal too because especially in Mumbai none of us did not get that kind of retailer response. Here and in Kolkata, it’s been just phenomenal. That’s what makes the medium so exciting – it’s about being local and about being live. And it connects with the average retailer. We’re getting a mix of National advertisers like IDBI, Glucon-D and Coke on one hand and local brands like Deepak Furnishings and Akash Institute on the other hand. I think the response from the retailers is very important. They may initially spend their budget on all three (private FM radio stations in Delhi), but once they adopt the medium, there’s enough business in the city. Similarly, in Kolkata; the main areas are jewellery and clothing; there are hundreds and hundreds of jewelers and clothing stores in Kolkata and once they start responding, others automatically follow. They are savvy businessmen; they don’t waste their money.

Q. Don’t you think you are focusing solely on Delhi even though the signals goes upto 100 kms covering smaller neighbouring towns like Panipat etc.?

At the end of the day, if the Sonipat retailer or someone in Gurgaon or Panipat has business, which he wants to advertise with us, we will be interested. The signal does travel 100 km, and even further on a clear night. We’ve got calls from Aligarh and Nimrana. Maybe they put their antennas really high so they can catch signals once in a while. Technically, it shouldn’t be going that far; at least, not a stereo quality signal.

Q. But do you have programs specifically tailored to the listeners from the smaller towns?

Are those people different? They are the same people who live in Delhi; or live in Gaziabad, Meerut, Faridabad or Panipat and work in Delhi. So when you do research on music and select RJs, it doesn’t mean people living in Gurgaon are not Delhiites. We cater to a huge transient population. That’s exactly why we focus on interactivity and live programs, right up to midnight, which I believe some of the stations are not doing. There are a lot of people out there; thousands of them. On our launch day, we had twenty-four hour music and got calls as late as 5 am.

Q. So what are you doing in terms of brand promotion?

On Air, ATL, BTL – all mediums. Whether it’s BTL activities, in-house media; we’ve used all types of media. The rest of it is driven by listenership. This was just the launch, and a launch meant visibility; get the frequency and the geography out there. The logo and the number should go out. Three people launching together is even better, because the awareness of the medium grows. People will tune in to all the stations and find out what they like. Three of us advertising together create much more awareness. Our van got surrounded in Kolkata; people want the medium. It’s our duty to deliver to them.

Q. What do you say about your programming?

See I think we have only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of programming. That’s purely because the listener is just sampling this new thing. As we move along, the level of programming will be accelerated. In fact, we are holding back some of the ideas because too much of it is also not good as it results in indigestion!

Q. Why you are playing Hindi music solely?

Right now, 99% of our listeners are saying that they want Hindi music, so that’s what we’ll play. It’s not my choice of music I’m going to play or the program director’s choice. Please understand I’m catering to 12 million people.

Q. Do you mean to say English music is not going to appeal to the listeners in Delhi?

When he’s saying he doesn’t want it, why should I give it to him? I’m not trying to feed him something he doesn’t want; it’s the listener’s choice.

Q. Will you play all genres of Hindi music?

Our focus is very clearly melody. If it’s from another era but it’s been refreshed, and it’s connected very well with our listeners, why not? Usha Uttup’s from a different genre and an entertainer and that’s what our medium is all about.

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