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Sunil Kumar

Managing Director and CEO | 07 Aug 2003

"All radio commercials sound the same. They have to be more creative. They can be done in something that sounds like a mother’s voice, a kid’s voice or a romantic tone; various things can be done. We should include the aspect of drama in radio. Only then will commercials be effective."

Before starting his own radio service, ‘Six O’clock FM’, later branded as ‘Radio 1’ on All India Radio, Delhi, Sunil Kumar worked for Ulka, O&M and Edge Communications. In 1999, he joined Radio Mid-Day; moved to Zee Telefilms in April 2000, and was soon appointed Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Zee News. Later, Sunil represented the BBC World Service for its radio and online services in India, and now heads Big River Radio India Private Limited, a radio production and services company, as Managing Director and CEO.

In conversation with Jasmeen Dugal of exchange4media, Sunil shares his views on private FM radio stations, five effective radio commercials, and the difference between brand recall and listenership.

Q. Tell us about your early days in radio.

I was in advertising for ten years. When the government began the Privatization of FM in 1993, I picked up a slot, which we ran successfully until 1999. We did western music and ‘Drive Time’. Moreover, there was a lot of interactivity – call-ins, interesting contests etc.

We had programs like ‘Make and Masti’, which ran for years and ‘Bole Mere Lips,’ which ran for almost five-six years – it was one of those wacky programs featuring silly questions with equally strange replies! People loved it.

Q. What about your spell with BBC? Were you merely providing content or were there other aspects to your role?

We helped BBC build relationships with private operators in India. I represented their radio initiative in India. At that time, they did not have a marketing set-up here and I represented them.

BBC has a broadcasting arrangement with many broadcasters worldwide, especially on their FM channels. Therefore, they get into these relationships the world over. These channels are local in terms of technique. Somebody could be carrying a business program; alternately, somebody could be carrying a sports program. And they can be given to you live. Alternatively, we can give recorded programs like UK Top 20, interviews with important people etc. Also a lot of event coverage like the World Cup Football. In some cases, BBC produces programs especially for the station, if they develop a relationship with the local station. For example, we gave coverage to Radio Mirchi on the ICC Series in Sri Lanka.

Some of these relationships are long term; some are short term. The idea was to support BBC and bring the two together.

Q. What made you join Radio Mid Day?

What we were doing was small league; Radio Mid Day was big league. I joined Radio Mid Day in 1999, as I knew it was time to get into the big league. In those days, Radio Mid Day was getting into the new licensing regime, which really meant interacting with the government, setting up a new market, and studying International trends in Radio. That meant traveling abroad and I spent a lot of time in UK. I was posted in a station in Brighton, and worked as assistant station director there.

Q. You were with Zee for a short time …

Zee was getting into radio and had picked up twenty-eight stations. I worked with Deepak Showrie and handled operations until such time it lasted. With radio not happening on their agenda, they posted me to Zee News. I was in sales and marketing for six months and it was a good learning experience; I got a good idea on how television runs.

Q. What about Green Channel?

Green Channel was managing content for BBC. BBC already had a team generating content; we simply put it together; it was about creating extra value for the content.

Q. Tell us about Big River Radio’s agenda.

Big River Radio creates services, which the radio industry needs. Of course, we may go for licenses in the second round. If we can afford it, we will go for it. We are the only radio-only company. There is no other business than radio. All other stations like Mid Day and Times have other businesses.

Many people want to listen to good Western music and there is no source. We spoke to All India Radio and picked up slots in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. The USP is good western music with a local flavor, although admittedly, it is for a niche 5% audience. In any medium, there are stations especially for niche audiences. In television, there is ESPN and Discovery.

The target audience is the 30+-age bracket, who is global in outlook; people who talk English, think in English, and do not want to settle for only Hindi music. We thought there was a need for Western music. In fact, the idea took birth when I was having a discussion with my friends in the radio business, and one of them joked, ‘There’s no station for people like us; how about having a station for us?’ I could immediately identify with what he was saying. In addition, there are brands like Nokia and Sonata who need a platform to reach a niche audience too. Where do they go?

The next thing on our agenda is Brand Radio. If a client, agency or brand manager has a brief, and is looking for a program that goes with the values of his brand, we provide him with the needful. A good example is Maruti Traffic Beat. Maruti has a huge customer base coming out of ‘Traffic Beat’. We did ‘Bole Mere Lips’ for many years. This was for Uncle Chips. They wanted a program titled ‘Bole Mere Lips’. Why not? That helped the brand. It is an art. If you go towards ‘brand, brand, brand,’ it becomes boring. It is important that a program remains fun, even if there is an audience who do not consume your product. Traffic Beat does not say, ‘Only those who drive Maruti, take this route!’ Moreover, we are not telling you to advertise on a particular program; you choose your own markets. For example, a bank could host share market reports. Expensive up market car companies need not only talk about cars; they can talk on things that the target audience can relate to – getaways, current affairs, parties, Bollywood, etc. Credit Card companies are not getting a good response from women; so they could go for a program that would appeal to women, drawing their attention to the benefits of going in for a particular credit card.

We also provide content to stations abroad. Over a hundred stations in the US cater to the Indian diaspora. We are coming up with syndicated shows, and are looking at new formats of radio – news, sports. We are constantly interacting with ESPN. ESPN has two stations abroad. We are talking with them about the possibility of doings things together.

Q. Name the five radio commercials you think are effective, and why?

  • Hutch 'Something-Anything' Free Incoming Calls – It’s well written, well produced, well cast, so real, so simple, so powerful... and so very funny each time you listen to it.
  • Apollo Tyres series on 'Free Warranty' -- Single-minded, radio drama at its best. Rana does the Haryana Jat in them, and sounds more authentic than Jats themselves.
  • Pepsi 'Heartbeat' -- It used to run some years back. Not a word. Just sound effects. What a great way to use the medium. It goes like: normal heartbeat gulping down of Pepsi, faster hearbeat -- ‘Yeh dil mange more’ (sonic - instrumental).
  • Nokia Commercials –- the commercial was done some years back by O&M, using mother-son bond as the theme -- I think they used Gulzar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Jagjit Singh for their voices.
  • 'Vox Pop' commercials that Radio Mid-Day used for its own promotion -- using the real chaiwaala, the office accountant... or whoever... record a lot of bytes with them and make a radio spot out of it.
  • Q. Radio commercials are being criticized, perhaps because people who are used to create television commercials are creating them; thus, it is not as effective. How can we combat this?

    All radio commercials sound the same. These commercials have to be more creative. They can be done in something that sounds like a mother’s voice, a kid’s voice or a romantic tone; various things that can be done. We should include the aspect of drama in radio. Only then will commercials be effective.

    Q. Technically, is there a difference between brand recall and listenership?

    There is a certain amount of unconscious brand recall. People would recall Mirchi more than the other stations because of their aggressive advertising and hype. Initially people will tune into a particular station due to the brand’s hype, but later they would go back to a station for the music.

    For example, Zee News is known as a brand. Everybody knows it is there. However, that does not automatically convert into audiences.

    Q. There are rumors that you are setting up a station in Dubai…

    If we do get a chance to set up stations abroad, we will look into it. We are talking to a station in Dubai.

    Q. From your experience, do you think the markets and audience in Dubai and India are the same, or do they differ?

    In terms of audiences, they are the same in India and Dubai. The brand is different, but the markets are the same.

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