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Tapas Sen

Senior VP (Programming) | 20 Nov 2004

“Unfortunately, programming is something that you can’t quantify. We undoubtedly have the best minds of the country working for us and we have put in a huge amount of time and resources in training them. Training them involves getting some of the best people across the world and sending them abroad so that they can spend large amount of time with other large networks and benchmark themselves against the best.”

For Tapas Sen, Senior VP (Programming), every day at Radio Mirchi is hot! Hot because of the activity, enthusiasm and the “Mirchi quotient” which keeps listeners as well as the radio station staff upbeat about life. Sen did his schooling from Mt. St. Mary’s, New Delhi, and graduated in Zoology. His stint in Radio began in 1987 as a casual announcer with All India Radio. Subsequently, he got into making radio documentaries and one of his works, Changing Modes of Protest in Black Africa, was nominated for Akashwani Awards.

He joined Times FM in 1993 as the programming head of Delhi station. For a short while, he worked as the Executive Assistant to Samir Jain, Vice-Chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. which owned the channel. Sen’s interest in academics is evident from the manner he educated himself at various radio stations across the globe and spread his knowledge to students at Jamia Milia University. He was also selected by Coca-Cola as country representative for World Radio at Atlanta.

Now, as Senior VP (Programming), he is responsible for all the content in the seven Radio Mirchi stations. He shares with Malini Menon of exchange4media the road ahead and all that would make Mirchi even hotter.

Q. Most of the private FM channels take the tried and tested way. Are you also adopting the same route?

Firstly, there is nothing wrong in taking the tried and tested route. Secondly, if we were taking the typical tried and tested route, we would have mixed all kinds of music genres. If you notice, All India Radio has gone the actual tried-and-tested way. They have all kinds of music in the same hour and then they will have something for everyone across the week. They have programmes for adults, children, women, pregnant women, animal husbandry, agriculture, etc. They have programmes for everybody, which is the tried-and-tested way. Now, we have not done that.

We are very clear that this is our target audience and we have found out their likes and dislikes in a very scientific and systematic researched way. As a result, we have very deliberately and consciously sacrificed certain things. For instance, if you look at our retro music, Win used to play a lot of retro music along with their other music. Radio City still does that. We are very clear that we don’t want to do that. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, you can be served the best Chinese food and not Indian cuisine. We are a Hindi contemporary music channel and we want to stick to that. We don’t want to confuse our listeners. There is a saying abroad: radio, as far as the formatting is concerned, is so predictable that it’s like flicking a switch. So, when the listeners flick on the radio they want to hear the expected sound. It does not mean the same song. Imagine a jazz station playing Michael Bolton. They will burn down the station. So even one song that does not fit your positioning can ruin the mood of the listeners. Hence, it’s not really correct to say we have gone the tried and tested way. We have decided our TG and we are catering specifically to their choice.

Q. Incidentally, other channels are also following your route, so what are you doing about this?

Yes, they are following what we are doing but not completely. Our competitor is doing a lot of talk shows. I don’t think there is any radio station other than AIR that does plays, talk shows with music. We are not doing that and this is the clear differentiator. Also, if you look at our programming, the Breakfast Show is very distinct. We have what we call a fabric, which is very thematic, something that Delhiites wake up to. For instance, not everyone in Delhi was waking up to the American election. But they may have been waking up to the Nagpur Test. So we try and capture that mood of the city. Also, we are very consciously city-centric. The positioning we have taken is that we are all about Delhi or let’s say we are all about Chennai. So if you listen to our Chennai channel, you will think it’s so completely Tamil. We have not been conservative that way at all. We have been very clear what the city wants and that has been our stand.

Of course, there is a huge overlap of music, which is the reason why you find the commonality. This factor will correct itself as we go along. We believe when you have multiple radio stations, you will have to make a choice. Today there are around five radio stations. When there are let’s say 10 or 11 stations, you will be forced to choose one particular kind of music. So some stations will become retro stations and some will become Western music stations, some Punjabi stations. So that correction is a market correction. Right now, we are sticking to our TG in a slightly generous manner. But this will become far more focused in the times to come. So all music stations will choose their distinct positioning. GO, for instance in Mumbai has chosen Western music, which is the right way to go. Amar in Kolkata has chosen pure Bengali music, which is good and I hope that they stick to their positioning.

But what has happened is that even GO sometimes diluted its positioning by introducing Hindi music. The result is that they are not getting new Hindi listeners because these listeners think they are Western and the Western music listeners are getting turned off because they are playing some amount of Hindi. That is where marketing comes in. So this correction is a marketing correction and it will happen in due course of time.

Q. What is the extent of regionalisation that is done in the content?

For instance, in Kolkata we know that Hindi music outsells Bengali music. That is our study. Amar may have had a different study. So we found that the common denominator is Hindi music but we also found that most of the people speak in Bengali. Even the non-Bengalis in Kolkata are absolutely comfortable with Bangla, so we decided to let the speech be in Bengali and the songs be Hindi. We do have some Bengali songs now and then. This is because we have found the same listener listens to both. We had the liberty there.

If you take Chennai, we wanted to introduce some English numbers but we found that a major chunk of the population speak in Tamil and like Tamil music. So when we are talking about regionalising, we are talking about what Chennai is all about. Our TG is 15 to 25, so we take the interests of that particular group and the content of the programme is specific to the likes of the listener. How we regionalise it is by involving the TG with the city. For instance, if there are two events in town, one of a major disc opening and the other is the opening of one of the best libraries. Probably we will take the disc opening simply because it appeals to my TG more.

Q. Do you innovate the jingles too?

Yes we do. What we have done is to come up with channel promos. We have based it on very famous Tamil or Hindi songs and parodied on that. There is a huge turnover of these jingles. So people are constantly hearing something that is created exclusively on jingles. What we have done in Kolkata is that we have found that the Bangla bands are highly popular; so we asked the Bangla bands to do the channel promos. The set of people who do endorsements in Kolkata are very different from those who do it in Delhi. The commonality would of course be the Bollywood stars whether it is a Shah Rukh Khan or Aishwarya Rai. However, there would be a local feel to it. So if it is Kushwant Singh in Delhi, then it will be Bangla band in Kolkata and Illaya Raja in Chennai.

Q. Do you come up with ‘create a jingle’ contests or something on those terms?

I think, ‘create a jingle’ contest was done in one of the stations and it is an idea we want to take forward on a larger scale. In fact, when we did it on one of the stations, it turned out to be a big hit. We do intend to carry forward this idea.

Q. You made a claim that 32 lakh people like to listen to Radio Mirchi. Is this kind of claim essential for publicity or is it a soft trap for advertisers?

The 32-lakh number is from Indian Listenership Research and the idea of putting that on radio is because, firstly, everybody likes a winner and it would feel very good if somebody endorses my channel. So we are saying that if somebody were listening to Radio Mirchi in his car, it would make him feel good to know there are another 32 lakh listening to the same station. So the message is: you are with the winner, stay with us. Secondly, we want these numbers to percolate to the advertisers and make them aware that we are actively speaking to 32 lakh people. With TV there is fragmentation, but not so in the case of radio.

Q. What is the benchmark that you have set for yourself?

Unfortunately, programming is something that you can’t quantify. We undoubtedly have the best minds in the country working for us and we have put in a huge amount of time and resources in training them. Training them involves getting some of the best people across the world and sending them abroad so that they can spend a large amount of time with other large networks. So the benchmarking is done though training them to be as well equipped as any radio station abroad. When I spent time in TripleM in Australia, I actually spent a lot of time understanding the standard of programmes they have. What is it that they call a good jingle or a bad jingle?

However, what we do have as a prerequisite is that there should be a Mirchi quotient to everything. For instance, in any other radio station you’d say the temperature outside is 23 degrees Celsius but at Mirchi we have prohibited anybody from saying this. We would say the temperature outside is 23 degrees Celsius and the temperature inside depends on whom you are with. So the Mirchi quotient is a very important factor.

Q. Do you make any extra effort during the peak TV hours so that you don’t lose listeners?

We are not competing with TV channels. Both have their peaks. If you look at the typical radio listenership peak, you will find that towards the evening there is a dip. What we do is to try and make the evening programmes very interactive so that there is a lot of involvement. Secondly, we add a lot of contests so that there is a tangible benefit to the listener. By focusing ourselves on the TG we have discovered that the overlap between our hours and the TV soap hours isn’t that high.

Q. Which would be that one show that you would call extraordinary and feel proud of?

We are very proud of all our programmes. If you ask me the best one, I would say very recently when Veerappan was shot late evening, the next morning for the breakfast shows we had DGP Vijay Kumar on air. I know we had beaten the press to it. We had some of the journalists calling us up and asking for Vijay Kumar’s number. That was something we were really proud of because we were among the first to get him for our listeners.

Q. There are some regulatory restrictions on content. What kind of changes in these regulations would you welcome?

Largely, the restriction is on news and because we can’t give our listeners news, it largely affects us. We give our listeners information and entertain them but can’t give them news. And radio listeners all over the world are very used to hearing news. Even AIR gives news. A listener who has been with us for an hour or two may feel that he is disconnected from the rest of the world. So, somewhere if there is 9/11 happening, then there’s no way he would know through us, and if he has been listening tour station for say two hours, he will feel betrayed when he finally gets to hear such a thing had happened. Not just Radio Mirchi, the whole medium is losing out if we cannot give news. It’s a major political superstition that we can’t do news because almost all FM radio stations are affiliated to major media houses. Like we are to the Times of India, Red is to the India Today group, Radio City is to Star News. So what are we talking about? I think we will be able to deliver a far more holistic and comprehensive experience to listeners if we are allowed to give out news.

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