Chief Operating Officer | 20 Aug 2007
“I don’t want a balance. I want more talk, less music. It’s as simple as that. And why should I have fewer ads that anyone else? This is business. It’s got nothing to do with being different. The more the ads, the merrier!”
Before returning to India as COO of Radio Today Broadcasting Ltd, an India Today Group company, Anil Srivatsa incubated a new media company funded by NeuLion Inc. that would deliver niche television channels to TV sets using IPTV technology. Previously, Srivatsa was Executive VP at ImaginAsian TV, where he was in charge of distribution for their basic cable foray.
Prior to this he was Director, Worldwide Marketing and Public Relations for RTV UK. As Director of Cricket and South Asian Programming at Kelly Broadcasting Systems, he oversaw the creation of the Cricket Channel. His broadcasting career began at Holt Radio Corporation as Board Operator, before becoming a Producer for nationally syndicated radio talk shows. Srivatsa currently hosts the largest syndicated South Asian radio show in the USA, ‘Anil Ki Awaaz’, and he also created ‘Medical Detectives’ on the Learning Channel.
Srivatsa earned a Master's degree in Telecommunications (Kutztown University) and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology, Public Administration, and Journalism (Mysore University). He is a founding trustee of the Guild of Women Achievers, an NGO that works to empower women in India, and was the only Indian on the Nielsen Advisory Council for Asian and Pacific Americans. He also serves on the advisory board of 212 Media Inc. and The Horror Channel in New York.
In conversation with exchange4media’s Priyanka Borpujari, Srivatsa talks about talk radio format, having Kiran Bedi on the show, and more. Excerpts:
Q. Why did you decide to have a ‘just for women’ radio station? Was it just to be different in a cluttered market? And why has it been named Meow FM?
Why not ‘just for women’? Will it make me different? Yes! We could have been just for men or children, and we would still be different. So, ‘just for women’ made sense and so we did it. The women’s movement needs a voice somewhere and the only voice it now has in India is in print. Why not radio, since you can reach any mindset through it? So it made sense, and also I have some experience with it -- and it worked well -- and so there isn’t any reason why I couldn’t scale it up. In my show in America, ‘Anil Ki Awaaz’, I have interacted with a lot of women, and I found that they were committed to it and liked it. And listenership is important. Being women-centric made sense on all counts -- socially, financially, opportunistically, differentiating.
Q. What challenges did you face while deciding on the programme content, considering ‘just-for-women’ is a relatively new concept?
It is not a new concept. This kind of dialogue has been happening a lot at small forums. We have just taken that small forum dialogue into a bigger forum -- a mass forum. Men are equally interested in it.
My biggest challenge is actually on-air talent. We need people who are intelligent. We need goods hosts – and we don’t call them RJs. Intelligent on-air talent is difficult to come by in a conventional pool. Frankly speaking, I don’t see a spark of intelligence in today’s women on radio. I am not doubting their intelligence, but I can’t see it because they don’t have a chance to display it. That’s the problem.
We do have inane subjects and frivolous stuff. But it is easier for an intelligent woman to be frivolous, or to come down to a lesser intellectual level and engage at par, than for someone who starts at the bottom and then goes higher, because then you would put off people in the higher intellectual level, and you will never get them to listen to you.
Q. Other radio stations too air programmes for women in afternoon slots like shows on recipes, beauty tips, etc…
I know, but I feel those shows are very ‘patronising’ towards women. It’s like ‘Oh, you are there! Let’s play something for you.’
Q. So why would listeners in those time slots prefer listening to Meow FM 104.8?
Because we probably have some more value to add in their lives in that time slot. It is probably the same women. The difference is that we have made a conscious decision and attempt to, on-going basis, to speak to all types of women. To us, they don’t just ‘happen’ to be there and so we have programmes for them. In the daytime, there is more of the housewife-oriented programmes. As of now, it is very light, but as they get used to listening to talk radio, we will raise the level of our content.
Right now the content is fun oriented so that we can familiarize our women listeners with interactivity -- interacting on things that are light and easy. We have seen that the moment we do a serious subject, the calls drop. So once they are used to interacting, we will raise the intelligence level of the conversation. That being said, yes, others do women’s programming; but they would be rather doing something else if there were others listening to them. We are about women -- whether they are there to listen or not. It is up to us to programme in such a way that we cater to those that are most likely to listen at a particular time. So if I do a working women’s show in the afternoon, it would be silly.
Q. Overall, who is your key target audience? How has the listeners’ response been in the duration of a month and half since the launch?
Our primary target audience is women in SEC B and up. And the only way I can judge the response right now are the number of phone calls. Our morning shows started out really bad -- just 20, 30 or 40 phone calls. Today the number of phone calls has gone up to 190! The content and marketing, in fact everything, are now kicking in. Word-of-mouth is also now playing its part and that’s why we are seeing the volumes grow.
As of now, I cannot put my best programming foot forward; it makes no sense. There aren’t enough listeners for that. But as the number of listeners increase, the content would become more and more different than what you hear now. You think this is radical? Wait till it happens!
Q. Do you think the competition, having the advantage of a headstart in most of the markets, has made your task that much more difficult?
Yes and no. We have the last mover advantage, as I call it. It allowed me -- the group management -- to take a stock of what’s there, where the holes are and what needs to be filled. So, in that sense, it has been an advantage really.
As far the disadvantage, I think it’s not so much of a disadvantage. If I had done the same music format as the others, it would’ve been a huge disadvantage. But because we are different, we are the new flavour of the month. Everyone’s watching us -- whether they want us to succeed or fail, they are watching us.
Q. Is it because you’re on the face and you’ve been around on all the hoardings, and doing other advertisements?
No, we haven’t actually done much marketing. Compared to how the rest of the radio business in this city has spent money, I think we’ve not done much. That’s another advantage because we know exactly where we need to catch the target audience -- I don’t have to be everywhere. We’re very targeted -- it’s cluster bound and viral. So once the cluster knows what we are about, they are going to spread it virally. May be that is what gave you the impression that we’re everywhere, but actually we are not.
Q. Nowadays, radio is regarded as a medium of back-to-back music. Don’t you think a talk format would be monotonous?
It can’t be monotonous because the topics are not, the on-air hosts are not, and the callers are not. It’s really a question of how the callers make the show sound. As a listener one can say, ‘Ah! This programme is really bad… how can they speak like this…what kind of views are these!’ Or, you can pick up the phone, put forth your thoughts, and perhaps help elevate the show to a point that people like it. So, it’s about participation. The trick is to help them participate.
There is also a level where I think women, regardless of what they do in life, need to support a concept like this initially. One can sit out there and be critical and cynical, because being cynical is a fashion. All I ask of them is that go beyond the fashion and snobbery, and give this concept a chance to flourish. Give us three-four months of support and spread the word that ‘Hey! Here’s something for us.’
Q. Music, ads and discussing issues – like a talk format -- play a key role in radio programming. How do you think one can strike a balance between all three?
I don’t want a balance. I want more talk, less music. It’s as simple as that. And why should I have fewer ads that anyone else? This is business. It’s got nothing to do with being different. The more the ads, the merrier!
Q. ‘Top Cat with Kiran Bedi’ seems to have become very popular with the masses. How was this show conceptualised?
So far, it is getting the right buzz. Talk radio is a personality driven format. It’s not about content. At the end of the day, it’s about who connects with you. If you have fans, they connect to you. There is a trust factor built with each host, leading to support and participation. Think of a radio station as a mall. You get into the mall, you go to a particular stall that you like. Only when you are through with that stall, will you browse through other stalls since you happen to be there.
‘Top Cat with Kiran Bedi’ has a very personality driven content. She has built a reputation of being an achiever, people look up to her, she is a role model. So now people come to her for inspiration. Why do people connect to them and not someone else?
Our parenting show, ‘Mamma Mia’, is interesting too, because it talks about how to be a super mom. Anyone can become a mother biologically but to be a parent, especially a single mother, can be difficult, there are challenges that have to be faced. That’s why this show is extremely popular, it is adding value to people’s lives, so they keep coming back wondering ‘What am I going to learn tomorrow?’ Because of the peer pressure in schools, kids expect their moms to be like their friend’s moms. This kind of guidance is available on this show -- anonymous, one-on-one conversations with experts or sharing experiences. It’s like a round table -- if something has worked for you, put it out there, may be it’ll help someone else. It’s a very sticky concept.
Q. What is the feedback on 'Meow Between The Sheets'? What was the basic idea behind the show?
‘Between The Sheets’ is exactly what it means. It’s not about what physically happens between the sheets, it’s about what mentally happens between the sheets. When you retire for the day, it’s the time when you’re perhaps most in touch with yourself, you introspect on many things. Sometimes it’s guided; sometimes it’s not. I just help bring new thoughts to your head as opposed to your going to sleep between the sheets every night with the same thought. I’ve done shows on virginity, sexual verbalisation by women in today’s world, on being single, counting your blessings, death and coping with grief. I can only say that it helps people to talk about things they never had a forum to discuss or listen.
I found that the age group of my listeners is very young -- Orkut young! That’s why I spend a lot of time on Orkut to interact with them. They probably are misguided or are not being given enough time by their parents who don’t know better. They’re doing their best, but not discussing bold subjects that are today’s issues. This show provides them a venue to vent, learn or exchange ideas. My being a part of the show is a small contribution. They don’t like the show because of me as a person, but because what they get to do with me on the show.
Q. So you have men calling up in the show too…
Men are not taboo here. The subject matter is slightly more interesting to a woman. So a man comes here to probably understand women better or has a viewpoint about the subject. Men are a very important part of a woman’s life. Excluding them is pointless, but I don’t want to hear from them as much as I do from women. But I do hear from men and they call themselves ‘Meow men’ and they’re proud of saying that.
Q. Can you tell us about the on-ground and on-air promotions lined up for Radio Meow?
We’re still banking on our outdoor advertising. Once the effect of that wears out we’ll think of something else. We don’t follow a specific formula. We had a women-screening section at PVR where we branded the screen. We have branding at metro stations. Any woman who travels in the metro will see our branding because they have to pass through the security screening. This is branded by us for the next five years.
Q. How many FM licences do you have?
Seven – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Amritsar, Patiala, Jodhpur and Shimla. Kolkata is next in the pipeline, and then the others in September.
Q. Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are A-class towns, while the others are B-class towns. Would Meow FM still target them? Will the programmes be replicated?
Wherever Meow FM is replicated, the general content theme will be the same, but they will all be local. There may be one or two shows that will go across the network. We may consider a different branding in towns like Patiala or Amritsar. But it will continue to be Meow FM in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.