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S Keerthivasan

Business Head | 06 Dec 2007

“Everybody seems to be talking from the advertisers’ point of view. But it should be looked at from the consumers’ point of view. People need to be comfortable with a particular station… We are still not seeing big retailers coming to advertise on radio. I don’t think this category has grown. I think this industry needs to be made more relevant to people.”

S Keerthivasan has been instrumental in the launch and growth of HT Music & Entertainment Co. Ltd’s Fever 104 FM across the country in the key markets of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

Keerthivasan joined HT Media in December 2004, and headed the Business Excellence function, where he was instrumental in creating a blueprint for the future growth of the company. A Chartered and Cost Accountant by qualification, he has previously worked in organisations like Whirlpool and Xerox.

With a total industry experience of 12 years, Keerthivasan has also been the recipient of several awards throughout his career. He was awarded ‘Star of HT’ in 2006 for setting up the radio business for HT Media, and was also adjudged ‘Outstanding Contributor’ by Whirlpool India during his stint with the organisation.

In this conversation with exchange4media’s Priyanka Borpujari, Keerthivasan talks about Fever FM’s growth, the listenership measurement issues, and more. Excerpts:

Q. Fever FM has completed one year. How has the journey been so far?

It has been a very interesting journey. We launched three stations within a year, and we were the last entrant in the business. I don’t think anybody gave us any chance. People thought we won’t make it. That’s how we were covered – ‘Yet another radio station coming up’. I think that is how it started and it helped us because the expectations were not very high, but internally we were very sure that we want to do it right. A lot of preparation went into making the station.

A good global radio station takes anything between 12 months and 18 months to come up, and we have taken exactly that period. Especially in a country like India, where infrastructure is a huge issue, I think we did our homework really well. We have all seen it now.

Of so far what we have done, I can tell you one thing with 100 per cent confidence – we haven’t done any big mistake. I am very sure of that. We haven’t wasted any resources, whatsoever. And I think in the last one year, we have laid the foundation of a business, which, I believe can now take off to the next level in Delhi and Bangalore. Especially in Delhi, I am very certain that we are a real threat to the big boys now. In fact, we are today seen as a big boy and we are giving some serious threats to the bigger competition. And if you talk to a lot of people in the media industry, they will tell you there is one threat to Radio Mirchi – that is us. To have come so far in such a short span of time, in a space where we had no knowledge or experience, I think it is a reasonable performance.

Q. How has your tie-up with Virgin Radio added value to your listeners?

Thanks to Virgin Radio, we started this concept of a format radio station. In fact, we are the only format radio station in the country. One of the things that I am often asked is, ‘What is your differentiation since every radio station sounds the same?’ If you listen to our radio station, it doesn’t sound the same as other stations. If you are our regular listener and you listen to others, you can point out a distinct feel.

Radio is not visual, it is only audible. So, when you watch a TV channel, there is a logo appearing. But here there is no logo, unless someone comes and tells you that you are listening to Fever FM. So, be it in a gym or parking space or petrol pump – I have seen it myself and few other people who are not as close to the business as I am – Fever FM is being listened to at those places. There is a different sound and vibe about this station. I think that has come through Virgin.

Besides, a lot of work has gone into the backend, and all the technology has come from Virgin Radio. Most importantly, we have learnt this business from Virgin, which is why we have not made any big mistakes. I think we realised very early that this is going to be a big-city business. People say that we have the smallest network. But radio is a big city medium! I can tell you that in terms of revenue, I will No. 3 or 4 in the country today.

Q. One gets the impression that FM, at least nationally, is dominated by the Big 4 -- Mirchi, City, Red and Big FM...

How do you measure that? Eventually, it is all about revenues. As far as numbers are concerned, I have a view on that: because Big FM is in 45 cities, you cannot add up the numbers. The numbers based on yesterday’s recall – it doesn’t work like this anywhere in the world. I don’t think anybody places any importance on these numbers. If the numbers were so credible, then why aren’t the agencies and advertisers going and buying by these numbers?

Q. Talking about listenership measurement, what is the rationale behind supporting the Diary method of listenership?

I don’t think Diary is the ideal method; I think it is a good starting point. I think the current measurement method of yesterday’s recall is absurd. If you think about it, it is very simple: people just go to you and ask you, ‘Which station were you listening to yesterday?’ It is completely top-of-the-mind recall. But I can show you instances when people might tell you that they are listening to Mirchi, but what they are listening to 100 per cent was not Mirchi – it is something else. Radio is a passive medium. So you either write it down, or have a metre that actually captures what you were listening to.

The unfortunate problem in this country is that most of the radio sets is still analog; it is not digital. So you cannot have electronic metres attached to them. Plus, electricity is a big problem in the country. I think we will make that transition, but as an initial starting point, this is a great method.

Secondly, I would say that let the results come, and the industry will shake. All the myths about the big, small and fringe players will all take a complete shake. I will tell you why RAM is needed in India: if this industry has to grow, you need a good measurement system that is believed and accepted by its clients and advertisers. I think RAM will be one step in that direction, it may not be the ultimate, but I think it is extremely important that we need it.

Q. What are your expectations from RAM?

I think it will not be way off the Diary method. Eventually, we are very close to the business. I am not sitting here and saying that we are No. 1; I don’t want to. Also, we are a segmented radio station. We don’t talk to everybody; we talk to a particular segment. I can say that I am doing very well within my TG. The reason I can say this is because I have hard facts. When I do a promo, I get a response. That must tell you something about it.

Based on yesterday’s recall, for instance, I may not have any listeners in a city like Bangalore. But I get a million and a half response for a promo in a span of three weeks. That sure cannot be zero listenership. There are so many people listening to me and hence, they are responding to me. So, there is a big anomaly in this measurement system. Every market has gone through this, India will also go through it. There is a lot of flux currently.

If you talk about the big three or four – I know of at least two who are in severe pain. The way you measure the success of a radio station – how happy your people are, which is the most preferred radio station for an employee – these are the two critical aspects, and on both these counts we are the No. 1.

Q. Coming back to the idea of differentiation, FM gives the impression of being all about Bollywood music. Is it out of the fear that trying anything else would affect marketability?

If you look at my playlist, I play 70:30 Bollywood. In fact, my Bollywood content is possibly the lowest compared to anybody else. We are not a 100 per cent Bollywood station – 20-35 per cent of our content is English, plus another 20 per cent is non-Bollywood music like non-film albums. This station is about its sound. Anything that gels well with the sound is what we play on-air. In fact, if people tune out because we play less Bollywood, it is fine.

The problem is that there are seven-eight radio stations. I think in a cluttered market, it is well proven that everybody needs to make segments. You cannot have everybody owning everybody, somebody will be left out. I believe we have captured a segment that wants this kind of music, and I believe it is a substantial piece.

Q. Currently you are in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai, and you are yet to launch in Kolkata. Why haven’t we seen you going to mini-metros too, a place where you can grow?

This is just the first phase and we are starting from scratch. There is no point in stretching it as eventually it is all about people. Everybody has got access to the songs that we play. Eventually what makes you different is the people you have and how you do it. Execution and what comes out of it is very important. We are starting a new business grounds-up, we’ve no prior experience – I think it is only fair that you start fresh with big markets, let’s get it right, and once we know what works in cities, we can start looking at other markets.

Q. But if you say that the market right now is cluttered, and more stations would be coming up in metros as well as mini-metros, what you plan to do then?

Segmentation. Currently, we are targetting just the 18-25 age group, and a broader section as my secondary audience. With my second station available, I will start talking to somebody else, and so on with my third station. You will then start segmenting the audience.

Look at what happened to TV. You had Doordarshan, then it was opened up and Zee came and started talking to everybody. It further opened up; Star came in and played only English; so there was only a certain segment that moved to watch only Star. It was then followed by news channels, sports channels, and so they all started segmenting the market. Same thing will happen in radio too.

Q. What has been the response of a big-ticket on-air contest like Bingo Tick Tock? How has that helped in garnering listenership, if at all?

Post the promo, we have seen our listenership double, through our internal tracking systems. We are a young station. First you need to build awareness.

Radio is a very word-of-mouth product – one person talks to 10 others, ‘Have you heard this promo, it is on this channel and they are giving out this much money’. The cash we gave out was a hook to get in more listeners. It is as simple as that. Then once they come in, they sample your station. And since we did it for a period of time, they stuck to the station, start listening to it, and it became a habit.

And that’s how you start. Generally everyone will not stay with you with every station. Some will stick by you, some will go, which is why you do promos one after the other. But what is important here is that we have not done anything minuscule; whatever we do, we do it in a huge scale. And we believe that is the way to go about it. Even a small thing like Valentine’s Day, we blow it out of proportions, and it has really helped us.

Q. Which is easier to sell -- talk radio or music radio? And, which format do you see growing?

I have never sold talk radio, and so I don’t know how to sell it. But whatever little understanding I have from Virgin Music and from a few stations, I think it is very difficult to run a talk radio station because you need to generate content on a minute basis. So, you need to employ so many more people, you need to have more and more things to talk about. I think keeping that interest alive throughout the 24 hours of the day is a big problem. It takes a different skill set to do a talk station.

Globally, music radio stations make more money than talk radio stations.

Q. Many forums have reiterated that radio is a local medium. How successful have you been in getting local retailers to advertise on Fever FM?

I think radio is more about the listeners. Radio is a passive and background medium, and you don’t expect huge intellectual comments on radio. So you just want to relax when you listen to radio.

When you talk about being local, not everything works everywhere. Even Tick Tock Bingo was done at various stages. We didn’t do it together across all the cities, because every station needs to have a little bit of maturity.

Everybody seems to be talking from the advertisers’ point of view. But it should be looked at from the consumers’ point of view. People need to be comfortable with a particular station. There is an evolution process for a station, as well as the listener. So a Tick Tock Bingo is played in a different way in Delhi, as compared to what might be played in Mumbai or Bangalore. Its nuances are different, although the broad concept remains the same. The way we look at it is, get the listeners first, then advertisers will follow.

We are still not seeing big retailers coming to advertise on radio. I don’t think this category has grown. I think this industry needs to be made more relevant to people.

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