Managing Editor, South Asia | 07 Mar 2003
“All I say is that you need to play Radio for the long term. This isn't Radio. As you know in the current regime, Radio stations here have to pay huge license fees. From an outsider’s point of view, they don’t have much relationship with potential income. Certainly not in the short term with the kind of Radio market size we have got here. So something has to give. Either these radio stations go out business or just continue to loose huge amount of money or the regulations that surround them change.”
Sam Miller, Managing Editor, South Asia BBC World Service shares his concerns and observation with Ashish Sinha of exchange4media on the Indian Radio market in general and the emerging private FM Radio market in particular.
Q. Let me start by asking you something about the BBC World Service? What makes the BBC World Service click?
BBC World service has for many years continued to provide impartial news and information from an international perspective to audiences of about 150 million people around the world. We have got a very long and successful tradition in India and we continue to have very large audiences here. In the past we were heard more and more on the Short Waves around the world. Now you also hear BBC programme on FM stations and on Medium Wave stations around Europe and North America. We also realize that the content is absolutely critical and that we are known by, but it is also critical that we deliver programmes to people in a way that is simple to access. The modern BBC's Strategy is to make sure that we are available in lots of different ways. So in part on Television, on line as well through the internet. But it is also critically important to be available in different ways, which can be short wave, medium wave, FM, Radio through the Internet; it can be through the cable, and World Space that’s available now. So there are lots of different means of delivering radio to the audiences and its important in key markets to be available on number of platforms. That holds the key for BBC.
Q. What is your assessment of the Indian Radio market with the coming of private FM stations? How do you see it evolve in the coming times? What are the challenges in front of the private operators?
Well, if we look at it over a long period of time then it has been a very successful radio market, and I would say that there have been significant positive developments in the last few years but there is a serious cause for concern about the radio market. I have traveled a lot around the world and I have traveled a lot in South Asia and I still find it bizarre that you go to Katmandu, a city of merely half a million people, and you have six or seven FM stations, all of them being private. Then you fly for an hour, hour and a half to New Delhi, one of the most important capitals in this region, with about ten million population and only an AIR FM Radio station. But Delhi will see more, which is exciting and an important development, but there will be only three for the city of this size, and it looks like they are likely to be pretty similar to each other so we will not see the kind of differentiation that we see in the other parts of the world. And that’s very important because without differentiation the Indian radio market will not grow. You will reach a situation where all the players will be chasing the larger share of the same market rather than the market growing into other areas.
One area that concerns me is Speech Radio. There is very little of Speech Radio in Indian stations and most of them are busy copying each other. There is a rapid growth in Programming compared to what was there a year ago. The growth in Radio market when you compared to the TV market, is nothing. There remains restriction on news & current affairs, which are hard to justify given the fact that there aren't restriction in current affairs on television. Now when you look around at the neighboring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, who have suffered civil wars in recent time, yet Private FM stations continue to broadcast news and current affairs, so I don’t quite understand the argument that says, 'lets restrict news and current affairs' on private FM's. I believe it constraints the growth of private FM in India.
Q. So in other words, there won't be significant growth in private FM station in India without the permission to broadcast news and current affairs?
There would definitely be growth, and it will be significant, given how small the radio market is in India. But I don’t think we will see the kind of FM explosion we see in other parts of the world. And the kind of explosion we see on television. Of course entertainment has also been a part of the television growth, but the idea that you can lock off a genre and remove it from the equation without affecting the market, I don’t quite understand that argument. Its important for radio long term that Radio has the ability to compete in very busy media market and at the moment it can compete a bit more because of these FM licenses but not really to the extent, which it could. I worry about the state of radio in the long-term in this country. People in the big city say more often. 'O yes my father used to listen to the radio, my grandfather used to listen to the radio.' The danger at the moment is there is a missing generation for whom Radio has not been a normal part of their life. And the challenge facing the new operators here is to restore that to the heart of the present generation. They can do that to a degree through music, but only to a degree. It is just a part of the overall Radio story.
Q. What parallels can you draw from your experience of the private FM market as it prevails in the UK? What can we learn from the UK market?
One key fact about the British Radio market is the amount of time spent by an individual on Radio in last one year (compared to the previous thirty years) became more than the average time spent watching the TV. If you look back thirty years in Britain, there were lots of people who where saying that Radio is going to die. TV will have pictures as well as words—they were all wrong. I find some people using that kind of argument here. They don’t realize what role Radio plays. Radio plays an absolute critical role in people's life. It has several advantages over the television, you can carry it around and if a major event happens, all you need is a phone line, you don’t need pictures. The way the British market has developed is exactly like that. The most successful news programme in terms of calling big name guests and in terms of audiences in Britain a Radio programme, called ‘Today’ programme. Radio is what people do more and more in the mornings. Between 7 and 9 in the morning, the Today programme on BBC Radio attracts huge audiences.
Q. In the past BBC Radio in India commanded huge following. Is it still that popular today?
In those days there were not many sources of news. That’s why people came to us. Now there are lots, but we believe we get it right and we believe we are impartial. Those are still things that drive people to us. In this country we have a bigger reporting staff than almost anywhere in the world. We have reporter in every state capital. We train our reporters very well and lots of them have worked in London as well. We have very demanding standards that we expect from them. For me, that’s the key to our success. There is no trick. Its just very good journalism. There is commitment to ensure those standards. We don’t spread rumors. We don’t run stories that people are deliberately putting out. We assess news early on for its importance. Like today's coverage on the budget, which everyone is doing so far, we are a bit more stand back on our part. We would provide perspective. There are lots of good reporters and journalists in the country but sometime I feel that there are not people standing back and looking at the bigger picture, looking at it in world terms. And I still feel that's something, which BBC does very well.
Q. How do you see the association of BBC Radio in the emerging private FM market in India?
We can hope to be a key partner to it. We are not like the other major players. We are not seeking to duplicate the kind of things that they are doing. We are seeking partnership. Our interest and their interest in the long term is the continued growth of the Radio market. That’s the critical thing everyone has to keep an eye on rather than 'hey who can get more of a share this week or next week'. Other operators might need this market for commercial reasons, what we are about it to reach out to people with impartial, accurate news and information. Of course we can continue to do that and drive audiences thought the short wave but we recognize that the short wave but we recognize that the short wave in the city is much less appealing than it used to be.
That’s why we are looking at some of the options. We have some of the smaller tie-ups with a few stations in Mumbai. But as I have said before, its very early market here and we are about to see the next phase in Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. In Mumbai we have an ongoing relationship with RED and GO. RED broadcasts weekly programme, UK Top 20, and with GO we are cooperating on World Cup Cricket coverage. And we are looking out for a longer-term relationship. The one concern is on how this market will grow. We have seen in Mumbai that a lot of programming strategy of the stations changed in a very short time of they being out. I imagine that we will see similar switches in the other markets quite early on. Delhi and Mumbai will see more stations in the time to come. There can be good coverage on issues beyond news and current affairs. There is very little coverage on Drama, Sports, Business, Health and Consumer affairs. There is very little of speech basically at all. I am glad to see that several of the stations have tried but at the moment it’s not like radio to me. Radio means listening genre. Obviously music plays a key role in it. But obviously there is more to it.
Q. If I ask you for your suggestions on the range of programmes that can be done on these FM stations here, then what will those be? Can private Radio thrive on music alone?
I think you can do it in number of different levels. For example, speech based programmes about music. Explaining about music, about the different kinds of music, about the history of music, about people who are popular in music. That is on the simpler level. Then there are the magazines type programmes, which people could do. There are sports programme, which they can do. Consumer affairs programme. I still think that it’s tough for them without news. If you look around the world, most music stations, on the top of the hour have two-three minutes of news. And it’s a sort of driver at that time of the day. It’s not much news, but without it, its like a limb is missing from the Radio. Its heartbreaking.
All I say is that you need to play Radio for the long term. This isn't Radio. Of course it’s pretty tough for the players and they will have to address their advertisers, and may be do some clever marketing. But it will be critical to do good programmes. Programmes to which people will return more often. For that, the choice of presenters will be very crucial. Presenters who connect with their audiences and not just voices who fill the space between the music. Having said that, I believe they will also need really compelling and different content. They are all doing the same thing, with one probably getting 40 per cent, and the others getting the remaining share of the market. So the market will stay relatively static. It won’t grow. Radio has developed the same way in other parts of the world, India is pretty different market from anywhere in the world. So its not completely impossible. But it’s pretty unlikely.
As you know in the current regime Radio stations here have to pay huge license fees. From an outsider’s point of view, they don’t have much relationship with potential income. Certainly not in the short term with the kind of Radio market size we have got here. So something has to give. Either these radio stations go out business or just continue to loose huge amount of money or the regulations that surround them change. I know that the concerned parties are in touch over the issue with the regulators. But this is important in the long term for the policy makers as well as the operators on how to make the Radio industry thrive.
Q. Can you share with us some of the programmes of BBC World Service that are doing well in India?
On the news front, for instance, there is a programme we are running which has picked up a lot of press coverage as well as significant audience, which is quite simple. It’s a phone-in with a senior government figure. It happens once a week. Its called Hindi Talking Point and it just does that. Its a very old fashioned type of broadcast but it works and you don’t quite get something like that which is topical, obviously you don’t get it on other radio stations. Other things we have done in recent time is that I remember on the 50th anniversary we did something which went around every district of India looking at sort of how the country has progressed. We have done a lot on health and education programming here. One of our drives in recent years has been to get greater sense of what people are thinking than what the politicians or the leaders are thinking. So the ordinary people's voices get heard more. But there are new programme always coming. For example there is a recent programme, which takes a look at the careers. There's no one who is competing directly against us. I long for the day when there is competition in the field of speech Radio from more than the BBC and the All India Radio.
Q. Which are the geographical areas in India where BBC World Service has the maximum penetration?
BBC World Service here is comprised of English, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Urdu, and a little bit of Nepali. And by far the largest of those is Hindi. And we know that we get a huge listnership in the Hindi heartland of UP and Bihar. But for Bengali, we have a great following in Bengal and the Northeastern states. Tamil in Tamil Nadu. Urdu is spread pretty much across the north of the country. And we haven’t been able to measure in J&K and the Valley part of Kashmir where we would expect the strongest concentration. So yes, Hindi in the north. English and Tamil in the south. Bengali in the east. Urdu kind of everywhere except in the south and the northeast. BBC as a band in India is huge. People know the BBC in all quarters of this country. And it’s very important that people know actually what our content is. Watching it. Listening to it and accessing it on the Internet. And BBC on its part is serving this nation with news, with education, and with entertainment.