The success of Gursharan S Buttar’s community radio business in Canada has become a rallying example for the world to follow. From being a part-time voiceover artist to becoming a major radio player overseas, Buttar speaks about the need to reinvent radio programming in India, the power of community radio overseas and how technology is redefining the space.
How did radio turn into a career for you? Was it by choice or a sheer accident?
I moved to Canada when I was very young. It was soon after my graduation in 1996. To survive, I took up some odd jobs in the beginning. My entry into radio was just an accident. While I was doing those odd jobs, a small ad agency was looking for voiceover artists and I happened to land the job. As they liked my voice, I eventually got a 15-minute slot on one of their radio shows and that’s how I began my journey in radio. Now,I have set up six different radio stations across Canada to serve ethnic communities.
What are your views about the Indian radio industry?
I think radio in India is basedmore on entertainment. The case with Canada is different. For example,Canada’s radio stations have a lot of programming on subjects like politics and social news, especially related to the ethnic minorities.During the recent Punjab elections, we added special live coverage due to high demand from our listeners.Also, community radio is not an optional media in Canada; in a way it is at par with mainstream and manages a spontaneous response as people tune in regularly, while in India its consumption islimited to certain occasions.If news and information content are not included in the Indian FM programming, I see it dying in the coming time.
Can you tell us more about your audience profile?
So far, the majorityof our audience has been the South Asian communities—India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and more. Only 10% of our programming right now is in English; the rest is in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindiand Gujarati. However, ournew stations will include Cantonese, Filipino, Mexican and Arabic programming too. I believe we have got a mandate to serve the global communities and we will continue to do so. We want to become the biggest network for global communities.
How viable are community radio stations commercially?
In Canada, they are very successful as we get a lot of support from the community. In fact, our biggest chunk of revenue comes from community advertisements. Now, we also have some government advertising support and some national advertisers as well. If youtalk about the larger pie, it is definitely community-based advertising. Some community advertisers have been with us for over 12 years and it is heartening to see such a strong support for community radio stations.
How has social media changed the game for radio players?
Let me explain it the way I have seen it unfold in Canada. I think social media has allowed us to open yet another platform to connect with the audiences. Now we can broadcast and simultaneously post real-time updates to make radio more relevant. A lot of radio stations have been able to leverage social media to further consolidate their connect with the audiences.
How is technology changing the game for radio players?
The impact of new technology is already being felt. Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) is becoming a new trend. For example, Norway has got rid of all the FM stations and a lot of European countries are following suit. According to experts, DAB will take over traditional radio broadcasting in the next two decades. This in turn will make global radio content easily accessible to people across the world and the traditional way of broadcasting will take on a new meaning altogether.
What are the biggest challenges for community radio owners?
One of the biggestchallenges that we face is inbringing the communitiestogether. For example, if we have more Punjabi content, you see some communities complaining. Similarly, if you have more programming for other communities, since the Punjabi community is the largest, they raise concerns. So, trying to balance this programming mix continues to remain a challenge.
What is your vision for Radio Sursangam for the next few years?
My vision is to set up 24-hour programming in such a way that we become the biggest community umbrella not just for South Asia and Asia but also for places like Eastern Europe, etc.