How the World of FM Radio in India Has Changed Drastically

When in the 1980s, The Buggles sang the song “Video killed the radio star”, they were really onto something. Or so, the media watchers thought. The imminent death of radio was prophesied, with television taking over people’s living rooms. Of course, there was an initial lull in radio’s popularity but it hit back strong in the following decades adapting itself to the tastes of the newer breed of listeners.

Take, for instance, the 28-year old advertising professional, Sayoni De. Her mornings are usually a mad dash with the rush-hour traffic to her office in Park Street adding to her daily woes. This puts her in a very crabby mood, even before she could open her inbox. That was before she got hooked on to the FM radio on her smartphone. These days, RJ Varun peps her mornings with Morning Show on Ishq FM with RJ Ishani — thanks to which, she feels her daily commute is a little more bearable.

Hyderabad-based, Nithish Kumar resorts to radio to reset his mood during his Uber ride to the office every morning. “It has become almost a morning ritual to listen to RJ Shiv’s energetic voice and selection of melodious songs in his breakfast show on Radio City,” says the 30-year old IT executive.

Sayoni and Nithish are not alone. Today, it’s a common sight to see people in Indian cities to have a pair of headphones stuffed into their ears every morning on their way to work. FM radio in India has been easing their monotonous commutes, busy transports and daily trysts with long-standing traffic. Talking in numbers, nearly 20 crore people listen to FM radio in India every month. As per Media Research Users Council (MRUC), Radio listenership grew by 13% in urban areas since their last research in 2014.

Then and Now

To this day, the older generation sings paeans of Ameen Sayani — the presenter of the hugely popular Binaca Geetmala — and the unhurried radio days where the news headlines were religiously followed by the elders while the youngsters just about tolerated them for the film songs that would follow. The AIR monopoly reigned supreme until 2001 when the government auctioned frequencies for private operator’s licenses and radio entered a new area that was more fun, more interactive and much more local.

While the advent of Rock n’ Roll rescued radio from the television onslaught, local FM radio revolutionised the radio experience in the age of the internet. After the second phase of development with new auctions and revised licence fees, commercial radio became a profitable avenue with foreign players entering the fray. Today, close to 240 radio stations operate in over 90 cities and the approach remains engagingly colloquial.

The influence of radio in India has been immense and has undergone a sea-change since the sedate days of “This is All India Radio” delivered by the deep baritone of Surajit Sen. Even Bollywood picked up on the popularity of radio — as it does with everything that strikes a chord with the nation’s youth and the mass audience. As a result, we have movies like Lage Raho Munnabhai and Salaam Namaste, where radio played a major role.

But it was only after we saw Vidya Balan in Tumhari Sulu sashay her way to the studio room and become a voice on Radio FM, much of the things concerning the world of FM radio became clear. Apart from the voice that reaches us, everything that happens in the world of FM radio in India is curiously unknown to many listeners. The movie gave us some insights about the inner workings of radio channels. Also, pop culture became replete with FM jargon and bits from the popular talk shows and famous lines of RJs.

The Reach of FM Radio in India

An overwhelming penetration percentage witnesses the radio reach to be accessible to 99% of the population of India. According to the market research firm Nielsen, radio has emerged as the second most accessed media platform, ahead of even social media.

And why not? Radio remains the most inexpensive, earliest and the best portable mode of telecommunication available to all. The audience engagement is better with radio because it does not have any prerequisite qualification level to access and understand this medium. Both information and entertainment in the audio format are comprehensible to all and since this medium is way cheaper than other formats such as visual, etc. it allows for greater variety in language and creativity.

The local advertising component has a huge potential in terms of FM radio, and so does national advertising. It is uncanny how people tend to retain audio jingles more than visual ads and this adds to the advertising preference in radio, Add to it, the low cost of the medium and you have advertisers flocking to the FM slots. The unofficial estimate of the radio advertising market share is pegged at Rs 2,000 crore approx. and the growth rate hovers between 13% and 15% a year. Besides, radio offers great scope for PR in the form of social media contests, campaigns, and hand-outs.

No wonder, brands and businesses are capitalising on FM radio’s popularity, especially in markets like Kolkata, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, and Mumbai. With radio channels having their own social media pages and a significant audience following them, it’s possible for advertisers to expand their reach like never before.

Music and So Much More

It could be the elections, the Independence Day or even the release of a much-awaited multi-starrer film and be sure that the RJ on your local channel will cover it. Better still, he or she might give trivia, another perception of it or maybe a resounding social joke about it. Of course, music is there—music will always be there but FM radio is equal parts funkier and more socially relevant these days. As the celebrated author Margaret ‘Peggy’ Noonan clearly puts it, TV provided everyone with an image to consider but radio ‘gives birth to a million images in a million brains’.

Discussions on current affairs, social debates on the news, celebrity chat shows, contests, sports updates, traffic updates, prank call segments, and the plain, old letter receiving, everything is on air. Some channels have experimented with new formats and programs that enjoy cult popularity among audiences. For example, 92.7 Big FM’s show ‘Suhaana Safar with Annu Kapoor’ is all about the Golden era of Bollywood. But the creativity lies in its host, Annu Kapoor’s soulful and engaging narration of fascinating facts and trivia about the films, film stars, and filmmakers of Bollywood, and behind-the-scene incidents.

98.3 Radio Mirchi’s Sunday Suspense is yet another crowd-puller. The long-running show has the host, Mir Afsar Ali’s ingenious rendering of famous Bengali horror and thriller classics of Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Samaresh Basu, among others, and even translated works of authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Graham Greene, and Ray Bradbury. The USP of the show lies in its dramatised storytelling, suspenseful music, and chilling sound-effects that create a gripping atmosphere that audiences — both young and old — find hard to resist. Besides, FM channels have upped their games with dedicated channels to genres such as Ishq 104.8 FM in Kolkata as a romantic station that would play the best romantic tracks. In the same way, retro, modern, local flavours, non-film, etc. are some of the many genres that radio stations in metros now offer.

The Internet Mash

Technology has always been a good friend to FM radio even after a century of knowing the radiowaves phenomenon. With the advent of online streaming and live streaming, FM radio in India is also becoming digital and multi-channelled in their formats. It is interesting to see Quora questions by radio lovers requesting help on listening to their hometown radio stations even when they are out of the city or travelling. Such is the loyalty to FM radio stations and they are equally helped by fellow radio lovers with apps that have been developed to aid listening through the internet. Moreover, FM channels are turning to online streaming, live streaming, HD Radio, iTunes tagging, etc. to hold on to their clientele.

The New Celeb ‘RJ’

RJing is a verified educational course now, and youngsters are flocking in hordes. With the sale of 800 more frequencies in the anvil, the manpower crunch is going to be real in the radio industry and the pay is surely attractive. But, it is also a celeb route! RJs have thrived on love and have, in fact, attained celeb status with people repeating their signature lines and showering love when they cross over to other mediums.

Hyderabad’s Love Guru and RJ Bhargav from Radio City have topped the charts in popularity along with RJ Chaitu from RED FM. In fact, Radio City tops the listening stats in Hyderabad due to their immense fame. Besides, many websites regularly run features on how Hyderabad’s famous RJ’s look like, such is the craze about them. In Kolkata, RJ Mir Afsar Ali’s popularity landed him on TV as well as films. Closely following him are other celebrity RJs of Kolkata like RJ Praveen, RJ Den among others.

Sometimes, you may not even realise you are hearing a radio, but chances are, you have given in to the ease of listening to a curated playlist tuned to the season, or listened to a peppy talk show lampooning the social reality of the day or just about smiled to various antics by energetic RJs. Radio has survived the onslaught of iPods, MP3 players, online music streaming apps and will continue to command a share of the audience attention and advertising slots as long as telecom exists.

As smartphone and broadband availability increases, the naysayers would say that the threat of music streaming apps becomes real. However, the fact remains that digital platforms simply cannot challenge the spontaneous and engaging medium of radio that promises instant results. And with FM radio in India entering the internet domain, who’s to stop us from listening?

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