New Delhi: The information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry on Tuesday cleared a revised proposal that brings political parties one step closer to being allowed the use of the burgeoning private radio channels to air their campaign ads, a move that would open up a potentially lucrative source of revenue for FM networks.
The Election Commission (EC), which conducts elections to state legislatures and Parliament, had earlier sent back the proposal put up by the I&B ministry because it wanted some clarifications.
Specifically, EC had held that while such a move doesn’t go against its model code of conduct, it can be launched only after a so-called programme code of radio is suitably modified.
The code defines the rules of commercial advertising on private radio channels, which, among other things, until now prohibited the airing of political ads.
“The EC has no problem. Airing political ads on radio doesn’t go against the EC’s model code of conduct. It is just another medium like the print and TV. However, the programme code of radio has to be changed for this. Also, the content of these ads would have to be cleared by the ministry of information and broadcasting,” election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi said.
An I&B official, who is familiar with the matter, but not authorized to speak to the media, said the government would lay down standards to ensure that political ads do not malign rival parties.
The official added that EC had sought some “technical clarification”, which the ministry had submitted by Tuesday afternoon, but declined to disclose details.
Once EC signs off on the revised proposals, the I&B ministry will issue the required notification allowing private radio stations to air political ads. The move dovetails with a string of state elections that will lead up to parliamentary polls, which are due by May 2009. Access to this medium would potentially allow politicians to reach a wider audience, especially given the sharp spurt in the number of radio stations in the country. There are at present about 400 FM radio stations in the country.
According to industry estimates, the additional revenue that could come to private FM stations once the recommendation is approved is about Rs120 crore.
According to a 2008 report on the Indian entertainment and media industry by audit and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the government is in the process of going through with auctions for more radio stations, which when concluded would double their number.
Major political parties are upbeat.
“Radio has become a sound medium of communication with the popularization of FM channels. Today it is an important means of communication and has its lively presence across the country. Therefore, it is natural for political parties to use them for advertisements,” said Tom Vadakkan, media secretary of the Congress party.
The main Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, plans to use radio in a “big way”, said spokesman Prakash Javadekar. “It was ridiculous that airing of political ads on private FM channels wasn’t allowed earlier,” he said.
Experts, meanwhile, said while radio might be an effective medium and cheaper than television, political parties have to also use it effectively. “...for using FM as a medium, political parties have to organize themselves, convey a serious message, argue it better and have more discipline. They have to say better things in a better way,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, psephologist and chairman of Centre for Media Studies, a not-for-profit organization.
Ashit Kukian, executive vice-president and national head sales at Radio City 91.1FM, said, “For now, the ads will be purely pertaining to a specific political party and their achievements, without any reference to, or deriding other political parties. Beyond that, we may be able to carry capsules where a candidate speaks about the work he has done for his constituency. As far as branded content is concerned, there are regulatory restrictions. Radio stations cannot cover news or current affairs, so we are awaiting clarification on that front.”
HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint and the Hindustan Times, owns the Fever 104 FM channel.
Gouri Shah in Mumbai contributed to this story.