FM channels test limits of non-Bollywood music

FM channels test limits of non-Bollywood music

Aditya Krishna’s commute between home and work in Mumbai has become slightly more interesting over the last two months. The 29-year-old marketing executive at Cadbury India Ltd would often be forced to switch off the radio on his journey from Wadala to Mahalaxmi because he found listening to the radio unbearable. “The RJs (radio jockeys) talk a lot of rubbish, which was quite a pain," he says.

Radio One is the only FM station to break the mould in Mumbai since 29 January, playing a mix of genres including pop, rock, hip-hop and electronica. Radio One made the same shift in Delhi as well the same day, featuring tracks from the 1970s to the 1990s, to distinguish it from Hit 95 FM, which has been playing international and local indie music for the past five years.

Most Indian FM channels play Bollywood music to the exclusion of all other genres, catering to what they say is the overwhelming demand.

Hindi film music has remained the primary format for the industry and there have been “limited efforts to drive content innovation," according to the latest report on the media industry by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) and KPMG—Digital Dawn: The Metamorphosis Begins.

When Fever 104 FM was launched in Mumbai, it played various kinds of music before reverting to a fixed diet of Hindi film songs. Fever 104 FM is run by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint. The only other FM stations that eschew Bollywood are Radio Indigo in Bangalore and Chennai Live 104.8 FM in the southern city. All India Radio’s FM Rainbow channel plays international music in addition to Bollywood fare.

The popular demand for Hindi film music, to the exclusion of all else, makes life difficult for those trying to market a playlist that varies from the norm.

“Even though it’s a differentiated product, selling an English radio channel to advertisers will be tough because the listenership is limited," said Abneesh Roy, associate director, institutional equities research, Edelweiss Securities Ltd.

Radio One has had a mixed response since its relaunch in Mumbai. The station, which ranks seventh among a dozen or so channels in the city, saw market share decline marginally by 0.1 percentage point to 5.4%. In Delhi, where it is No. 7 among 13 FM stations, it held on to its share in the first month of the relaunch, according to radio audience measurement (RAM), the radio listenership service of TAM Media Research.

So, have audience tastes changed enough to justify a variation in the play list? It’s too early to say but the recent changes seem to indicate another step in the evolution of radio, although none of it is likely to make much difference to the non-mainstream listener.

The cumulative reach (listnership) of Radio One rose from 28.1% to 28.5% following the re-launch in Mumbai whereas in Delhi it declined from 32.1% to 29.8% by the end of the first month of the launch, according to RAM.

Radio One (which was started in 1997 as Radio Midday, then became Go 92.5 FM in 2002) was an all-English radio station in the initial days. But that restricted its audience. “So, while we had 220,000 listeners, Radio Mirchi had 3 million," says Tariq Ansari, chairman and managing director of Next Media Works Ltd, the holding company of Radio One, referring to the channel owned by Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd.

An advertiser would pay one-tenth the rate charged by the top channels and “that too was them being charitable. We were informed by that and realized the only way to play the game was to be in the mass space, albeit reluctantly," he adds.

Bennett Coleman’s newspapers compete with those published by HT Media in various markets.

Radio One played Hindi music when it was launched in 2006 (in seven cities) but that didn’t lead to a pickup in ratings as it was undifferentiated. “We don’t have big pockets, so (we) will languish at four-five and sound like everyone else with no reason for an advertiser to buy," says Ansari. “We needed a differentiated position to allow us to see advertisers and make a case."

Ansari explains that the switch back—he clarifies that it’s to international and not “English" music—is a consequence of how the urban audience has changed since they first launched in 2006.

According to the Ficci-KPMG report, there has been a consistent increase in listenership since 2007 across all major cities. The increase in listenership is partly driven by out-of-home listenership through mobile phones. The share of radio listenership on mobile phones has increased from 20% in 2009 to 25% in 2011, according to this report.

Radio One plays a great deal of 1970-80s music, which it believes is more accessible and does not narrow down the audience base (it plays Hindi music in Bangalore, Pune and Ahmedabad). The differentiation that Ansari speaks of is also an indication that non-Bollywood radio stations are slowly gaining acceptability among advertisers but he agrees that media planners (agencies that buy space in newspapers, radio channels) are focused on numbers.

That didn’t discourage, a deals portal that partnered with the recently released Bollywood feature film Kahaani, featuring Vidya Balan. Radio One was among the six FM channels it chose to advertise in. The decision was not based on the market share numbers that media planners traditionally abide by.

“The fact that Radio One had just relaunched with English music and was offering lower advertisement rates obviously added to its appeal," says Anisha Singh, founder and chief executive officer,

“This homogeneity of programming is a result of flawed policies where all stations pay the same as licence and content fees," says Shridhar Subramaniam, president (India and Middle East), Sony Music Entertainment India Pvt. Ltd.

“So, they all sound the same and have no differentiation."

The two biggest cities in the south seem to be more accepting of radio stations that play non-film music.

Chennai Live, the only English radio station among eight in Chennai, raised its advertising rates for the first time this fiscal. “We were initially written off," says Prem Kumar, chief operating officer, Chennai Live, as the company floundered for the first two years following the channel’s introduction in July 2008. There are no official third-party figures to validate the numbers for Chennai because RAM does not cover the market.

The Muthoot Group-owned channel raised ad rates for the first time in fiscal 2012, by 40-60%. Rates will be raised in the next fiscal as well, Kumar says. The channel’s advertisers include premium hotels, restaurants, electronics and automobile brands, some of which approach the station directly as they feel a brand connect, he says.

Ansari agrees that channels connect better with advertisers directly rather than with media buyers who haven’t necessarily warmed up to them. “Advertisers (who seek us) either have a brand that’s international or an audience that’s international," he says.

In Bangalore, which has a thriving rock culture and a young cosmopolitan crowd, thanks to many colleges and the information technology (IT) industry, Radio Indigo still survives after five years of playing just international music. Like Radio One, it doesn’t want to be known as niche channel because “that makes it (sound) small and peripheral," says Sanjay Prabhu, managing director of Radio Indigo, a Jupiter Capital venture.

“We call ourselves a non-mass station. We have almost a million young listeners. It also reflects in the advertisers—we get companies such as Apple Inc, Volkswagen AG, BMW AG, Harley-Davidson Inc. etc." Radio Indigo is one among 10 FM stations in the city.

Media experts refer to this as perception buying, based on the brand being seen as premium or differentiated and not based on the actual circulation or market share, similar to English news channels and dailies commanding a higher price than local-language ones. This could have positive indication for stations like Radio One.

“Bollywood and its various language derivatives will always be the highest rates stations in any city," says Subramaniam. “That music format is the mass and dominant market. However, the parameters for success are not always ratings, it should be profits. Non-Bollywood stations can build more targeted brands and audiences and, therefore, command higher ad rates, they have access to more innovative and unique content hence are more differentiated."

“In markets where there are six to 10 radio channels, a lot is “me too" content with little differentiation," says Jehil Thakkar, head of media and entertainment, KPMG Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd. “In radio channels there is a lot of perception buying. A differentiated positioning will give Radio One an opportunity to get these advertisers on board."