Listeners in the US can now tune in to Indian radio programmes beamed by BIG 92.7 FM.

The Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group-controlled Adlabs’ radio network has begun syndicating content to Asian FM, one of the biggest radio stations catering to South Asian audiences in the US.

NEERAJ CHATURVEDI: Station head, Delhi, Fever 104 FM. Strategy: The differentiator is the music-only format. Plus, a series of promotional contests underline the channel’s presence in the market.

This is just one of the many marketing moves the radio station, which has launched 33 channels in India in the past year, has undertaken as part of Big Reach—a marketing drive spearheaded from Bangalore, combining on-air and on-ground activities.

Its rival, Mid-Day Multimedia Ltd’s Radio One, shortened its programme segment to reach out to the young while Radio Today Broadcasting Ltd, the radio division of the India Today group, has launched a women’s only channel.

Fever 104 FM, a radio channel from HT Media Ltd (which also publishes Mint), is focusing on promotional schemes and campaigns. Since its launch in October last year, it has run three contests—Fever Bolo, Bingo Tick Tock Boing and HT Housie—with rich rewards for the winners. “The scale of promotions is surely a major point of differentiation from the other radio stations," says Neeraj Chaturvedi, station head, Delhi, Fever 104 FM.

As more than 100 stations strive to find a niche in the suddenly crowded Indian radio space, private players are experimenting with innovative strategies to rope in listeners and advertisers.

There is no doubt that radio in India is poised for massive expansion, thanks to technological advancements and the entry of private players—liberalization in the late 1990s opened up radio companies to private and foreign investment, ending the domination of state broadcaster All India Radio. PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that the radio industry will grow to Rs1,700 crore by 2011—an almost three-fold growth from the current Rs650 crore.

From 20 channels in 2006, the number has risen to 100. Sunil Kumar, a radio analyst for Big River Radio (India) Pvt. Ltd, a consulting firm that advises radio stations in India, says he expects about 300 stations to launch in the next 18 months.

In January last year, during the second phase of privatization, 337 channels were up for grabs across 91 cities. Of these, 245 were acquired, and the government picked up Rs895.6 crore in one-time licence fees. Bids for stations in New Delhi and Mumbai touched Rs30 crore each.

These channels have to grab a substantial chunk of the advertising pie to recover costs. According to a 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, 3.1% of all media advertising in the country that year was on the radio. The share is expected to grow to 5.5%, or Rs1,200 crore in advertising revenues, by 2011. That is more than three times the Rs360 crore in ad revenues radio stations earned in 2005.

To survive in such a competitive field, radio stations will need to diversify, say experts. That means distinguishing themselves through new and better programming and promotions.

At the moment, that is not really happening. “There is not much differentiation between the stations as a whole," says Big River Radio’s Kumar. “They mostly play Hindi hits." In such a scenario, analysts say, existing and upcoming stations may struggle to keep listeners, generate new ones and increase ad revenues.

One critical factor for the similarity of FM content across channels is the government regulation that stations cannot air news broadcasts. That pigeonholes stations into just playing music, some experts say. “If we were allowed to do news, it would add more value for the listener," says Praveen Malhotra, vice-president of sales and head of the North India operations for Big FM.

PRAVEEN MALHOTRA: Vice-president, sales, and head of the North India operation, Big FM .Strategy: Starting this month, Big 92.7 FM began syndicating its content to US-based radio station Asian FM, one of the biggest radio stations catering to South Asian audiences in the US.

The bigger players in the field are unfazed by the competition. Prashant Panday, CEO, Radio Mirchi, says the onus is on the new stations to establish themselves. Radio Mirchi, which relaunched in 2001, claimed to be the largest private FM radio network in India in its most recent annual report. “We are the leaders of the market. We don’t have to change," says Panday. “So many people already know who we are."

Panday says that instead of playing for the same market, new channels should explore untapped territories. Only one-third of the population listens to the radio on a daily basis in areas where private FM stations operate, he says. “New radio stations shouldn’t have a problem if they diversify themselves to target new listeners."

The Bhaskar Group’s MY FM has based its strategy on catering to local tastes. “Our marketing strategy stems from the fact that each city is different. A station such as Ajmer, which has a near 30% Sindhi population, has different music and content mix from another station in Rajasthan such as Udaipur or Jaipur—thus making the product, and also the marketing communication, highly customized and local in nature," says Harish Bhatia, business head, MY FM. The group now operates 17 stations across seven states.

Big FM, too, is keen to reach untapped listeners in cities with fewer FM options. The Adlabs venture launched its first station in New Delhi about a year ago. Now, it operates channels in 43 towns and cities, apart from New Delhi and Mumbai. Says Malhotra: “The company focuses on local flavours. Big FM was the first station to broadcast in Kannada in Bangalore."

Malhotra says new stations will need to strategize to address a select audience. “One way for new stations to exploit new markets might be to offer programming only in English, or focus programming on men or youth," she says.

This will help in differentiation as well. As Panday points out, five of the eight private FM stations in New Delhi play mainstream Hindi music. “New stations will have to do something different, like offering music in different genres, to succeed," he says. “There is a great opportunity in segmentation… of occupying a space that is not yet occupied."

Focused programming is the mantra for Radio One as well. Vishnu Athreya, Radio One’s vice-president for programming and brand, says that since July, his station has changed its segment length from one hour to 20 minutes, in part to differentiate itself and in part because research showed it was an effective way to target 22- to 26-year-olds.

“It has helped people identify us as the quick and fast station," says Athreya.

Radio Today is targeting the women in the audience to differentiate itself. In June, it launched Meow 104.8 FM, a radio channel dedicated to women. Now available in New Delhi and Kolkata, it will soon go on air in Mumbai.

The programming is distinct. It follows a talk format, rather than making music the main fare. “Women seek companionship, and want to speak and not be judged. We talk to women, we don’t sing to them," Anil Srivatsa, Meow’s chief operating officer, had said in a previous interview.

Rana Barua: National head of marketing, Radio City.Strategy: Launched a microsite ( as an initiative to reach out and be part of listeners’ lives. Also released ‘Bolo Whatte Fun’—a twin CD pack and cassette comprising 30 tracks.

Fever 104 has taken another route to differentiation. “Fever is already doing things differently. For one, we play a mix of Hindi and English all through the day," says Chaturvedi. Plus, a distinct formatting—as its advertisement points out, “No horoscopes, no agony aunts, no silly jokes: only music."

Advertiser response to these new strategies is yet to become clear. Some players are optimistic. According to Rana Barua, the national head of marketing at Radio City, getting ads will not be a problem. “It is only natural that advertisers would look at the medium as more mainstream since it will have a very enviable national footprint, apart from advantages such as being more interactive, local and cost-efficient," Barua explains in an email interview.

Others are more cautious. Timmy Kandhari, a media analyst and director of the media and entertainment practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers in India, says the number of advertisements will depend on the stations’ content. “If the content is good, it will be easy to get ads," he says. “If not, ads will either stagnate or go down. Ad dollars follow where people’s perceptions lie."

Big River Radio’s Kumar, too, is not convinced. “Stations are going to have to do more of these things to survive," he says. His recommendation: Create stronger radio personalities. Not many stations in New Delhi really have big personalities, says Kumar. “We don’t even know what they look like. Stations really have to market personalities that people can connect with." In addition, Kumar says, stations will need to pick and promote social causes, incorporate technologies such as the Internet and cellphones, and do more on-the-ground promotions to get listeners involved.

Priyanka Mehra contributed to this story.