Tarun Katial’s office, with black and white stick figures leaping around orange walls, looks every bit the sort of hip office where a heroine from one of the soaps he once created would work as she balanced a personal life that could keep you engrossed for years.

BIG thinker: Katial found the Bollywood formula doesn’t always work in small towns.

In the dozen or so years he has spent in the industry, 32-year-old Katial seems to have grown wiser by several decades without ageing at all, like some of the stars in his soaps who would have “aged" several generations in a couple of years on the show. It is no wonder then that Katial, who was a hard-charging celebrity producer at Star Plus, now sits in a surprisingly serene office compared with the buzzing vibe outside and calmly handles his young office and chaotic work schedule. Even as his office was shaking off its first anniversary celebrations and preparing for a Diwali party, a board with staff photographs was at the centre of some office melodrama. The night before this reporter visited the facility, one of the station’s star radio jockeys had shot off an emotional email because his photograph was not on the board, and a fan who came to see him noticed that his face was left out of the montage. Now, the RJ’s hastily stuck picture flapped wildly on the board.

“Young people these days know exactly what they want. They know more than us and want to get somewhere faster than us," says the chief operating officer of BIG FM. So, when his stations put out job postings, employees who started work only a few months before apply for managerial positions, even suggesting that if the baby-faced Katial can head operations, why can’t they be managers?

His radio network, which bet big on such growing aspirations in metros and small towns, has licences in 50 cities to start the largest network of radio stations. BIG FM is the only private operator to have stations in small cities such as Surat, Rajkot, Bhubaneswar, Asansol, Mysore and Jammu. A station was just opened in Solapur, in Maharashtra’s sugar belt, on 16 November. And a little before we meet, Katial called to congratulate the station manager in Srinagar, where they also operate the only private radio station. Though, initially, the radio jockeys didn’t want their names to be known for security reasons, the station is very popular and has notched up good revenues.

In ratings released last month, BIG FM was the radio station with the widest reach in Bangalore and the second widest reach in Mumbai. It also has the most heard breakfast show in Mumbai. (Mint’s sister company Fever 104 competes with Big FM in several cities.)

In potential stations or cities where they already are present, Katial says they look not for size but for how ready the city is to partake in its slice of New India. He scours college campuses; scans the latest K-show-inspired saris and furnishings; sees if there is a BPO industry coming up (such as in Bhubaneswar); new college campuses being built (such as in Bhopal); or if it has local cable channels that play their own versions of Indian Idol or Boogie Woogie. He says that on several such trips to Indore, he saw a great cut-rate version of Indian Idol, and several contestants from there actually graduated to the real show.

But small cities have surprised the stations, both with their success and their individuality. Katial says radio has dashed the myth that anything Bollywood works. At their stations, the biggest hits range from Bundeli folk music and Oriya devotional music to Telegu film music, and both Gujarati and Marathi music in Vadodara.

Even with Bollywood, it is not all the biggest hits that work. So, when a Bollywood soundtrack is released, it is separated into several categories. Punjabi songs go to the Chandigarh station, melodious songs go to the Kolkata station and only the Top 100 chartbusters play in the New Delhi market which, Katial says, is very aspirational.

In fact, his shift from television to radio has meant that while he made a name creating soaps from scratch or adapting international hits for Indian audiences, he now fills up auditoriums with potential listeners to figure out what they like and then have the station put out that sort of music. “On television, we decide what people want to see, but radio is a very local medium," he says. “Conversation drifts depending on where people take it. Television is a one-way medium and radio is a two-way medium."

Television is also creating that connect in a somewhat unexpected way. Reality shows, which are all the rage these days, mean that contestants who flash bling on the television screen also go back to Shillong, Srinagar or Darjeeling, he says. Katial’s events division organized a TV shoot for Voice of India in Varanasi where, a colleague reports, thousands turned up to see local boy Harshit perform.

When he started reality shows with Indian Idol, did Katial think they would take on a life of their own? Katial says he was confident even when reality shows were more talent shows and had none of the soapy melodrama they now have. “The rags-to- riches thing is very big in this country," he says, trying to explain the genie he unleashed. “There are so many classes of people here, and people always aspire to belong to a higher class, and the difference between the two is huge unlike the West, where a certain lifestyle is a given."

So, having a Srinagar boy make it to national television and the cover of national magazines connects local viewers with the shows and with television. Although Fame Gurukul’s Srinagar boy, Qazi Touqeer, is now all buffed up and completing his first film, most eventually make it to the event circuit, performing at weddings in Ludhiana or Patiala. Katial says he ran into one such contestant on a flight back from Bhubaneswar, where he had brought a piece of reality-show glamour to one of around 50 concerts he does a year, charging Rs1 lakh for each.

It was producing new age shows and stars such as these that gave Katial celebrity status—and hypertension. So, six years ago, Katial enrolled for a Vipassana course, where participants are taught meditation during an austere 10-day camp. He attendsa Vipassana camp every year and encourages senior management to do so as well. He’s on a diet that excludes carbs between meals, and says: “I am quite blunt if anyone in the office has put on weight." A gym membership seems to come free with the job.

It is no wonder then that Katial orders a whole wheat, no cheese pizza for lunch at an Italian restaurant across the road from his office. My appetite wanes as I eat my cheesy pizza and think about my breakfast— and his fruit- and juice-filled morning and the lime shot that will top off his meal.

As we walk back to the mall that houses the BIG FM office, he accosts office smokers with the zeal of a born-again health fanatic who knows what a life in the entertainment industry can do. Maybe his listeners are tuning in to his lifestyle too. According to Katial, late-night prime is now big in Mumbai where, he claims, people seem to be turning off drama-filled television to tune in to easy listening on radio.


Born: 7 January 1975 (Chandigarh)

Education: MMS from Bombay University (now University of Mumbai)

Work Profile: Began as a media trainee at Saatchi and Saatchi; was a media executive at Enterprise Nexus and Ogilvy and Mather, senior vice-president of Star Plus, business head and executive vice-president of Sony Entertainment Television; is now CEO of Big FM

Favourite TV Show: ‘Indian Idol’

Favourite Radio Shows: ‘BIG Chai’ with Archana/Vrajesh and Raju Shrivastav (on BIG FM 92.7, Mumbai station); ‘Wake up with Whoopi’ (Premiere Radio Networks)