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Private FM stations will not be allowed to play their own commercials in between AIR news bulletins. (AFP)
Private FM stations will not be allowed to play their own commercials in between AIR news bulletins. (AFP)

Opinion: Why AIR news on private FM makes little sense

  • Private FM stations cannot be expected to amplify the government’s voice

Last fortnight, the government allowed private FM channels to broadcast English and Hindi news bulletins from state-owned radio network All India Radio (AIR). The information and broadcasting ministry launched the facility eight years after the cabinet had first approved the policy guidelines under Phase III of radio privatization. The most important precondition of using the AIR news capsules is to carry the bulletins unaltered. The government has made the service available free of cost on a trial basis till 31 May. However, according to the terms, during the trial period, private FM broadcasters are expected to avoid carrying the news in disturbed, border and Naxal-affected areas.

Private FM stations will not be allowed to play their own commercials in between AIR news bulletins, which, as mentioned earlier, have to be carried unchanged. That is not all. The private FM channels will have to mandatorily carry the commercials that intersperse the AIR bulletins. Besides, the channels will have to mention that the news has been sourced from AIR. While private FM stations are allowed to carry AIR news bulletins simultaneously, they also have the option of deferring them by 30 minutes. In the case of the latter, they will have to announce that the bulletin being broadcast is deferred live.

Unfortunately, the government’s offer allowing AIR news to private radio broadcasters is too little, too late. For years, private radio operators have been lobbying for permission to carry private news on their channels without success.

There are several reasons why AIR news on private FM stations makes little sense.

For starters, private FM broadcasters cannot be expected to amplify the government’s voice. “Most of us are media houses. We have our own sources of news. The government should have confidence in us. Giving us AIR news is not acceptable. That is why its usage will be need-based," says Prashant Panday, chief executive officer (CEO), Radio Mirchi, the FM radio brand of the Times Group that publishes The Times of India and The Economic Times. Harshad Jain, CEO, radio and entertainment at HT Media Ltd, says that they have enrolled themselves for the service and are evaluating their options. HT Media, the publisher of Mint, owns Fever FM and Radio Nasha, which compete with other radio stations across several markets.

Panday feels that media companies such as theirs can produce better news than AIR. Radio consultant Sunil Kumar says, though some news is better than no news (“no news is good news does not hold good for radio") for radio stations, the offer to carry AIR bulletins does not make sense as each station has a different ‘sound’. “Introducing a new, incompatible sound every now and then may not be the best thing to do."

Clearly, the sudden insertion of AIR bulletins may not gel with the sound and character of a private radio station. Besides, the news will not be local, which may be the very basic requirement of an FM station. That is not all. Repeating government news will mean that “it’s low on plurality of opinions", adds Kumar.

According to Vineet Singh Hukmani, managing director and chief executive, Next Radio Ltd, the operator of 94.3 Radio One, the dilemma for all private FM radio players is that “this is a foot in the door in the news broadcast area after a very long time and one should not let it pass". “However, the commercials don’t make sense as the news capsules can’t be edited, can’t be monetised and yet valuable inventory has to be allocated for it. So, once the commercial viability is corrected, all players would be happy to look at it."

Yet others hope that private news be allowed. News on radio builds stickiness and drives listenership. “It will have more audience, more time spent listening and, perhaps, opportunities for additional revenue by way of sponsorship of news bulletins or news and current affairs based programming. Some stations may even consider the idea of an all-news format," says Kumar.

Radio operators say that a lot of radio listenership happens on the move. For lots of people, the only source of news is private FM. “In case of riots or floods, the government communicates with the public through radio. So, why not appreciate this uniqueness of radio and allow us to do news? We are governed by the same rules as other media on quality of content," argues Panday.

Clearly, private news may be crisper, smarter and more local—delivered in a manner that goes with the rest of the programming on the station.

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