Radio in the digital age

New Delhi | Published: June 20, 2017 8:06:19 AM

The radio industry is a very small part of the broadcasting universe. At Rs 2,300 crore, we comprise about 5% of the broadcasting sector in India.

radio, digital age
As a media market, we have the best of both worlds: multiplicity of genres as well as diversity of languages.

The radio industry is a very small part of the broadcasting universe. At Rs 2,300 crore, we comprise about 5% of the broadcasting sector in India. Its modest market share is probably the reason why the path to digitisation of radio is so poorly defined. Radio should be as much a part of our master plan for the ‘Digital India Vision 2020’.

Realising the vision of  digital radio

As a media market, we have the best of both worlds: multiplicity of genres as well as diversity of languages. Radio is a powerful medium that gains from these advantages. It is not only interactive, but is also very local in nature and is free of costs, unlike cable and satellite television. There are many technologies we need to experiment with to realise the vision of digital radio in India, while remaining true to radio’s fundamental character as an interactive, free-of-cost, local medium.

All said and done, radio is growing at a steady speed. While digital is growing exponentially, private FM radio in India is growing at a formidable 14.5%, and that is primarily because of FM expansion in tier 2 and 3 cities although the ad pie continues to be only 4%. This is not very encouraging; as internationally, in countries like the US, the radio ad pie is about 14%. However, we hope to see it grow to 7% in India by 2020.

The unfortunate thing is that the world has gone digital while we are still talking analog FM technology with a horizon spanning over 15 years. What I mean is, in this digital age, one of the biggest drivers for broadcast media is technological advancement, which could drive both content  and revenue.

For instance, the public service broadcaster, All India Radio, has introduced digital radio mondiale (DRM) transmitters. These are now capable of transmitting signals in analog, digital or even simulcast mode (that is, a mix of both analog and digital). This progressive technology has replaced 37 obsolete medium wave and short wave transmitters of AIR. However, private FM broadcasters are still operating on an analog FM technology and paying a huge licence fee for it.

Though the trend of AIR shifting to DRM is encouraging, the challenges faced by terrestrial radio from streaming platforms (web and mobile) cannot be ignored. The digital audio entertainment sector is fast changing. The likes of Saavn and Gaana are establishing themselves, and have become a major competitor to the radio industry today. While they are seamlessly interactive, they also offer on-demand
services, etc.

Tech and regulatory challenges

So, the challenge is not about one private FM player competing with another player; the challenge is the battle of FM players against the ever-changing technology around them. Listeners here have far more options to listen to their kind of music rather than FM radio through web radios, podcasts, audio-on-demand, etc.

iHeartRadio is another such global example that provides an all-in-one listening experience, bringing a variety of content to its listeners, be it music, news, talk radio, sports or comedy. Along with aggregating most US radio stations, iHeartRadio then distributes this content over the internet through web or mobile, whichever medium is desired by the digitised listener. Now this is something we need to experiment with in India and adapt to our conditions.

In India, another challenge is that high-end smartphones have done away with FM tuners altogether. Decision makers in the mobile industry view internet radio as the way forward. Their logic is simple: data brings in money while FM radio is free. This is an area of concern. The importance of terrestrial radio has to be properly understood beyond its rupee value.
Besides regular programming and the entertainment that it provides, it has always played the age-old role in disaster management. I should point out here that India is one of the very few countries in the world wherein news is not allowed on private radio stations. This has had a very damaging effect both on the growth of radio as well as its impact. Local news is the lifeline of radio broadcasting.
In an ideal scenario, all strata of society should consume digital radio as a mass medium. However, in the current situation, the cost of digital receivers (upward of `13,000 per receiver) becomes an entry barrier for most listeners. In this context, the DAB transition in Norway is worth citing. Norway has switched from FM to DAB radio, through the ‘pop-your-phone’ route; with a simple dongle, every smartphone becomes a digital radio! I think we should consider learning from its experiment.

Nisha Narayanan is COO, Red FM

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