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Radio Column: Incredible India Goes Radio Ga-Ga

by David Ricquish

image of Map of India showing Radio Mirchi outlets

Map of India showing Radio Mirchi outlets.
© Radio Mirchi FM

Until about five years ago, 16 per cent of the world's population had only one radio broadcaster to listen to, All India Radio. In 2007, things are improving. They now have half a dozen stations with a few more on the way.

Welcome to Incredible India - Where RJ's Rule.

Imagine living in a city of 20 million plus people [Mumbai] and having just a couple of different radio stations to choose from. Imagine only being allowed to listen to news broadcasts from one station, the state controlled one. Imagine the excitement of hearing the same Bollywood hits on each of the half dozen new FM stations now on the air.

image of Radio Mirchi promo poster

Promotional poster for young male listeners Radio Mirchi
© Radio Mirchi FM

Although radio broadcasting in India goes back to the early 1920's, and All India Radio is more of a national institution than the BBC is in Britain, Indians have been forbidden a deregulated and local radio choice for nearly 80 years.

The strange result is that it's not until the 21st century, that the growing technological superpower of India, finally discovers what the rest of the world has known for decades. That radio can be fun, entertaining, informative, build business and civil society, and deliver consumer and community choice.

1.1 Billion Audience

The rest of the world finds it hard to grasp that 1.1 billion people live in India, and that nearly 30% of those live in urban centers. Hardly anyone can name more than one or two of the top ten largest metro areas in the nation, all having populations of more than 3 million people.

image of Radio Mirchi promo poster

Promotional poster for young female listeners Radio Mirchi
© Radio Mirchi FM

Take Pune for instance, it ranks number eight. Previously known as Poona, this middling size city by Indian standards [about 5 million] has just been granted three new private FM stations, SouthAsia FM, Radio City and Radio One. They join Radio Mirchi that's been around a year or two.

Add a couple of All India Radio stations on AM and FM and an open university station, and that's the complete radio choice in a city with a population nearly a million more than the total in New Zealand - which has hundreds of stations.

The reasons for this late arrival of radio competition are wrapped up in a combination of a BBC style public service radio tradition of which Lord Reith would be proud, the sheer challenge of other priorities in the economy and society since independence, government bungling of the first round of private radio allocations, the power of Bollywood movies to deliver popular music and entertainment, and the ignorance of local entrepreneurs as to the possibilities of commercial radio.

Jazzy Jingles

image of Radio City 91.1 FM Delhi promotion

Radio City 91.1 FM Delhi promotion
© Radio City

In 2007, it's all changing. Says a recent report 'Celebrity hosts, jazzy jingles and big ticket prizes have changed the face of Indian radio since it was deregulated' and expansion plans over the next five years call for AIR and private radio coverage to grow from just 38 per cent to 80 per cent of more than a billion Indians.

Large commercial groups are building networks across the Indian states and provinces, and even regional radio groups are emerging to serve, for example, Tamil listeners in the south.

Virgin Gets Fever

Foreign investors, although limited in their ability to get involved, are partnering local companies.

Richard Branson's Virgin International Radio Group is behind Fever 104FM [Hit Music & Entertainment Co Pvt Ltd]; Irish based Independent News & Media is involved with Jagran FM [Shri Puran Multimedia Ltd] - and already has consultants from its New Zealand radio operations advising on how to establish a commercially viable brand.
image of Annie Arakkal

Annie Arakkal, Radio One FM breakfast RJ
© Radio One
photo by Aneesh Bhasim

Even the BBC is a player, through a Netherland based holding company - controlling 20 per cent of Radio One [Radio Mid-day West [India] Pvt Ltd] - and supplying music and entertainment programs in a commercial arrangement that would have founder Lord Reith spinning in his grave.

On the subject of spinning, there are no DJ's on Indian radio. Instead, they have RJ's. Radio jocks of course.

Gold Rainbows almost cover Radio Anna

All India Radio was given a head start to set up new networks, with FM Rainbow and FM Gold in all the major markets - city wise as they say in Delhi.

Their recent attempts to start up local community radio stations to keep market dominance have been thwarted by the government. No more, it said after a couple sprung up in isolated states.

Instead, colleges, universities, non-profit organizations and civil society groups are being encouraged to follow the success of Radio Anna, the 50 watt FM university station from Chennai [Madras] that has successfully broadcast all manner of local programs for a number of years.

Gyan Vani FM is also on the move. With educational broadcasts covering many subjects, this open university network on air in about 25 major cities, is expanding to another 11 cities, with even more to come.

WorldSpace via AsiaStar

There's more competition in the air, literally. WorldSpace satellite radio offers some 40 channels into India via AsiaStar. With no commercials, and a wide range of formats, it's proving very popular to savvy young audiences in the metro areas, with subscriptions growing strongly.
image of Regional Operating Center, WorldSpace

Regional Operating Center, WorldSpace
© WorldSpace Inc

A recent report from Lucknow commenting on the popularity of WorldSpace stated 'AM is virtually obsolete, FM, increasingly, is beginning to get on the nerves of people with so many adverts, an overdose of RJ babble, and 'cut' songs'.

New Radio Dial and more

For now, AIR continues to expand its Rainbow FM network, and Indian cities are beginning to discover an FM radio dial featuring the sounds of Big 92.7, Radio Mirchi, MyFM, Radio City, Radio One, SouthAsia FM, Suryan FM, Hello FM Radio, Red FM, Hit 95 FM, Fever FM, Power FM, Amar FM, Visakha FM, Jagran FM and Radio Oolala...with no doubt, more to come.
image from All India Radio

All India Radio maintains a traditional face, even on the internet.
© All India Radio

A large shortwave radio service continues to service mainly rural areas, digital radio is on the very near horizon, and more satellite radio services can be expected.

India's 1.1 billion listeners can expect more technology delivery platforms, more music - some 'cut' and some played full length to please the purists - and greater choice of national, regional and local programs and services. Including news sources.

Incredible India not all on AIR

From an almost complete reliance on state controlled AM and shortwave radio just five years ago, to private FM networks and satellite channels, podcasts, mobile phone downloads and digital radio in 2007, it's Incredible India.

Read the fascinating story of early radio broadcasting in India, and for the story of the 'forgotten' American Armed Forces Radio stations throughout India during 1944-1946.

The Pacific Asian Log Radio Guides have a complete listing of All India Radio stations throughout India on both AM and Shortwave, with details of broadcast hours, frequencies, locations and other useful information.

NEW! Coming later in 2007, a full listing of FM stations in India as part of the new PAL FM Radio Guide.


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