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Future radio

Hope floats on air. While the wrangle over the third phase of FM licenses goes on in court and within government, two new segments are poised for a leap.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2010 23:01 IST

Hope floats on air. While the wrangle over the third phase of FM licenses goes on in court and within government, two new segments are poised for a leap. With markedly different strategies for content, distribution and financing, Internet and community radio stations are today holding out promises that the FM channels, hamstrung by overbearing legislation, have been unable to fulfil.

The new kids are pulling at different ears. While the largely-unmonitored Net radio is riding the growth in digital connectivity in India’s cities, the more guarded domain of community radio is looking at an upcoming policy amendment to spread out in rural India.

For now, both are running on individual adrenaline.

Friji Karthikeyan, 27-year-old software engineer in Mumbai who founded Schizoid online radio, claims an average of a mere 3,000 listeners a day from around the world. And that’s after a jump of 100 per cent over a year. (Compare that to the average weekday audience of 6.7 lakh that the FM stations in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore totted up in March 2009.)

Clearly, there’s a long way before any online station — Schizoid or others such as Radio 79, Verve and My Opus — starts making money. Nikhel Mahajan, creative director at Audio Ashram, the Delhi-based parent of Radio 79, claims a potentially larger listenership. He points out that online radio can be heard on the mobile phone too. Such a distribution platform would indeed make a more robust business sense — at 42 crore, India’s mobile user base is much larger than its 70-odd lakh broadband connections.

“We have a five-year revenue plan. [But] right now, our aim is to explore different genres... because the Indian market is deprived of good electronic music,” says Mahajan, 30.

Karthikeyan, whose channel is dedicated to sub-genres of trance music, plans to charge sooner: “Our radio streams at 128 kilobits per second today. In the coming months, I plan to charge a small fee from listeners who want to stream at a faster 256 kbps.”

Avoiding Bollywood saves on hefty music royalties — a matter the FM channels are fighting in court. Mahajan says, “We have tied up with 250 record labels… With some we have an understanding, others we pay royalty.”

But there could be other headaches. Ashish Pherwani, associate director (media practice) at consultancy Ernst & Young, says, “If you are streaming from Mumbai and your listener is in, say, Jharkhand, there could be complications on tax rates to charge.”

Community radio, on the other hand, faces a different set of challenges. With its reach of 10-15 km from a low-powered transmitter, it’s meant to be for a community, by the community. But its limited reach means it’s difficult to make money off it.

So, though in a poor country such as ours, community radio holds out the promise of effective, location-specific information and entertainment, only 48 such stations have hit the airwaves (out of the 64 licences given out).

And thanks to a policy that till 2006 allowed only educational institutes to host such stations, more than half the channels are campus-based.

But the government has started thinking on a different frequency. A senior information and broadcasting ministry official says a new amendment extending financial support through government ads and Panchayat funds is expected to be placed before the Union cabinet by the end of February. Information regarding jobs and educational schemes will be broadcast too.

Such support will meet the enthusiasm that’s palpable on ground. R Sreedhar, director of the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia who set up the country’s first community radio in Chennai’s Anna University, reveals that more than 700 community radio applications are already in and 150 of them have been given letters of intent by the ministry.

Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation and a member of lobbying group Community Radio Forum, says, “Without the ad support, community radio will not go to the hands of real communities. Only rich NGOs that can put in the Rs 8-10 lakh needed for a set-up will keep hosting them.” Manzar’s Foundation has set up a community radio in Rajasthan’s Tilonia.

Thanks to such collective and individual efforts, we listeners can expect something fresh in the air in a year’s time. And have choices beyond Bollywood songs, for a change.