The radio survived in the era of television. Will it be in a position to take on the internet?
Radio has absorbed new technologies and emerged stronger over the decades
Enamoured of television, media-watchers in the 1940s and ’50s confidently prophesied the imminent death of radio. The medium, they said, could not match the thrill of seeing moving pictures in the comfort of the living room.
The advent of rock-and-roll, embodying the rebellion of an entire generation of youth against the conservatism of the preceding decades, left a bigger following for radio than before and proved the predictions of the doomsayers wrong.
In the decades since, radio has emerged as the ultimate survivor, adapting itself to the tastes of the newer generations of listeners and absorbing newer technologies. In the 1980s and ’90s, it saw off threats posed by personal video recorders and digital compact discs through a greater emphasis on listener-driven programs. By the late ‘90s and early 2000s, radio stations were reinventing themselves to cater to niche audiences: There were stations dedicated to specific genres of content — talk radio, punk rock stations, even stations that played music by a single band 24 hours a day — anticipating the emergence of Spotify and iTunes by a decade or more.
Hence, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of radio’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Broadcast radio today reaches a staggering 99 percent of the Indian population. Rural India relies on it overwhelmingly for information. It also remains the most inexpensive and portable medium: A radio set can be purchased at Rs 50, which makes it cheaper than a mobile phone or a television.
Audio programs easily surmount barriers linked to literacy — allowing even the unlettered to comprehend and absorb news and information. The cost of content production is lower than that incurred on producing visuals — typically one-fifth to one-tenth of the latter. This allows cheaper broadcasting in a bewildering variety of languages, dialects and creative forms.
The technology, having existed for more than 100 years, is not rocket science either. It is now, in fact, possible for even laypersons to design and manufacture broadcast transmitters and receivers. It is not without reason that radio has been the medium of choice for activists and people’s movements. Further, listening to the morning news on radio remains one of most widely reported habits across the globe. The accessibility of radio and the economy of the medium have led to a proliferation of local radio stations that can cater to niche populations in limited geographies.
Today, there are more than 180 community radio stations across India, broadcasting in languages like Bundelkhandi, Garhwali, Awadhi and Santhali — tongues that typically find little or no space on television.
Radio has also been the last man standing in times of calamity and disaster. During situations like the 2004 tsunami, and the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, radio played a stellar role in conveying information on relief work, aid and recovery efforts when other mediums became inaccessible.
Most importantly, radio personalises the experience of listeners, driving them to use their imagination while deciphering what’s unfolding.
“TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains,” wrote the American author Margaret ‘Peggy’ Noonan. In an era that prioritises customised content, her lines provide the perfect summation of the immense flexibility and the continued relevance of the medium. N. Ramakrishnan is a radio producer. He is the founder and director of Ideosync Media Combine, a not-for-profit organisation
NO | EKALAVYA BHATTACHARYA
Radio is dying. We are seeing the final run of the medium, catering to an ageing generation
Internet will, in the near future, replace the ancient technology of radio and all content forms associated with it. Radio does not even bear comparison with the enhanced interactive potential of the Internet.
Streaming platforms allow people to set up their own channels worldwide. The music battle has already been won by the Internet through apps such as Apple Music, Gaana and Saavn.
Streaming apps allow users to play everything they want, even replay entire playlists. The app on each individual’s device ‘understands’ her music choices and introduces her to new music by curating playlists, anticipating what she would ‘like’.
Relegated to Bollywood music
But why talk only about music? Isn’t the scope of the medium supposed to be broader? Unfortunately, gone are the days when our families would huddle around the transistor on the 26th of January and ‘listen’ to the Republic Day parade. No one would like to ‘listen’ to her favourite Netflix show.
Radio (especially FM) has now been relegated in our country primarily to Bollywood music. Why? Because that’s the only content that is financially viable.
The only people who listen to radio are those who are commuting to work and those who don’t have a data-enabled phone. In every conceivable way, the utility of the Internet trumps that of the radio.
With advances in voice recognition technology, the Internet will present itself as a far superior option even in scenarios and contexts where radio is currently useful, like getting traffic updates.
An interesting story on this note — at 12.01 a.m. on August 1, 1981, when we witnessed the birth of the music video with the launch of MTV, the first song played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.
Fast forward by three decades and into the next phase and we realise that the Internet has pretty much killed the 24-hour video music channel.
The radio is dying, if not dead yet. Radio networks should have innovated with their programming a long time ago. News is something they could have provided with a better policy in place.
However, this has not been possible due to reluctance on the part of policymakers. In 2017, the government told the Supreme Court that it was against granting permission to radio stations to broadcast news programs because of possible “security risks” involved.
Radio through Internet
Innovations related to sports commentary, interactive game-shows, hyper-local news and events, presence of an incredible array of frequencies and a sound monetisation strategy are just some of the factors that could have delayed the inevitable (death of the radio) by a bit.
If, somehow, radio programming was to rediscover itself, it will still probably have to use the Internet as its dissemination technology. In other words, even if people were to listen to what plays on the radio, they would be listening to it over the Internet.
Hence, even if the ‘art of radio’ (read ‘audio’) survives, it won’t ‘really’ survive.
What we are seeing is the final run of an ancient technology catering to an ageing generation of consumers. With each passing day, radio is losing its relevance to the youth of our country. Ekalavya Bhattacharya is the chief strategy officer at ALT Balaji, a video-on-demand platform
IT’S COMPLICATED | NISHA NARAYANAN
Diversification can help in radio’s growth. The government should allow private news channels
Yes, radio is still relevant. Though it is easy to say that the world has gone digital, the radio is not dead. Even today, during calamities like the recent floods in Mumbai, the role radio played could hardly be overstated.
A radio is something which you can carry around, requires neither data streaming nor Internet bandwidth, and is free of cost.
But I can see challenges ahead for the medium. Our ecosystem is changing fast and radio has stiff competition from the new media. One of the challenges it faces is that there is no proper measurement tool. When you are on a digital platform, you can measure the audience. There is no proper scientific parameter available to measure content on radio. A lot of assessments are still perception-led. That is one of the biggest drawbacks for the radio industry.
Monopoly of government
Another area where radio falls behind is news broadcasting. There is so much happening around us on different subjects, all of which can make for good current affairs programs. Unfortunately, news is not allowed and whatever is allowed is news from All India Radio, which most private radio stations do not broadcast as they have sister companies within their respective groups — operating through print or television — which specialise in news. Moreover, the fee charged by the Prasar Bharati Corporation is exorbitant.
As a consequence, most of them end up playing the same music, which I think is detrimental to the medium because it is not looked upon as a serious one. If there is any information people need, radio is not the first port of call in our country. This restriction has hurt the medium in a big way.
Huge licensing fee
Another point to be considered pertains to the licensing fee. The huge licensing fee acts as a deterrent. A single frequency for a single city, dished out for a 15-year period, can cost more than Rs 100 crore in large metros.
The initial few years are a bit of a struggle for any operator as there is a lot of clutter in the market. Very few operators are able to differentiate themselves in terms of content. As most radio stations are on the same bandwidth and targeting the same audience, the recovery of investment takes its own time. If the license fees were not so high, and we could encourage regional players, the market would grow. These factors have slowed the growth of radio. It does not come as a surprise that in the last 15 years, the radio market has grown only at a rate of 2-4 percent.
Diversifying and creating different revenue streams is extremely critical. We can consider the example of the numerous radio stations — about 23 — based in Colombo. They include channels specialising in diverse genres — like news, devotional music and adult programs.
The time has come for the government to reconsider its licensing model. The fee can be determined by the content being offered. There could be content aimed at children or women or sports and the fees can be worked out accordingly. This could also act as a check on the current auctioning process which has led to a lot of speculation. To give you an example, the top three radio operators take away as much as 70 percent of the revenue and survival becomes difficult for the rest.
I still feel radio has a place in the lives of Indians, especially those in the rural areas. It is a far most accepted medium outside the metros. Nisha Narayanan is the Chief Operating Officer of Red FM ¬- The Hindu