B P Srivastava, Senior Advisor, BECIL

Introduction of radio niche channels is seen as an absolute necessity for taking radio broadcasting to the level of maturity.

Private FM broadcasting has played a commendable role in rejuvenating the scene of radio listening in the country and thus bringing back the glory of radio, which according to many had become a dead medium. The credit for revival of radio also goes to the government for taking two momentous decisions, one of which was introduction of FM in India in late eighties. The second momentous decision was taken in 1999 by inviting private participation in radio broadcasting – an opportunity which private broadcasters seized with both hands. The result is for everyone to see. Phase I of private FM has been successfully followed by Phase II and now a very ambitious Phase III. The journey of FM from the time of its introduction to this flourishing stage is fascinating, the details of which can be had from this author's paper, Journey of FM radio in India-From Pangs of Birth to Plenty published in BES Review , April 14, September 14.

No doubt private FM has a great fan following but it has still to come to a situation where it can claim to reach a mature stage by providing much-needed diversity in the programmesand catering to all types of listeners including the small select groups. It is here that the need of introduction of niche channels arises in private FM radio broadcasting, especially at the time when TRAI, through its recommendations, is working toward promoting TV niche channels and for this purpose also providing more space on distribution networks for them.

Need for Introduction of Niche Channels

No broadcasting medium can be said to be complete and mature till it is able to cater to all tastes with variety of programmes. Private broadcasting, although having brought the much-needed renaissance of radio in the country, has to look within itself from this perspective. As it stands today, most of the content broadcast by various private channels is more or less of a similar nature and caters to particular type of listeners whereby the listeners of other tastes are left out. This neglected segment largely comprises small select groups interested in programmes that deviate from the main stream. These types of listeners can be catered to by the introduction of niche channels in private broadcasting. Some of the programmes that immediately come to mind are classical music, folk music, talk shows, radio discussions, radio dramas, soap operas, and children's programme. Even though these select groups may individually be small in numbers but with ingenuity in content generation, broadcasts made for them can be made commercially viable even if they may not match the level of existing channels. It is proposed that, to start with, these channels may be provided in 14 cities of India with population of 20 lakhs and above namely Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad, Jaipur, Kanpur, Lucknow, Nagpur, Pune, Surat, and Varanasi.

Commercial Regime for These Channels

There has to be no doubt in anybody's mind that these channels will not, at least to start with, have the same commercial potential as the channels under the present private FM broadcasting. As such a separate commercial regime shall have to be created for them with easier terms and conditions along with the necessary incentives to attract bidders. Toward that end, two options are foreseen, which are discussed below.

Setting-up of technical infrastructure by govt. agencies/time slots on AIR. Since creation of technical infrastructure is a costly affair, the Government may have to step in and get the infrastructures created through some of its agencies like BECIL. These infrastructures can then be used by licensee broadcasters of a niche channel regime on a hire and use basis. The second alternative within the same option is to get time slots allotted to the licensee broadcasters of niche channels on the existing All India Radio transmitters. The second alternative, however, suffers from the disadvantage that such technical infrastructures will be available only for a limited time and will thus restrict growth of niche broadcasting. A start can, however, be made with this alternative in the interim period till a regular policy is drawn.

Creation of separate commercial regime with easier terms and conditions. A separate commercial regime, distinct from the present private FM broadcasting, may be created for niche channels with considerably easier terms and conditions. Auction of these channels may, however, be carried out on the same lines as is being done in the case of present private broadcasting regime. It is hoped that with easier terms and conditions, the scheme will find favor with large number of broadcasters.

Technology and Spectrum to be Used

Private FM broadcasting in our country is presently on analog mode. New licenses for its Phase III are also in the process of being issued. These licenses will be valid for 15 years. Frequency planning for these channels has also been carried out in analog mode. Switching over to digital transmissions has, however, been on air for quite some time. As a matter of fact, a deadline of 2017 was also envisaged for its complete switch over but not much progress seems to have been made in this direction. One of the reasons, amongst others, for this delay has been the high cost of receivers for this mode. The cost of any commodity, however, depends on the volume of demand, an example of which is the miracle seen with regard to the cost of FM receivers by private broadcasting at the inception itself. As such the demand for digital mode receivers is not likely to go up till an alternate attractive programme is available on the digital mode. Whatever may be the time for switch over; digital is the technology for future. As such any discussion on the use of technology for any new proposal has to take both digital and analog modes into consideration as discussed in the following sub-paragraphs.

Digital Mode

Any discussion on the digital mode of FM transmissions has to revolve around DRM+, since this is the technology that has been adopted in India. DRM+ provides the advantage of ease of migration from and co-existence with analog broadcasting, and also complies with the existing spectrum masks and analog frequency grids. It is also capable of providing up to four services per frequency. One is, therefore, immediately tempted to take advantage of this multichannel availability to usher niche channels in the present regime of private FM. This, however, does not seem feasible at this stage primarily because it would mean allotment of additional channels to the existing licensees. Secondly, with the present stage of availability of FM receivers, existing licensees would surely go in simulcast mode, thus further complicating the situation. This would mean looking for a suitable frequency separation from the existing allocations that would meet the protection ratio (PR) requirements from all angles and also not require co-location of transmitters with the present CTIs of private FM. As such a frequency separation of 400 kHz is being aimed at.

PR figures of DRM interfered with by DRM and also DRM interfered with by FM at 200 kHz. 400 kHz separation is, therefore, easily possible for taking care of protection to DRM services both from DRM and FM services.

A closer look is, however, required to take care of protection to FM services by DRM as seen from the figures.

It would be seen that PR (Basic) at 400 kHz is –11 dB. ERPs of analog mode and digital mode would, however, be different thus making the system work with suitable adjustments of ERPs. Moreover the results of the study carried out at the University of Applied Sciences; Kaiserslautern (Germany) have shown that while the PR for 400 kHz in the lab is -8 dB that in the field, it is –40 dB.

It is, therefore, recommended that frequencies, 400 kHz separated from the existing frequencies of private FM, may be assigned to niche channels in all the 14 cities. For example, Delhi may be allotted suitable number of channels by choosing frequencies from 91.5, 92.3, 93.1, 93.9, 104.4, 105.2, and 106.0 MHz.

Analog Mode

  • lA separate chunk of spectrum (95–97.5 MHz,) distinct from the one that is being used for private broadcasting, may be used for niche channels.
  • lWPC may be asked to allocate this chunk exclusively for broadcasting on the lines of allotment of 91.5 to 95 MHz by NFAP 2002. In this connection, it is to be noted that exclusive allocation for broadcasting in India is much less than in the countries of region 1 and 2.
  • l400 kHz channel spacing may be used within the city.
  • lPreliminary frequency planning exercise indicates that it will be possible to offer up to five channels at Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad, Nagpur, Surat, and Varanasi while four channels will be available at Mumbai and Jaipur, with three each at Kanpur and Lucknow and two at Pune.

Way Forward

Introduction of niche channels is seen as an absolute necessity for taking radio broadcasting to the level of maturity. They can be introduced either by getting the technical infrastructure provided by a government agency like BECIL or by creating an easier commercial regime for them. On technology side, they may either be in DRM mode or analog mode – preferably in DRM+ mode – the technology for future. Moreover availability of an alternate programme on DRM will create demand for receivers for this mode, thus bringing down the cost of receivers.