Private radio operators says news will boost listenership

By Justin Thomas , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media Publishing | October 22, 2008
As the government prepares to allow private FM operators to broadcast news, industry players feel the medium will now be taken more seriously by listeners

With & #BANNER1 & # the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting giving the nod to private radio stations to air news and current affairs programmes produced by All India Radio, a long awaited decision has been made.

The guidelines are yet to be sent to the private operators because the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, has not signed the proposal yet. Dasmunsi is ill and in hospital.

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the government has been abysmally slow in effecting the changes recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) earlier this year. After all, since all the content is to come from All India Radio (AIR), there is no special requirement other than providing different news packages to different stations.

There is a possibility that private FM stations will be allowed to broadcast self-prepared content in the near future. Recently, the Association of Radio Operators of India (AROI) held talks with ministry officials regarding exclusive content.

After much deliberation, the AROI said the ministry did not have enough manpower to set up a watchdog body for news content on private FM stations. So, the AROI would prepare a self-regulation mechanism, which would be implemented after the ministry gave it the green signal. This mechanism is expected to be submitted to the ministry in a week's time.

Harrish M Bhatia

Vineet Singh Hukmani

Nandan Srinath
The mechanism will include what kind of content will be allowed as news and quality control measures. The ministry has agreed to review the mechanism and said that it will also keep a tab on how the private players use the AIR feed; the self-regulation mechanism will be implemented, with any changes the ministry thinks fit to institute, within three to four months.

Industry players have welcomed the decision. Harrish M Bhatia, chief operating officer, My FM, says, "The government's intention to allow broadcast of news and current affairs is a good move and will enhance the content of radio while lending it credibility and authenticity."

Private FM radio players have been seeking reforms in the sector for financial viability and diversity in content to be able to reach out to all audience categories. News and current affairs broadcasts will also help radio boost listenership. Since a large segment of the Indian population still has no access to the Internet and television, radio's reach can carry news to such people in real time.

Vineet Singh Hukmani, chief executive officer, Radio One, feels that the dynamics of news sources could change. "Real time news, coupled with the reach of radio, is an explosive combination. News could reach the length and breadth of the country faster than any other medium," he says.

In its report, which came out earlier this year, TRAI had said that "one of the barriers for further growth identified by the authority during the consultation process relates to the restriction of existing guidelines that do not permit news and current affairs on FM radio broadcast".

Further, "information requirements of (a) large section of unserved population and those who lack access to information through other means like Internet, television services, etc., can be conveniently met without any cost to the receiving population only through FM radio services."

Nandan Srinath, COO, Radio Mirchi, says this is a step in the right direction, but he says he will remain cautious about the directives till the guidelines are received. "We still don't know if we have to re-broadcast the news items given to us or use it in some other format," says Srinath.

"News broadcasts will attract a diverse listener base and FM radio will be taken even more seriously. The integration of news with the current entertainment based format of radio is going to be the next step and will have a major bearing on the content offered," says Bhatia.

Most private radio operators are upbeat about the announcement because they feel that it will increase the number of listeners and the amount of airtime they are hooked on for. If that works, then the industry is moving in the right direction.