Faceless heroes of radio

By Anushree Bhattacharyya and Devina Joshi , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media Publishing | April 11, 2012
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Radio jockeys reign supreme as the 'face' of the station. Does it also mean that they can make or break the brand they present?

Old radio industry saying: good RJs should be heard, not seen.

New radio industry saying: show off your RJs in all their glory.

The men and women behind the microphone at radio stations are no longer just bringing the station closer to its listeners, but are flirting with fame just like any celebrity. The stations too, having understood the influence that their radio jockeys (RJs) have on those who tune in, are increasingly promoting their RJs in the communication process. Today's RJ knows his worth and carries his on-air persona around even after switching channels.

From AIR to Radio Mirchi to Fever FM the many faces of khurafati Nitin

When former All India Radio (AIR) announcer, Jonathan Philemon Nitin Brady - famously known as Nitin - switched to RED FM after four-and-a-half years at Radio Mirchi, he was known as Ulta-Pulta Nitin. At RED FM, he styled himself as Khurafati (mischievous) Nitin. Interestingly, the channel took his flamboyant character and coupled it with its own positioning. About four months ago, Nitin joined Fever 104 FM. But he continues to call himself Khurafati Nitin, a characterisation that seems to be working, although it was built at his old station.

The RJ is the newest celebrity in town. And is paid like a celeb too. The top RJs could rake in salaries as high as Rs. 1 crore per annum. Those who are a rung or two below get paid in the region of Rs. 70-80 lakh per annum. Regular RJs draw anything between Rs. 5 and Rs. 12 lakh per annum. "In some cases," says Tapas Sen, chief programming officer, Radio Mirchi, "extremely popular radio jockeys are paid more than the chief executive officer of the station." So does that make the radio jockey an asset a station cannot do without?

Tough talk

Anant and Saurabh Radio Mirchi

Malishka RED FM

Anuraag Pandey Fever 104

Aadi and Khurki Radio City

Aparshakti Big 92.7 FM

Swati RED FM

Peeyuush RED FM

It is not all sweet talk that makes an RJ. There is a lot of hard work involved to get there. An RJ usually comes in to work two to three hours prior to the show in order to prepare for it.

Normally, RJs are in charge of bands that go on for three or four hours. Even after the show, she stays back for couple of hours once again preparing for the next day, organising interviews and chats. "For example, if there is a movie promotion, we might play all the popular songs of the movie stars coming in and work on a script that is built around the film," says one.

The role of the RJ has evolved over time. Things have changed from the '70s and '80s when Ameen Sayani was a superstar RJ (All India Radio called them announcers) in his own right. "Today's RJ talks, shares and emotes. In the old days, announcers would talk or address a large number of people - now it is more of one-to-one communication," says Sen of Mirchi. So, despite the fact that a team is made up of the content writer, sales and marketing manager, the programming head, the station head and the RJ, it is the last named who, stations realised, has kept the audience interested.

Ten years ago, radio stations had a simple criterion for hiring RJs. They looked for people who had mellifluous voices. The idea was to introduce a voice on air that people would prefer listening to - much like AIR went about its business.

A popular RJ of a Delhi-based radio station, who has been in the business since 2001, recalls, "Initially, everyone was looking for an 'AIR-ish' kind of voice - people who could talk in a soft, sing-song manner without boring their listeners." Interviews went on for days, in some cases. Now, however, the stations also look at whether the RJ's image matches the brand's positioning.

Nitin recalls how his interview went on for almost two-and-a-half days. "Back then, it was not about getting a face to create an association between listeners and stations. Rather, it was about people who had the flair for the trade," he says. Today, a station like RED FM hires someone like a Malishka to promote its image of a Bindaas (without a care in the world) outfit.

The larger footprint

Phase II of the opening up of radio - in 2005 - allowed private FM players to expand their footprint across the country. They also worked towards creating brands with a distinct positioning. So while a RED FM went for a line that said, Bajaate Raho, the Anil Ambani-promoted 92.7 BIG FM adopted Suno sunao life banao and Mirchi called itself a 'Sunshine' channel. With the positioning in place, the next task was promoting itself with a marketing blitzkrieg. And who else is a better choice than the RJ?

In 2006, in what was a rare case then, RED FM launched a campaign - featuring RJ Malishka - by installing a giant hoarding featuring a sultry fisherwoman with a line that said, 'Akhaa Mumbai ko nachaaoongi', around the Bajaate Raho premise. RED FM had just switched from taglines such as Asli Masti and 'Red in your head'.

Malishka recalls that she was hired only after it was ascertained that she matched RED FM's values of not taking things at face value and to stand up for what one believes in. "I had a run in with a politician once (I was between jobs after leaving 94.6 FM), who had organised a rally outside my home. RED FM hired me because of the way I had handled that crisis and not given in," she muses. Fever FM has a popular RJ, Anuraag Pandey, in Mumbai who hosts the show Picture Pandey. The presenter is known for his 'filmy-ness' and that USP is integrated with the station's premise of 'It's all about the music'.

Red FM is currently promoting RJs Swati and Peeyuush in Delhi. Mirchi has the duo Anant and Saurabh in the morning and Naved and Sayema in the evening and late night respectively, in Delhi. 92.7 BIG FM has Aparshakti as its popular radio jockey in Delhi. Radio City has Simran in the morning and Aadi and Khurki in the evening.

The listener connects to a radio jockey first and then the station. Elaborates Riya Mukherjee, senior vice president, creative services and CSR, Radio Mirchi, "RJs drive the station." Nitin is of the opinion that an RJ lends character to the station's brand recall, since almost 80 per cent of the content is music - something that is common across all stations. When all the stations play music, it is the RJ who is the differentiator. So when a RJ moves station, there is a chance that the listener too might - at least during that particular time band.

According to industry observers, the listener is loyal to the brand and the RJ is just one part of the brand. A station can successfully replace an old RJ with a new and yet maintain its listenership base. Says Ashish Pherwani, associate director, media and entertainment, Ernst and Young, "When a radio station promotes an RJ, it is actually promoting its brand. The station keeps a tap on the performance of the RJ through various research and studies and makes sure that the RJ does not take over the brand."

Anant and Saurabh of Radio Mirchi say that RJs are not irreplaceable. "In fact, there have been cases when a successful RJ went on a break of four months and her replacement turned out to be more successful. In such scenario, either the old jockey is given a new time band or a partnership is created," they say. Satyajit Sen, CEO, ZenithOptimedia, feels that since content is pretty much dominated by music, RJs play an important role in bringing that X-factor to the station. "But the RJ's job is to bring the positioning alive and not work towards creating his own identity," he says.

Kartik Kalla, national programming director, Radio City, too seems unperturbed. "Yes, it is true that the listenership witnesses a drop. But that is temporary and after a couple of days the station gets back its loyal listeners for that time band. However, in all this, one cannot ignore the fact that moving from one radio station to another is a loss for the RJ as well - he or she loses loyal listeners who were created at the old place."

The flip side - for the RJ - is that while a station succeeds in replacing its old RJ with a new voice and personality, the old RJ may fail to recreate the same magic he or she did at the old place. After all, this is not TV. When Arnab Goswami moved from NDTV to Times Now, ratings for the latter shot up. "He is now the face of that channel. He is known to have strong views, and that is what his loyal viewers look for," says Anita Nayyar, CEO, MPG (India and South Asia).

Rajdeep Sardesai, who moved from NDTV to CNN-IBN, is another example. "The point is,' explains Nayyar, "that when content is parity - such as on news channels or in radio, where it is essentially the same kind of music - the host makes a huge difference in how she or he presents it. The same probably wouldn't hold true in the case of music reality shows on television, as there is a significant differentiation brought in the content of each show. An anchor moving from one music show to another probably wouldn't result in a huge difference in viewers on the basis of his move alone."

Out of the box

Today, radio is not just an audio medium. Digital platforms, print media and outdoor media figure extensively in a radio station's marketing plan. Social media has become a huge platform for radio stations to give a face to the name and for a station to decide how to market itself.

Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and contests and YouTube videos of RJs are leveraged to make a station - and its loved voices - even more popular. But the danger here is viewer fatigue. So stations tend to avoid repetition. On-ground media that are used by radio stations, with RJs at the helm, include stage shows, college festivals or musical shows where the RJ is assigned to entertain, bearing in mind the radio station's positioning and branding.

A key example of digital media being leveraged by a radio brand is that of Radio Mirchi, which launched Mirchi Mobile in partnership with Bharti Airtel in 2010. It now includes Vodafone, Idea, Reliance, Docomo, BSNL and MTS now. The station went regional with Mirchi Bhojpuri, created for the Bhojpuri-speaking audiences in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and migrants from these states. Through Mirchi Mobile (a VAS initiative), people could stay in touch with their cities even as they migrate to other cities by dialling a particular number. They can listen to entertainment in their mother tongue, or even get a flavour of bigger cities that they aspire for.

The final word

As in television, it is difficult to pry viewers away from a channel altogether on the back on one property. Says media planner Punitha Arumugam, Group CEO, Madison Media, "RJs are an expression of the station's personality." Comparing radio to TV in that sense, Arumugam feels that perhaps Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) is the only exception to the rule. "RJs, in isolation, can't make or break stations," she says. It may be difficult to track listener migration but media planners have yet to spot advertisers who moved because an RJ has.

An RJ is the differentiating factor that helps make a station stand out from a listener's perspective. "But when RJs become bigger than the radio brand it is detrimental for that station," muses Rajni Menon, associate vice-president, Carat Media. In most cases, only a handful of listeners will be able to tell which station a particular RJ belongs to. Nayyar of MPG feels that if an RJ is strong, listeners will follow. "When Nitin moved to Fever FM," she says, "the latter launched a campaign on the lines of 'Where is Nitin?' which generated curiosity about his whereabouts," she declares.

Radio stations are quite happy about making a song and dance about their RJs. As of now, it is the person with the microphone who is calling the shots.

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