Anirban Roy Choudhury
Interviews

"After TV, the medium that people spent the most time on during COVID was radio": Ashit Kukian

The CEO of Radio City talks about the marquee show 'Super Singer', and the challenges that the radio industry is facing in India today.

Dainik Jagran's Radio City, India's first private FM station, has announced that it will continue with its marquee show 'Super Singer' this year (2020) too, despite the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic.

'Super Singer' aims to discover singing talent among its listeners. It was launched in 2011 in 14 cities - Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Nagpur, Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Visakhapatnam, Coimbatore and Pune.

This year, the show will go digital and most auditions will be virtual. Not doing it ('Super Singer') was never an option, says Ashit Kukian, CEO of Radio City. 

The challenge for him, however, is not just the digital dependence to broadcast one of his biggest properties, it's much deeper. The leading global consulting firm KPMG, in its report 'A year off the script', stated that radio, as an industry in India, is set to contract by 11.1 per cent, which will take it back to FY17 levels. 

With 381 stations operational in 107 cities, radio (in India) has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. However, the ad rates have come under stress. KPMG assesses that when the pandemic struck, the advertisers shifted their (ad) spends from radio to print and television.

Around the world, radio gets 8-9 per cent of the total advertising, while in India, it has always been a subdued 3-4 per cent. The rates are also a challenge. According to KPMG, non-Hindi content providers struggle to get Rs 15 per second (from the advertisers), whereas for Hindi, it is Rs 50 per second. 

Amidst all the challenges, Kukian asserts that recovery has started, and Radio City, as well as the (radio) industry, has recovered quite a bit. 

In an interview with afaqs!, he talks about 'Super Singer', and the challenges that the radio industry is facing in India today.

Edited Excerpts:

Were you in doubt in the early days of the pandemic about whether there would be an edition of 'Super Singer' this year?

By July (2020), virtual events started happening all around us. We were clear from the very beginning that 'Super Singer' is our marquee property and there's no way we weren't going to have it this year.

How difficult was it to pitch a virtual event to the advertisers?

The advertisers look at it in two ways. The benefit of associating with a marquee property like ours, and the physical engagement that may happen when the event used to be on the ground. We are missing the second part.

However, with the added digital activities, the advertisers aren't seeing any lack of value in the overall deal. The whole lot that was always available is there and the added digital activities have made up for the deficit on-ground.

To organise auditions digitally and produce a reality show virtually, did you, as a radio channel, have to create a lot of these digital channels?

Earlier, we used to do a lot of voice recordings and physical auditions. As we already had a digital presence (in the form of web radio), there is very little that we had to create.

What is happening is that earlier, the physical auditions overpowered other forms of auditions, simply because of the high on-ground engagement. But this year, we have tweaked it a bit and have given more importance to audition through social media channels, like Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.

Have you recovered from the impact of the COVID-induced lockdowns and disruptions?

We know that the lockdowns impacted most industries, including media. The first quarter was a virtual whitewash for all of us. From there, a fair level of recovery has happened from the perspective of ads (volume). We are at 80-85 per cent of pre-COVID levels in terms of volumes, and approximately 60-65 per cent when it comes to revenue.

How do you see yourself, and the radio industry, ending the year? How far are you from full recovery?

By the time we enter the first quarter of the new financial year, our volume recovery will be at 90-95 per cent. In terms of revenue, it will be around 70-75 per cent of what it used to be before the pandemic struck. Having said so, we are already reading about second waves and, therefore, it is difficult to assess (by) when we will attain full recovery.

Coming to listenership, it is assumed that a lot of radio is consumed when people are commuting. But in the 'new normal', when most people, especially in the metro cities, are staying indoors, what's happening to consumption?

Contrary to what a lot of people believe, that car listenership is the highest, the fact is 80-85 per cent of listenership comes from home (listeners). In fact, after television, the medium that people spent the most time on during the pandemic was radio. The reach has increased and so has the time.

So, car listenership is just a fraction of total radio consumption, and research shows that it's back to pre-COVID levels in the metros. What we have lost in commuting listenership, we have gained manifold (of it) in at-home consumption.

What about the rise of over the top (OTT) streaming platforms that are offering free music?

As far as listenership is concern, I don't think the rise of OTT platforms poses a challenge for us. We believe it is a completely different medium. Any understanding of OTT platforms, even in developed markets, shows that FM radio still dominates the discovery of music. That is something we have seen in large, established digital markets, where the penetration is high and the bandwidth is not an issue at all.

But they (OTT platforms) are chasing advertisers too. Are they a threat to your pie?

In India, radio has not been threatened by any OTT platforms... Instead, they (OTT platforms) have enhanced revenue options as they are sourcing content from radio.

Could you explain how?

So, radio is not just music. It has RJ content, a lot of humour. Many features are produced on radio channels, then there are established shows. That is the content widely sought after by the OTT players.

RJs are personalities and they have a fan base too. So, the streaming platforms understand that they can't hold on to their listeners just by streaming music. Therefore, they source content from us and that is a revenue model.

Keeping pandemic aside, what do you think is the biggest challenge for radio in India today?

Measurability has been a challenge. The way the business has been built for each (radio) station, the kind of cost that entails… To come up with (a pan-India) measurability is something which has been the radio industry's bane. This is a challenge that was relevant 10 years back, and is relevant even now.

Yes, we all are trying hard to see how we can come with something that is accurate, and give advertisers a real reason to buy radio. Radio players, not just us, but also others in the business, keep innovating. The content is different now from what it used to be pre-COVID. Yet, because of measurement, we face hurdles.