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Bollywood killed the radio star: long live the radio star

Delhi’s Hit 95 FM, a radio channel that had developed an identity around its offbeat, English music programming, has changed its format, shifting to Hindi music. Akhil Sood explores the state of international music radio in the city.

AKHIL SOOD  31st Jan 2015

Out with the old.

it 95 FM, Delhi's first English radio station, Delhi's only English radio station for the longest time, has had a spiritual makeover — gone are the days of frivolity, of sometimes discovering genuinely rare, experimental music, of growing to like and laugh at the ridiculous ding-dong samples and the breakneck chattering of its on-air jockeys at gangster-rap speed. The late-night obscure jazz playlists; the early morning curation which would toss in plenty of unheard gems in the rotation between Akon or Taylor Swift songs — I'm fairly certain I heard Radiohead's lovely The Daily Mail for the first time on Hit 95 FM — the illuminating, encyclopaedic blasts of information about the history of a band, the goofy punchlines you hate yourself for laughing at, they're all done. Today, Hit 95 FM has transformed into yet another Hindi music channel, redefining an identity it spent close to 10 years building in an instant. It may even have been an iconic channel if more people gave a sh*t, but that aside, it was still important, if not outright influential, for a generation of Delhi University students who were probably the first to own cell phones with in-built radios.

There were murmurs at first, just a few people wondering out loud. Maybe some intern had had a colossal brainfart, or a disgruntled employee with a vindictive streak. It would go away soon, like all bad things usually do. But the cheesy Hindi music didn't stop. No official statement has been made so far, and management at the organisation has not responded to e-mail queries about the change of format at the time of writing. The channel is broadcasting a new spot about "Zabardast hits", and the playlist of recycled Bollywood songs catering to the critical masses makes it practically indistinguishable from the nine other Hindi music channels on air in the city.

"A lot of people will be sad; it makes me sad," says Sucharita Tyagi, on-air talent and senior producer at Radio City, Mumbai, about the overhaul. Tyagi has previously worked at Red FM and Big FM in Delhi, and points out how the station and its RJs — the very knowledgeable Sarthak Kaushik, who has been around for years and has a dedicated fanbase of his own, in particular — were incredibly popular among a limited section of the audience, particularly the urban youth, the college-goers and young professionals. At the same time, Tyagi also speaks of the lack of mass appeal that a niche channel playing only a certain kind of international music — music that, by all accounts, its programmers and jockeys wanted people to hear and explore — will have. According to a 2012 study about the radio industry, called Poised for Growth: FM radio in India and conducted by Ernst & Young and the Confederation of Indian Industry, radio had an "estimated audience of 158 million people", with FM radio accounting for 106 million of that. Hit 95 FM was always functioning in a narrow space, and its market share was "negligible" and never posed a realistic threat to the Hindi radio stations.

It all seems to point toward a decision made for financial reasons, maybe to gain a stronger foothold in the market, but that would be purely speculation.

Hit 95 FM's shift leaves Radio One (94.3 MHz) as the only English music radio channel left in Delhi. They switched over from Hindi music to international music three years ago, and the station, while often clubbed with Hit FM, has a musical vision that doesn't have much in common with Hit FM. "You can either give the public something totally new that they can experiment with, or you give them something they already like," says Alisha Anand, on-air talent and music manager at Radio One, speaking of different programming approaches. "There's no point in two radio stations sounding the same. Our music is simple, upbeat, peppy, positive, happy — it puts a smile on your face."

station such as Radio City, where Tyagi is a radio jockey, sticks to playing popular, commercial music on air, with a heavy bent toward Bollywood. But Radio City also has a vertical called Planetradiocity.com (PRC), which is dedicated to different kinds of non-Hindi music, from rock 'n' roll to devotional sounds. Tyagi hosts a weekly show called Freedom Live, which promotes independent music from across the country. It's been put on hold for now with expansion plans for the future, but the show used to feature artists and bands from across the country. Hit 95 FM also had a weekly morning show, hosted by Kaushik, which featured an indie band playing its songs on acoustic instruments live on air and speaking with the RJ, but plans to keep that segment going are unclear at the moment.

Attributing the format change to a lack of listenership, and as a consequence, limited advertising revenue generation, would be futile. Is there a sizable enough audience for international music on the radio; does it have a "mass appeal" that can turn in the numbers? Does niche programming work better on the internet? The primary source of income for a radio station is usually ad sales. Additionally, you have other integrations that are done. For example, there are links, wherein the RJ will endorse a product, which costs more than a regular 10-second ad spot, because the RJ has to incorporate the product in her content in a natural manner. There are barter deals as well, where air-space is exchanged for, say, billboard hoarding space.

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“There are various imponderables at work when a decision like a format change is necessitated… If, in someone’s opinion, Hindi works, who’re we to question their decision?”

So on the one hand you have Planet Radio City focusing on non-Hindi music online, and you have the noble intentions of RJs trying to promote local independent music (which may not necessarily be in Hindi) on air and then their entire channel changes tack. But on the other, you have Radio One, which has entered the market with a clear strategy, and they're sticking to it.

They have a seven-city footprint and, as Shyju Varkey, the Chief Marketing Officer at Radio One tells us, they intend to continue their programming template. What also seems to be working for the station is that their music has been tailored to city-specific tastes, thus altering their programming profile depending on the targeted listenership. "It's not for us to comment on [Hit 95 FM's] strategy. There are various imponderables at work when a decision like a format change is necessitated... If, in someone's opinion, Hindi works, who're we to question their decision?"

Research conducted by the organisation, at the time of Radio One's switch to international music, suggested that "listeners were tired of the slew of similar sounding stations with content that sounded, to quote the research, 'dumb'. Our attempt was to fill this vacuum, targeting the suave, well-educated, intelligent, international Delhiite." Varkey also dispels any notion of the language barrier limiting mass appeal and advertisements, definitely not in Radio One's case — "Wouldn't Micromax, ICICI Lombard, LIC, Titan, Airtel and Vodafone qualify as brands with mass appeal? We've done some splendid work with a host of local and national brands that seek a well profiled, intelligent, involved audience. The last three years for us have proved that the international format not having mass appeal is a long perpetuated myth [...] It's really no challenge when you realise there are over 50 million people who consume in the English language in the top seven metros. It really is a case for simple, effective targeting, and that's no rocket science!"

While there are probably plenty of reasons behind the repositioning of Hit 95 FM, the legitimacy of which isn't up for questioning just yet, it still comes as a blow in terms of the variety, the diversity of audiences that FM radio in the country can, and really should, cater to. It's also seemingly an unfortunate indicator of the limited taste preferences of the listenership, wherein offbeat — or just different — sounds and tastes are being figuratively crushed.

 
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