Radio in India

I wrote this for RadioJam, a radio newsletter

While a nervous-sounding Richard Branson was launching Virgin Radio live from Manchester, the ‘radio revolution’ was really starting at the other side of the world in India: because in 1993, the first private radio broadcast happened there. Now, in a land of one billion people, there are less than a hundred radio stations; compared with around 13,000 in the USA.

But now, Indians have a ton of new stations to look forward to, as the Indian government have just completed awarding over 250 new frequencies for radio stations. As long as they don’t talk about news or current affairs - that’s banned. And as long as they only broadcast on one frequency. As long as all directors and key executives are Indian. As long as foreigners don’t own more than 20%. As long as they don’t network any programming. And as long as all ads are voiced by the client over the Grandstand music. (Only one of those is a lie.)

It’s clear that radio in India is very different to radio in the UK. But despite these restrictions, at the recent Indian Radio Forum in Mumbai it was notable how excited radio companies are about the new dawn for the industry there. Radio revenue is currently growing at 20%, in a land where ad spend is also growing - if you can remember what that feels like. Speakers were infectious in their excitement about what radio has to offer; and in a land where radio ownership is only 65%, it’s certainly true that radio has a lot of potential to grow.

It’s not just enthusiasm about standard FM radio; Delhi’s Radio Mirchi announced plans to be the next big name to launch Nokia’s Visual Radio, which adds images and text to a standard FM broadcast. Reliance, which has won over 56 new frequencies with its Adlabs radio company, also owns digital cable, broadband, and mobile phone networks, and while internet (and computers) haven’t really reached many Indians, the cheap mobile phone has; unsubsidised phones start from as little as ten pounds in India, with calls at a fraction of a penny. If anyone’s got the power to insist that all new mobile phones come with FM radios, it’s India.

The Indian Radio Forum in Mumbai ended with the first radio awards ever seen in the country. Peculiarly, prizes went for “best promotional item” (a pen), and “best interactive service” (hello, Sony Radio Awards planners), but we had no awards for presenters - ‘RJs’ as they call them there. But the enthusiasm in the awards was infectious; it’s a young industry, and people are genuinely excited about what radio has to offer there. It’s not every day that you hear radio jingles being sung by excited radio employees as some kind of tribute to their station. (And not every day when, driving to the airport, you can listen to Whigfield followed by The Spice Girls on the late-night Saturday Live show. Genius music programming; thank you Red FM.)

India is often regarded as backward. True, there are no big brands there; not surprising, given that the country was entirely closed to outside investment until 1993. But a visit to the Indian Radio Forum makes it very clear that they’re forward-looking with regard to radio; both from the point of view of technical savvy - we popped into a radio station in Mumbai to see the on-air RJ editing a phone interview on the playout system, while playing a song out on-air - and from the excitement of launching and marketing new stations and services to their cities. It’s impossible to walk down a street in Mumbai without seeing a Radio Mirchi umbrella. (It’s also impossible to walk down a street in Mumbai without being hassled by children wanting money, but I digress).

Mumbai left me with three strong memories. Firstly, it’s really, really, dirty. Secondly, it smells of shit. And thirdly, people are incredibly excited about radio there. In the UK, all three of these are currently rather out of fashion; indeed, while our clean streets don’t smell of shit, the radio business does have a certain whiff right now.

Here’s hoping we in the UK can rediscover the excitement that the Mumbaikars - and the rest of the country - have about radio.