The voice of India
With a choice of perky, private FM radio stations peppering and pepping up the metros, and then non-stop satellite television, Indians are not as enamoured of stodgy AIR as they used to be. Right? No, says SEVANTI NINAN. Stocktaking shows that whilethere are problems that include monetary and recruitment issues, the behemoth isn't exactly fading out.
AIR remains the foremost rural medium.
ALL INDIA RADIO turned 75 last month rather quietly we didn't see hoardings of the kind the new FM kids on the block are peppering our metros with. There was no big event in the capital city to commemorate the anniversary. And with the perennial cash crunch that every department and every kendra within AIR faces, they would be very surprised if anybody expected them to spend money celebrating.
But that isn't to say that this unfashionable behemoth is fading out. It isn't. It is scrambling to reinvent itself, even as it is seriously hampered for lack of both staff and money. There has been no recruitment for something like 10 years because of both budgetary and cadre constraints, Prasar Bharati's recruitment rules never seem to get formulated. Funds are far from forthcoming: station directors actually have day to day cash flow problems. "Even to make a payment of Rs. 500 you have to think twice," says a station director in the South.
AIR's programming is not exactly setting anything on fire: if you listen to the quality of some of their cricket commentary you want to weep. People with specific specialisations retire (such as in-house accompanists to musicians) and cannot be replaced because of the recruitment freeze. Farm radio is one of AIR's strongest assets, but the agricultural graduates who used to do the programming have been promoted and cannot be replaced. Yet there is overstaffing in other areas.
But with all of that, AIR remains India's foremost rural medium, and that alone makes it firmly relevant in a country whose population is primarily rural. Not just for every votary of public service broadcasting, but also for audiences, and most importantly these days, for the market. For fast moving consumer goods targeting the rural sector, it remains the medium of choice. This year AIR grossed its highest revenues in a decade at Rs. 97 crores, up from Rs. 73 crores the previous year.
A single window facility now enables someone in Bombay to book advertising on a station in Himachal Pradesh, tariffs are as low as Rs. 800 per station for 10 seconds on Vividh Bharati and Rs. 550 on the primary channel. Of course advertisers take multiple stations, so that adds up. (The total number of stations currently is 210.) Sponsorship rates for programmes have just been rationalised to draw in more takers, with the rates actually being dropped by 60 to 70 per cent, to about a third of what they used to be. All of this is intended to make AIR competitive again, even as perky private FM stations are popping up in metros, with names like "Radio City", "Red", and "Radio Mirchi", and audacious tariff cards intended to defray the money spent on license fees.
Television is the main competition. Seduced by satellite television, Indians are not as enamoured of radio as they used to be. In the evenings in urban and even rural areas, you watch TV, you do not listen to radio. It is increasingly a morning medium, listened to in the car, at home and by the farmer in his field. The country's rising car population presents a growing audience for radio but private FM's seductive crooners are there, waiting to seduce listeners away from stodgy AIR.
Time for some stock taking then: how much radio listening is actually going on in this country?
AIR's own figures are difficult to make comprehensive sense of. If you walk into its crumbling audience research unit (located adjacent to the much more spruced up premises of Prasar Bharati) you get tomes of studies covering various kendras, giving a host of city by city statistics, but you do not get a single ballpark figure for how many listeners there are, over the years, which would indicate whether it is going up or going down.
Patriotic high...actress Mala Sinha presenting the "Jayamala" programme for the armed forces, on Vividh Bharati (1965).
The latest available figure is based on 1998-99 information, and it puts the number of average actual listeners of AIR on any day in radio homes all over India at 28.4 crores, and the radio sets in that year at 11.4 crores. For radio sets a 2002 figure is also available: 12.5 crores, so assuming the same three listeners per household, listenership today might be in the range of 30 crore to 36 crore listeners a day, if it has remained steady.
TV on the other hand assumes five viewers per household and that puts the TV audience in India on par with what the listening is for radio, given 7.5 crores or more TV homes. For a poor, developing country, that makes rather poor sense: the potential for radio listening should surely be much greater? By way of comparison, BBC World Service this year put its latest listeners figures for how many listen to its service in any given week at 150 million or 15 crores worldwide, and declared that it had lost some 12 million listeners (1.2 crores) in India over the last year. It put down the decline in India to the fact that radio listening in India has fallen dramatically in recent years.
Only one in four Indians now listens to radio regularly half the number of a decade ago, it said. But the fact that BBC is on shortwave could also have something to do with it, because the audience is increasingly turning to FM, with some 55 per cent of all radio sets (7.1 crores) in India now having the FM facility.
One indication of the lack of excitement over radio is the slow growth in the number of radio sets available. In 10 years from 1992 to 2002, satellite TV households have grown from nothing to 40 million. In comparison from 1991 to 2002, radio sets have grown in number by no more than 30 million. The growth of FM is changing that with the hype created by half a dozen private radio stations in Mumbai, cheap transistors now sell at street corners in that city.
It is interesting to look at AIR's 2001 city by city figures for what they are worth. Delhi and Kolkata report that in radio households, listening to AIR is down rather sharply, both for the primary channel as well as Vividh Bharati, with 50 to 60 per cent reporting that they listen to it either very occasionally or never. In Mumbai though, around 35 per cent of listeners tune in on all days of the week, for both channels. In Jaipur, Indore, Bhopal, Dharwad, Nagpur, Coimbatore and Tiruchirapalli there is daily listening to Vividh Bharati in more than 50 per cent of sampled households.
On the other hand in Guwahati while close to 60 per cent said it did not listen to Vividh Bharati even once or twice a week, the same number said it listens to the primary channel every day. In Tiruchirapalli, daily listening is very high for both channels, as it is in Dharwad, and Coimbatore. In Bangalore, however, 50 per cent listened to Vividh Bharati one day in the week or less, but 42 per cent did listen to the primary channel every day of the week. The sampling method was to take a hundred urban and a hundred rural households in 30 centres across the country. Thus the figures represent both rural and urban listening. As for time of listening, the maximum listening takes place between six and 10 in the morning.
What is listened to most is of course music. The one-hour programme "Chitralok" broadcast at 8.15 a.m. for 60 minutes has some 2.5 crore radio owners tuning in everyday. To sustain its staple diet of music, AIR has a complex ranging of talent hunts, gradings and audition boards in place, and particularly in the South, parents go searching for "A" grade artists to tutor their wards in classical music. For AIR's 76 local radio stations, there are no comprehensive listening statistics.
For one growing segment of users, AIR is turning out to be excellent value for money, and that is the non governmental sector wanting to do public interest programmes. Increasingly they are taking sponsored slots on it for programmes on family welfare, or adult education, or aimed at groups with disabilities. When a foundation in Chennai did that recently, they reported that the response was overwhelming, and a Delhi-based foundation doing family welfare has also found it a medium that delivers the target audience it wants.
If it can consolidate its present network instead of expanding it (Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj is going to lay the foundation stone for an FM station at Bellary), if Prasar Bharati's energies were not dissipated because of internal backbiting between the current Chief Executive Officer and the former one who is now on the PB Board, if recruitment rules could be framed and the corporation's own cadres created, AIR could begin to script a purposeful revival at the ripe age of 75. Unlike Doordarshan, it has not as yet been beaten by competition.
But AIR is only one major actor in India's rediscovery of radio. There are others. The upper end listener has come back into the fold because of World Space, the satellite radio company whose high priced sets allow you to get high quality reception of radio stations from all over the world. In fact All India Radio has also taken transponders on World Space.
Those were the days ... A campaign against unlicensed radio set owners
"Gyan Vani", an educational radio network run by Indira Gandhi Open University, is now setting up stations in many parts of the country. Licensing of community radio stations is where India lags behind other countries in the developed and developing world, and there is no indication that this policy will change in the near future. It would involve giving frequencies to communities to run their own radio stations.
Meanwhile, organisations working with communities are taking time bands on AIR's local radio stations to innovate development programmes for listeners in their area of operation.
The marriage of radio and internet is yielding some dividends. BBC World Service Radio's online usage both text and audio has gone up to record levels, increasing well above comparable internet growth rates. It recently won a Webby for being the best radio site in the world. Its Hindi website, like the other language sites it runs, is now updated around the clock.
In contrast, log in to the AIR website (http://air.kode.net) on August 17, and the live news strip you get pertains to August 6. Click on live audio, and it says the live audio service is withdrawn temporarily. Click on important broadcasts, and you'll be offered the President and Prime Minister's Independence Day broadcasts for the year 2001. The most recent offering for the year 2002 is the President's Eve of Republic Day address. Obviously, at AIR they are not betting on the Internet to expand their reach.
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