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Sunday, July 29, 2001

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Tune in to quality

IN June, the 2001 Indian Readership Survey (IRS) announced that the reach of radio in this country had dwindled further. And on July 3, the first private radio station in independent India took wing. Its parent? Star, the same company which under different ownership had given India, in September 1991, its first taste of privately owned television. So may be there is hope yet here for a medium that is holding its own everywhere else in the free world. If those hoardings in Bangalore screaming "Radio City FM 91" help to make radio the latest happening medium, they will even be doing All India Radio a service.

This ought to have been a country tailor-made for a low cost portable medium like radio. So what went wrong? India discovered television, and the Government, which runs radio, lost interest in promoting it. Somewhere along the line, people stopped listening to it enough, or even owning it. The statistics tell it all: the reach of radio is now 15.8 per cent, down 2.7 per cent from last year. That is, compared to 33.4 per cent for press, and 49.4 per cent for TV according to the latest IRS figures. Radio's share of advertising expenditure - 2.2 per cent. (In the United States it is 13 per cent). Radio sets still outnumber TV sets 3:1. Trouble is, people listen to them less and less. Not even once a day in many homes. They have been seduced by television.

Radio City is the first of last year's takers of FM licences to get started. It is also comfortably solvent. Rupert Murdoch is still not making profits from Star TV but he has got somewhere in the crowded TV market - namely, to the number one slot among satellite channels. Now the revenues will come. The Rs. 40 crores which have been forked out in licence fees by Star and its partner Music Broadcast Private Limited (MBPL) for 10-year licences in Bangalore, Nagpur, Patna, Lucknow, Mumbai and New Delhi is huge money for radio, seeing that in 1999-2000 AIR's total earnings were Rs. 78 crores. Particularly since it does not include the cost of setting up the radio stations. But it is really small change for a player like Murdoch. Particularly if it gives you a foothold in a market that has only one way to go - up. MBPL is a company backed by the London-based P.K. Mittal, his family and associates.

The first challenge is getting mind share, and Radio City is trying very hard, plastering the city with hoardings. Nice selling lines: "A radio signal so strong that it can even pick up the tunes in your head". Or, "Finally, a Radio Station that listens to you". But selling lines can only get you so far. Whom do you pick to head a radio division in a country where commercial radio until now was run by the Government? The last time around, Star picked someone from Government in the person of Rathikant Basu. But AIR has not even had a director general for some years now. So this time it chose a different strategy.

It chose an American who says he was lucky early in his career to have built broadly popular and financially successful radio stations in some of America's biggest cities. John Catlett has 40 years of working with radio and television stations behind him. As he puts it, "since 1984 I have chosen to make my life more interesting by applying the lessons I learned in American radio to competitive broadcasting markets elsewhere." So his last assignment before Star was with a company formed to develop commercial broadcasting stations in Eastern European cities. After Moscow and Budapest, it is going to be Bangalore.

Catlett says he heard about Star's plans to develop radio in India from an executive recruiter whom he had once hired some 25 years ago to help him find a sales manager for a station he was managing in New York City. "Given the breadth of the potential for radio in India, I do not know how I could have turned down the opportunity to come here! "

He points out that radio receivers are not expensive, they are completely portable, and you do not have to pay a subscription fee to listen. So it has got to be the programming that keepseps average radio listening in India to around half an hour a day per person. In countries with wider programming choices it is more like three hours on average per person per day.

Radio City has begun by offering lots of music, tidbits on the city's happenings, fitness, health, and traffic updates in the evenings. The Government does not allow news on private stations. The locally trained veejays may sound smart alecky, but so do the ones on AIR's FM. As far as listeners in Bangalore go, they are happy to just get a variety of music with excellent transmission quality. And transmission, if you recall, was what satellite television seduced us with 10 years ago.

* * *

Another American was in Kerala last fortnight, doing his bit for a media revolution of a different kind. Richard Stallman, the founder and President of the Free Software movement headquartered in Boston, launched the Free Software Foundation of India (FSF- India), in Thiruvananthapuram the first affiliate in Asia of the Free Software Foundation.

The man, whose mission is to convince the developing world that they do not have to pay through their nose for Microsoft products in order to spread the use of computers, was suitably feted by the Kerala Government which is anxious that the State catch up with the information technology drive in the other three Southern States.

In 1984, Stallman began the development of the GNU operating system, which today, in its GNU/Linux variants, is used by an estimated 20 million people worldwide. Most Indian Net users are apparently already benefiting from free software because, today, almost all Web servers run on free software or variants of the GNU/Linux operating system (OS). The Economist recently noted that GNU/Linux has begun to represent a real threat to the Microsoft Windows NT hegemony with over one million websites now run on GNU/Linux. Many Internet service providers now use it.

Free Software is so called not because it is given free, but because it is a cross platform solution and can operate along with any of the other operating systems. Its proponents say this facility is not there in any other operating system. Also, this software allows users to edit the program to suit their needs. At the conference that accompanied the launch of the Kerala chapter, participants were told that Third World countries like India are going to benefit from software which the user is free to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve according to his needs.

Stallman said during his visit that the philosophical ideals behind free software directly create practical advantages for those who use and create it. "Computer users in India, as elsewhere, deserve the freedom to share and change software, the way cooks share and change recipes." And it is no small advantage that there are no software license fees to pay. This is important at a time when proprietary software companies are switching to a licensing business model for software, meaning you must in effect rent the software and continue to pay for it forever. With free software, you can download the software for free, or if a business or school wishes to buy one CD, it can legally install the same CD in every computer on site, without having to pay anything to anyone, ever again.

If FSF-India can summon adequate evangelism to spread its cause it will, among other things, enable the low-cost spread of Internet to many small institutions in this country, notably schools and colleges.

SEVANTI NINAN

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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