30 Mar 2017 19:01 IST

India’s drive-time radio shows can do so much better

Despite access to rich content, local radio stations have been laggards in exploiting talk radio as a medium

As commutes in India’s big cities get worse, everyone loses. The hapless people stuck in traffic; the policemen bravely try to bring order to what is otherwise organised chaos; and pedestrians risk their lives to do something as simple as crossing a street.

But there’s one industry that benefits from longer commutes: the commercial radio industry. It can beam signals to a listener for a few more minutes before they resignedly step out towards the front doors of the workplace.

Worldwide, drive-time radio shows have the opportunity to intelligently engage otherwise passive listeners. These very listeners’ viewing habits in front of the TV change dramatically; they are more easily distracted — they go to the kitchen to get a snack or check WhatsApp for new messages.

Tapping the market

In India, the market for drive-time FM-radio shows is huge. From people on buses and those sharing rides in company vans or taking taxis, to people driving their own cars, just about everyone has access to FM stations during the busy commute. FM radio is a feature available on even the most basic phones.

But India’s drive-time radio shows are generally drab. More often than not, the content revolves around recorded film music offered in short snippets by hyper-active radio jockeys who try to keep the audience interested.

And in order to pay bills, RJs have to switch to annoying commercial breaks, sometimes as long as five minutes at a stretch. In a world where people can have instant access to their favourite songs for free through YouTube or playlists operated by big music sites such as Raaga, drive-time film music is slowly losing its appeal.

Talk shows

In the West, the drive-time menu is quite different. Drivers have a choice of listening to music, news, or talk. And talk radio is significantly more popular, always involving a talented host who invites listeners to call in to participate. Political talk radio tops the list — Rush Limbaugh's syndicated talk show in the US reaches 600 stations and 20 million people every day.

Sports talk radio is also popular. America is a land of four overlapping sports seasons — baseball/basketball; baseball/football and football/ice hockey — spread over both professional leagues and college athletics, so there’s always something for radio hosts to rant about and callers to chime in.

The other talk radio format which commands an audience is the host-celebrity interview format. This is similar to the ‘Koffee with Karan’ TV show, where an intelligent host engages with an interesting celebrity, but not always from the film industry. Western talk radio involves celebrities from all walks of life, including the arts, politics and sports.

Indian radio stations have been laggards in exploiting talk radio as a medium, although the country is rich with content.

Every Indian has a political opinion about practically every topic in the news. And there’s so much news every day — demonetisation, election results, impact of GST, politics and political figures — the list is literally endless. While only All India Radio is allowed to broadcast the actual news and discussions on current political events, that still leaves a host of other subjects that private FM radio stations can engage the listener with.

The drive-time call-in radio talk shows every day can be far more meaningful, discussing local weather, the environment, health issues, cultural events and the like. Mobile phones are everywhere, so it’s easy for people to call in.

Sports talk

India is also rich in sports. Cricket talk alone can consume an enterprising radio host for months in a year. And there’s tennis, soccer, hockey and kabaddi. Starting a sports talk show on the radio should be so easy for an FM station. But, for some inexplicable reason, FM stations continue to rely on Bollywood or regional film music-based shows.

Then, there’s purely informative radio. On KERA, a public radio station in Dallas, one of the most popular shows is called ‘Anything You Ever Wanted To Know’. Questions are answered and more information is provided on the show than Google.

Recently. a caller asked: “My daughter wants to practise driving before appearing for a driving test. Does anyone know of an abandoned parking lot or warehouse where she can do this?” If the host knows the answer, they answer, if not, listeners are invited to call-in, email or even tweet with suggestions.

The host then moves on to the next question from another caller and, before inviting responses to this question, provides answers to the first question, if they received responses in the two to three minutes between the two questions. This is a fascinating format because listeners are always on the edge wondering what new question may be asked or what answers may be provided. You can learn so much by simply listening in.

Anything you want to know

Any major city in India, for example, Bengaluru or Mumbai, would be an excellent place to start India’s version of Anything You Ever Wanted To Know. Migrants enter the city by the thousands each week and they often don’t know much about their new home. Even established residents have questions that Google can never answer, such as the name of an old bookstore near the train station where you can buy Sanskrit classics. Leave it to the old-timers to answer such questions, live, on the radio.

Like TV stations, FM radio stations are concerned that listeners may switch to other stations or to their USB devices during a commercial break. Holding a listener’s attention is key and the best way to do this is to make the listener feel that switching is costly. Talk radio does this a whole lot better than current drive-time radio shows.

So here’s a thought, MBA entrepreneurs: how about writing a business case, attracting some VC funds and starting your own talk-radio-based FM station?

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