India Reaches Phase Three of FM Development
NEW DELHI — India will
soon welcome another 839 FM radio stations in 227 cities. Added to the private
FM stations already running in 86 cities, this means that a grand total of 313
cities will be covered by private FM radio.
AIR transmission tower in Goa for
overseas broadcasts. All photos courtesy of Frederick Noronha
The grandness of that number — 313 — may
seem to diminish when one considers that India is the second-most populous
country in the world; yet it also offers some prospect for radio at time when
the medium here has appeared to be stagnating.
With this third stage of radio
expansion, new stations will be vying to reach populations of more than 1 million
each in many overcrowded cities— a huge potential. The question is whether broadcasters
can take advantage of the vast possibilities.
India began to experiment with the FM
band in 1977 in Madras (now Chennai). FM usage then spread to five other cities
in the mid-1990s. During that “Phase II” expansion, the country suddenly found
itself with several hundred FM channels, which for the most part played the
same popular film soundtracks.
Even in cities like New Delhi that have more than 10 stations, there is little
variation in format. Stations have tended to favor easy-to-market hits from
Indian films, instead of offering specialist music such as classical or jazz or
regional-language services, especially after many foreign broadcasters had
halted their shortwave Hindi services. With its population of more than 20
million, the city hosts a diverse audience, to say the least. Sending out the
same information about traffic, civil services and shopping options to such an
assorted range of listeners hardly makes sense.
India learns a ‘new’ medium as private radio gains ground.
Dozens if not hundreds of the FM stations
risk going unnoticed in an “unviable market” — exactly what happened in Phase
II to many of the FM frequencies available in the Northeast and island
Some private broadcasters, in fact,
have voiced their discontent about the addition of stations (and further competition)
and have opted out of bidding in Phase III. If however the market could
diversify through, for example, a differential licensing policy, then the
element of competition would decrease and allow for a greater variety of
The latest Indian Readership Survey (which
does not reflect those who tune into radio via mobile phones) suggests that
radio listenership has been falling steadily, while television viewership has
been rising. And for the most part, short- and medium-wave still dominate the
airwaves, since many areas in the country still do not have FM services. Even
with this latest phase, many medium-sized town are still being ignored with
most stations focusing on the largest centers.
Campus radio station in Maharashtra.
The key to success then may partially reside
in the hands of the lawmakers, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, a
government branch in charge of regulating media in the country. The body has
made some strides to — hopefully — facilitate the rollout, and ensure a
sustainable landscape. But this may not be enough.
Rules and regulations
Private FM stations, for example, can
now rebroadcast news programs from the public broadcaster All India Radio
(AIR). The law previously forbade private services to air any news items. Private
radio stations however are still not allowed to broadcast original news content,
while private television operates freely on the news front. Federal government
policy also now allows 26 percent of foreign investment in private radio, vs. the
20 percent previously permitted.
Regarding output power, stations can
now transmit an effective radiated power (ERP) of 25 kW to 50 kW in the largest
cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, and from 1 kW to 3 kW
in cities with a population of 100,000 to 300,000.
Community/campus radio tower set up in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, antenna height or effective
height of antenna above average terrain
(EHAAT) can range from 20 meters to a maximum of 200 meters.The
law also dictates that each station can only use one transmitter with a
transmission power of up to 50 kW for A+ cities (New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and
Chennai) and up to 30 kW in A cities (with a population of more than 2 million).
While each private FM station is responsible for its own technical
resources, the Common Transmission Infrastructure (CTI), a pooled service
organized by government-owned bodies, does lease on a cost-sharing basis to
private FM broadcasters. Turnkey solutions provider Broadcast Engineering
Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a government-run firm, manages CTI. Where
possible the new set of lucky radio license winners will also be able to use
the transmission towers of AIR and Doordarshan (DD), the public television
Despite some progress in general, the licensing method remains a primary
concern. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting plans to hold an eAuction
for the allocation of new frequencies. This could mean that liscenses only go
to the highest bidder and may kill any distant dreams of achieving the much needed
diversification of format and style — a primary factor for radio to work in this country.
Noronha, a journalist covering radio issues in India who has campaigned extensively
for the legalization of community radio in the country, reports on the industry
for Radio World from India.