Can FM radio upgrade content?

There are more radio programming formats that can be contemporised to suit today's tastes.

Switch on any radio station any day, any time, any city and this is what you are likely to hear — snatches from currently popular songs, interspersed with the good-humoured banter of well-known radio-jockeys either conversing with callers or media personalities, informing us of the traffic situation, match-scores, superficially touching upon local civic issues and events or making casual comments on the controversies of the day.

Frequent advertisement breaks too are as much a standard feature of radio programming as television, before we go back to more songs and music. Then, of course, there is some tried and tested interactive entertainment involving listeners, like song requests, contest questions or prank calls, and vox populi at different hotspots in the city on different occasions.

This template more or less sums up the popular framework of radio programming, no matter which radio station one tunesin to. Another important aspect of radio is that like star anchors of news channels, RJs have become brand names. Consequently, their personal styles, voices and flourishes in connecting and building rapport with listeners have become synonymous with the respective radio stations. People apparently seem to get hooked on to their favourite RJs, which undoubtedly contributes greatly in creating brand affinity for the radio station.

Undoubtedly, FM radio has done a good job in reviving the medium. Music and songs have always been the lifeblood of radio ever since it was invented and it is no surprise that FM radio has smartly packaged these with the youthful and energetic charms of RJs. The problem, however, lies elsewhere.

First and foremost, we hear the same set of songs, mostly of forthcoming films or current hits, throughout the day on every radio station. No matter how catchy or likeable the songs might be, how many times can one listen to them? Isn’t listener fatigue bound to set in, especially if switching stations only leads to more of the same?

Because of this repetitiveness, after a point, FM programmes start sounding like never-ending promos of the film and music industry. One almost starts yearning for All India Radio of yesteryears, which would play a wide variety and range of film music all day long and certainly desisted from repeating the same numbers every hour.

Why do FM radio channels think today’s listeners don’t appreciate variety and are satisfied by the limited repertoire of songs and music being dished out? Also, why this clear bias against older film music? Barring some token programming, film music from the 50s, 60s, 70s is almost non-existent on FM radio, except for popular numbers of few evergreen icons like Kishore Kumar, R D Burman and Asha Bhonsle.

Could it be because FM radio sees only the young generation — those born in the late 90s or noughties — as their target audience? If so they run the risk of ignoring a huge audience in its prime — people born in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s who are unlikely to be impressed by the lazy template of programming repetitiveness.

Repetitive stress
Secondly, the same advertisements get repeated on different stations, which is not just annoying but exasperating. Radio as a medium enjoys the unique advantage of being the perfect, unobtrusive companion, like none other, playing music in the background while we go about our work whether it’s driving or studying or relaxing. It has the potential of at once being a mood-lifter, a loneliness eliminator, a comforting presence.

Frequent, shrill, repetitive and long advertising breaks simply destroy that unique quality, which listeners seek. No amount of nattering by RJs can compensate for it. Advertising only makes listeners feel irritated and constantly switch back and forth between stations.

Thirdly, can’t FM radio come up with innovative or, at least, varied content, beyond the stock ingredients outlined earlier? The world has changed greatly no doubt as has media, and what might have worked in the heyday of radio might not work today. But surely, there are more radio programming formats that can be contemporised to suit today’s tastes — radio plays, talk-shows, quizzes, classical or non-film music fillers, audio-narratives, aural infotainment bytes, etc., that could be as short as 5-10 minutes. Has anyone even bothered to experiment with such stuff or has it just been assumed that listeners won’t be interested?

Finally, most RJs do a competent job, given the high levels of energy, presence of mind, quick-wittedness and gift of gab required to keep listeners engaged, amused and unoffended. However, most RJs seem happily trapped in the comfort zone of superficiality, flippancy, flirtatiousness, cockiness and cheekiness. Most seem unable to show any depth of knowledge about music, movies, media, current affairs, general knowledge. Neither do they display substantive differentiators as presenters, sounding stereotypical, except for certain signature styles.

One can only hope FM radio programming and presentation gets out of the rut before it starts to get boring and dull.

(The writer is a Pune-based author and film-maker.)

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