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In the times of radio

When I was young
I’d listen to the radio
Waitin’ for my favorite songs
When they played I’d sing along
It made me smile

Every time I listen to this masterpiece by The Carpenters, I am reminded of the good old days of my childhood. Every day began with the news bulletin, and ended with classic melodies on the radio. My life revolved around the bulky radio set kept above the showcase. I vividly remember my cousins and I listening to the radio on Sunday afternoons, when others at home took a nap. The memory of us waiting for our favourite songs is something I treasure even today.

Today, the times have changed. Tastes have evolved, entertainment has been redefined, but radio has managed to retain its old charm while adapting to a new world. Having undergone significant changes over the years, the medium continues to resonate with the audience like it always has.

On the occasion of World Radio Day, Soulveda met seasoned radio professionals–Seetal Iyer, Jonzie Kurian, Darius Sunawala and Prashant Vasudevan. They spoke at length about radio’s evolution in India, how content is still the driving factor, and the importance of interaction in keeping the medium alive. Excerpts from the edited conversation:

Radio has evolved from being the voice of the state to being the pulse of society. Do you agree?

Seetal Iyer: Back in the day, the government had the infrastructure to disseminate content and had control over the medium. It is not to say that the content wasn’t informative or did not transform lives. These programmes were popular, socially relevant, and of great value and service. Then it was AM, a pan-national coverage. Now it is FM, a regional medium. Today, they have tailored the content to what you want to listen to. Probably, the variation in content is giving a perception that it is more useful and valuable.

Jonzie Kurian: In India, we had no private radio stations, hence a state-run radio station naturally became the voice of the state. When private stations were introduced, they got an opportunity to become the voice of society. When a radio station appeals to a certain audience, then it becomes imperative for it to echo the voice of its audience (hence the society).

Darius Sunawala: There are government-run radio stations, private stations, community stations and narrow casters. They cannot be clubbed together to say radio is the voice of society, as they each have a definite principle behind them. Government-funded radio is the voice of the state. Private stations make revenue and end up being mass entertainment stations.

Prashant Vasudevan: I think the shift was waiting to happen. And it happened when the government gave permission for private channels. But I still think radio is the voice of the state. It is still curbed in a way where you can’t voice a lot of opinions. It is more of an entertainment channel. This whole shift from being the voice of the state to voice of society was a reaction to what was happening in society.

“In the good old days of All India Radio, listeners used to write in. Then we moved on to phone calls and then SMS. Today, people are interacting with the station through mobile apps and social media.”

Content is the essence be it a magazine, television or the radio. How has content on the radio evolved?

Seetal Iyer: The relevance of content has not changed, be it music or any other kind of quality content. The relevance of music cannot be questioned. It is like any other passion that will stand the test of time. But what has changed is that the world has gotten larger. Back in the day, accessing music and content was harder. Access to music is something that has changed. On the downside, I feel the audience’s attention span has reduced. The shelf life of content is limited.

Jonzie Kurian: The way we deliver content has changed. Today, a radio station does not exist only on the FM Dial. We disperse content through apps and social media as well. In the past, formats used to be more broad-based since there were fewer stations competing with each other. Today, stations are competing with online streaming platforms, so there is a need to be more focused with a narrower music format.

Darius Sunawala: In the past, content was far more relaxed and not focused on high-velocity entertainment. But as markets evolved, especially for commercial radio stations, the audience evolved in terms of expectations. And to meet these expectations, the content was made shorter, faster and more entertaining.

Prashant Vasudevan: I think the content was more meaningful then. When I say content, I mean the RJ talk. Today, we have more commercials, so we have to play more music. Hence, spoken content is less. And you have to keep it short and entertaining. The other factor is that the audience’s attention span has reduced and the time spent on the station has increased. So we have no other go than to keep the content light and less punishing for the brain.

Having become more interactive, how has the radio experience become better over time?

Seetal Iyer: The need to be heard or to say something has existed all along, and has not changed at all. I think technology, in large measure, has enabled people to have this instant gratification of the need for conversation. In those days, the audience only listened to the speaker, they could not get in touch with the RJ other than by writing to the station.

Jonzie Kurian: Radio has always been an interactive medium. I cannot think of a time when radio was just ‘talking to people’. It is the key differentiator between radio and other media platforms. In the good old days of All India Radio, listeners used to write in. Then we moved on to phone calls and then SMS. Today, people are interacting with the station through mobile apps and social media.

Darius Sunawala: As radio stations struggled to engage with their audience in a faster and more meaningful manner, interaction became very important. Today, radio stations are focusing on staying interactive because it brings them closer to the audience, making people stay on the station longer.

Prashant Vasudevan: There was a need for innovation in radio. To keep it up to date, people had to come up with interaction. It was a reaction to what was happening on the internet. It is not easy to compete against the internet. Especially with so many new apps coming in, it is even more competitive.

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    Seetal Iyer started her first media job with The Sunday Observer, after which she moved to Femina. Her career in radio began at Radio City, Bangalore. Later, she followed her mentor Velu Shankar to WorldSpace Satellite Radio Network. Iyer started Timbre Media that provides podcasts and internal radio for businesses and organisations. She lives in Bangalore with her husband and her mother.
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    A seasoned radio professional, Jonzie Kurian began his career in radio with Xpress FM in the UK. He worked as an RJ with Radio City in Bangalore. Kurian was the Creative Director for WorldSpace Satellite Radio Network in India. Currently, he is the Programming Consultant-Asian Services for UAE-based Channel 4 Radio Network. Kurian is the founder-owner of Radio Nursery, an online streaming platform for children and parents.
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    Darius Sunawala began his career in the late 90s as a freelance RJ with All India Radio, before joining Radio Indigo in 2000. Following that, Sunawala worked as a content manager with Radio City. He also hosted the popular radio show D Company. Sunawala quit radio to become a consultant in strategy and design. He has also worked with a start-up that creates regional audio content.
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    An independent radio consultant, Prashant Vasudevan began his radio career as a music manager with Radio City, India's first private FM station. Subsequently, he worked as the Programming Director of Spin, a current hits station on WorldSpace Satellite Radio Network. During this period, Vasudevan helped set up stations for the network across India.


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