The future of radio presents a paradox. For a long time after Independence, public-service radio shouldered the twin tasks of informing and entertaining the country. It served up the best audio content and was our collective national watercooler — the common cultural and information reference point for the country.
Then, new avenues for entertainment and information became available. Embracing each generation of new technology — television, the internet, smartphones, social media, streaming — was a matter of pragmatic progress.
It is now 100 years since India’s first known broadcast, by a group of enthusiasts at the Bombay Presidency Radio Club, powered by a low-range transmitter. And today, everybody has a relationship with the radio but few are listening in on a radio device.
According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023, Akashvani (formerly All India Radio or AIR) ranks among the top three most-trusted news brands in India, but Indians get their news mainly from newspapers, websites, TV and social-media platforms. Radio has great reach and penetration, covering 92% of land area and reaching 99.2% of the population, but accounts for less than 2% of the advertising market, according to media investment company GroupM.
In many ways, it’s a case of the portal having changed. In an age of new media and splintered channels, even the show with the highest reported listener numbers, prime minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat, isn’t primarily listened to “on the radio”.
A study conducted by researchers at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Rohtak this year revealed that, of the show’s regular audience of about 230 million, 17.6% use radio sets. The rest are listening in via a TV set (the broadcast is also aired by Doordarshan), smartphone or computer. The show was in fact researched, produced and marketed as a multiple-medium offering.
The future of broadcast radio is omnichannel.
The magic audio box has been unbundled, personalised, decentralised and democratised, into FM radio, music-streaming apps, podcasts, websites, audio apps and more.
Our national broadcaster continues its mission of public service. Akashvani offers the largest multilingual programming bouquet anywhere in the world. At the remote corners of India, it erects radio towers and ensures that the airwaves carry the Indian imprimatur. A recent example is the radio transmitter installed in remote, mountainous Hamboting La near Kargil in Ladakh, in September 2021.
Akashvani has also ventured beyond the shores of India, with apps and programming that cater to the growing diaspora audience.
So have FM radio stations, the cool cousins of the traditional broadcast. Head-scratching regulations ban them from broadcasting their own news and current affairs programs (they can only air Akashvani news bulletins; though there is hope, as of this year, that this policy may be revisited). Their city-specific, hyperlocal nature, however, increases the FM stations’ relevance, and the breezy nature of their offerings — music, stories, interviews and local updates — are aimed neatly at city-dwellers commuting in cars.
But the big draw, through the years, has been music. And one of the wonders of the modern world is the availability of large libraries of music on the phone and the computer. AI-driven algorithms recommend new music one is likely to enjoy, and serve as a different kind of watercooler, offering access to the playlists of friends and strangers, and information on what is trendy or what someone else is listening to in the moment.
What, then, is the role of radio broadcasts today?
Well, the world of audio broadcasts is a promising one. The podcaster Joe Rogan, for instance, is one of the biggest media personalities in the US. His show, The Joe Rogan Experience — a mix of commentary on current events, comedy, pop philosophy and personal anecdote — actually transitioned from a video platform to audio ones.
It was launched on YouTube in 2009, found its feet as one of the world’s most popular podcasts by 2015, and was licensed to Spotify in a $200-million deal in 2020. It now averages 11 million listeners per episode.
Closer home, Amit Varma of The Seen and the Unseen podcast is proof that audio can very clearly be a medium for unpacking complex subjects with nuance and panache. The weekly show launched in 2017 has evolved into a longform interviews series. Episodes often exceed three hours, as they break down subjects relating to economics, politics and behavioural science.
Elsewhere, Neelesh Misra, founder of the Gaon Connection rural media platform, had a popular daily show called Yaadon Ka Idiot Box, in which he brought vivid stories of everyday India to life, in Hindi, with a mix of music and storytelling. It ran from 2011 to 2019.
In its golden age, public radio brimmed with audio stories, conversations and interviews. It was the town square and the public arena of ideas. Today, the best audio broadcasts retain the ability to inform, delight, engage, and spur debates.
We have remixed and remade the radio in the last 100 years. How it retains its place in our crowded media diet, in the omnichannel era, will depend on how well it can make use of all the channels its listeners use; how well it can invite them to be part of the show too.
Traditional, linear broadcast radio is already reinventing itself to remain relevant in a world of on-demand, time-shifted narrowcasting. The radio is dead, long live the radio.