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Not So Radio-Active

FM Radio has largely shunned non-Bollywood music, but there’s a way it can be more inclusive

Anurag Tagat Jun 12, 2018

Sahej Bakshi (far left), Abhi Meer (third from left) and Mohammed Abood (in white) of Boxout.fm at Magnetic Fields Festival 2017, Rajasthan. Photo: Zacharie Rabehi

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A few years ago, composer-singer Vishal Dadlani was traveling back home one night after a gig at Blue Frog in Mumbai when his cab driver was tuned into Radio One 94.3, one of the few English music FM stations. On air at the time was Mihir Joshi on a show dedicated entirely to Indian alternative music, called One Mumbai One Music. Joshi, whose first stint was at FM Rainbow, recalls, “A Pentagram song came on and the driver was grooving to the music. Vishal took a photo or video and showed the entire band. If this guy can groove to a Pentagram song, then every radio should play it.”

Radio, both private-owned and part of the All India Radio network, have shone the spotlight on non-Bollywood music every now and then in the decades that it has proliferated. For the most part however, this has been through a few-hour slots hosted at low tune-in times, like a weekend afternoon or late night. Vehrnon Ibrahim, the erstwhile programming head for the likes of Radio Indigo in Bengaluru and other stations across the country for about 14 years, says the ecosystem has been very different in India compared to other countries because of the popularity and mechanisms in place in the Bollywood industry. He says, “It’s straightforward — you play Hindi and you get tens of millions per market. Those numbers go down by 1:100, 1:1000 when you play indie. No sponsor is going to say, ‘Well, that makes sense to me.’”

Ibrahim says as part of writing policy for radio programming, his team would research music — “Around 200 to 300 songs twice a year or so and pick 100 songs to put on heavy rotation” — that would essentially keep people from changing the channel. “What I’m selling to an advertiser is the number of listeners and how long they’re listening for,” he adds.

Out in New Delhi, Sarthak Kaushik was finally getting a radio show to interview bands in the city after about three years of pitching to his bosses at HIT 95 FM, also one of the few stations dedicated to playing international music. In 2010, his morning show — also a “low-impact slot” — invited bands ranging from experimental rockers The Circus to blues rock act Soulmate to perform nearly two-hour long sets and chat about their music on air. Kaushik says, “We were given enough leeway to experiment and fail. We’d apologize and move on. In that sense, the station was a unique one.”

Vehrnon in 2003 at Red FM headquarters, with head of marketing Rajesh Sheshadri. Photo: Courtesy of Ibrahim

But even then, the pressures of numbers slowly crept up on the show. Kaushik, who now hosts a show on Ishq FM, says, “It became a bit of [a] vicious circle. Numbers can justify just about anything, can’t they? How will you get numbers if you don’t play the songs? If people won’t know [the songs], they won’t buy, if they won’t buy, there won’t be any numbers.” And the record labels weren’t particularly helpful either. Where they had once backed the rise of Indie-pop ranging from Shaan to Bally Sagoo’s remixes across music channels and radio, Kaushik recalls that in 2012, Priyanka Chopra’s debut single “In My City” was given precedence by the label over rock veterans Indus Creed’s comeback album Evolve, both released by Universal Music India.

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While FM radio is still experimenting with slots for non-Bollywood music, jumping on the bandwagon for desi hip-hop, the online space has been much more open, with mixed results. Radio City’s online counterpart not only hosts genre-based stations, there’s also Radio City Freedom, dedicated entirely to alternative music from the country. Even as streaming platforms grow in listenership and subscriptions to offer curated playlists and algorithm-based radio stations, online radio is far from giving up.

New Delhi-based Sarthak Kaushik on air at ISHQ FM. Photo: Courtesy of Kaushik

While the likes of Radio VeRVe, Split Radio, Radio79, Radio BC and Radio Flote have come and gone, it’s been a strong year for New Delhi-based Boxout.fm, which was founded by producer-selector Mohammed Abood aka DJ MoCity and producer Sahej Bakshi aka Dualist Inquiry. From buying a domain to setting up a studio for DJs to spin sets on air and writing to labels for music, Abood says they needed to generate revenue even before the station — with over 1,000 hours of mixes, shows and podcasts now broadcasted across a year — went on air. Boxout.fm hosts events — each Boxout Wednesday is usually a packed affair — and seeks sponsors and partners, operating in new territories in India. Bakshi says they did make sure to study their “forerunners’ specific journeys” to learn, but Abood adds that it was just the right time for online radio to come into its own to serve as a platform for homegrown and international producers. “All this without expecting artists to come armed with a marketing degree, and double major in economics and graphic design,” he adds jokingly.

At the center of it is not just promoting Indian producers and artists, but also creating an important curated experience. Abhi Meer, Boxout.fm’s chief content officer, says “Even traditional radios (outside of India) still have legions of fans going back because of a listener-presenter relationship they’ve developed over months or years.” Joshi is certainly on the same page. He says, “Radio jockeys had the responsibility about educating their audiences about good new music that’s happening. What’s happening now is, until it becomes a hit, people won’t play it. How the fuck will it become a hit if you don’t play it?”

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With Boxout.fm’s success and plans to scale up with more events and more sustainable partnerships with brands in the future, online community radio certainly has more of a chance than its lesser-known FM sibling. Kaushik says running even a smaller scale community radio would essentially become a passion project for anyone willing to throw down money for licenses and permissions to get on the air. “Radio is shackled because at some point, government realized the power of radio and didn’t want to unleash it,” he says.

Mumbai-based artist Mihir Joshi started out as a radio jockey for All India Radio’s FM Rainbow in 2004. Photo: Courtesy of Joshi

Ibrahim, however, says radio could do with “rebel brands” that would “represent the underground” and perhaps can see real change in programming if the government stepped in with new rules. He explains, “If the government has in its power, if all the stations can get together and say, ‘We’re going to commit — every single hour, two songs will be non-film,’ the government will have much more real music representing current, contemporary culture, not some item number or some love song written for a mother-in-law that’s relevant to 2018.”

In his own way, Ibrahim is affecting change by running an hour-long show dedicated to indie music called Tuneout.in on Radio One Bengaluru every Thursday night at 10 pm. “I announce at the beginning of the show that these are songs that radio programmers called tune out songs, because everyone tunes out when they’re played.” Kaushik agrees that it could be just as simple as putting non-Bollywood on air as often as possible. “Anything will sell as long as you give it enough time. You’re playing a Bollywood song six to 10 times a day. You play an Indie song that long, it’ll also catch on.” Joshi adds that traditionally, all over the world, artists become big when their songs were requested and put on heavy rotation on radio across cities, states and finally, countries too. “If someone calls you up and says, ‘That song by Pentagram was amazing, play it again,’ then you’ve got a hit on your hands.”

The other game-changer, according to Ibrahim, would be a “bona fide chart” that collates streaming data from platforms such as Saavn, Gaana, Apple Music and Google Play. If everyone shared their data and said, ‘This is what people are streaming this week,’ we can compile a top 30 and everyone would know this was just a set of data — not opinions, record labels, not marketing numbers or bought plays — that is the mushroom cloud, the smoking gun to start this whole thing rolling.”

This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of Rolling Stone India.

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