Monday, January 07, 2008


From Tribal Drum to Chatter Box?

A new wave of media is lapping the shores of Kerala. If the last such wave was television, now it is FM Radio. Around 15 new FM Radio channels are about to go on air in Kerala in the coming months from centres like Kannur, Kozhikode, Trichur, Kochi and Trivandrum. And the players include Malayala Manorama, Mathrubhumi, Asianet, Surya, Radio Mirchi and Big FM. This radio wave is sure to create some ripples in the media industry scene in Kerala, and will hopefully trigger some changes in approach and content.

The Radio which was till now the monopoly of the State or the monotony of Akashvani, will assume a new form and voice under the new conditions. Though such FM radios have become common in the other metros of India, it is still new to the Malayalee listeners, who are used only to AIR. The Akashvani itself will have to rouse itself from its age old slumber and wake up to the new reality of commercial broadcasting. A sense of threat is already audible in the programme packaging and presentation modes. But what is at stake is much more.

There are different questions that confront media houses and market. What is going to be the programme content of all these new radio channels? In the metros, where there is a huge floating and traveling population, it caters to the urban youth and yuppies apart from housewives and students. But in Kerala, the traditional listenership for radio is much more diverse. It is not the car-riding population that tune into this medium, but housewives, the aged, students, rural population etc. Akashvani, as a public broadcasting system, has also been keen to package its programmes to address all these segments. So, how is this massive arrival of private commercial radio stations going to affect a public broadcasting system like Akashvani? And will these radio stations competing with each other give voice to the diversity of our culture, and to the hitherto marginalized sections of society? Or, like television in Malayalam, will it be more of the same everywhere, multiplied ad infinitum?

If our FM radios are going to follow the pattern of their counterparts in the metros, the focus will naturally be on entertainment alone, and that too, meant for the urban population, especially the youth and the yuppies. In which case, it could easily end up as a chatter box, adding to the noise that already dominates our media. Such a choice is the easiest and the obvious one to take, as all these channels are in urban centres, and their commercial viability will necessarily depend on commercial branding and sponsorship of their programmes. Such Ad-driven programming, that is averse to being idea-driven, will naturally address the high net worth population in the urban areas, who constitute the bulk of the consumers of the products of the sponsors. This will leave out a huge population of listeners, both in the urban and semiurban centres, who also want to be informed and educated even while being entertained. If our FM Radios take this easy route, the medium, this tribal drum, as Marshall McLuhan describes it, will end up as yet another chatter box.

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