Looking back on the days when FM channels were booming in the early 2000s.
First published in Aurora's July-August 2004 issue.
The airwaves of Pakistan are abuzz with excitement as our radio listening options multiply. But what kind of radio regeneration are we undergoing? What sparked it? Most importantly, will this revival last? Or will it disappear as quickly as it emerged? Osman Samiuddin tunes into what radio stations and, importantly, advertisers, think about the current FM boom.
It used to be so easy. Time was when, if you wanted to listen to the radio, you only had to find 100 or 101 on the FM dial, or as many had been doing since 1947, tune into Radio Pakistan, and thus was set a quiet afternoon’s listening. The times, however, they are a changin’.
Today, 89, 96, 99, 100, 101, 103, 105 and 107 are not some mind-bending IQ test question, but the markers on our radio sets of the continuing evolution of the media scene in Pakistan. If the last two years have been about change in the visual medium (with the advent of private TV stations), then the last six months have been about what we can listen to.
Like TV, radio has long been the domain of the state. Up to 1995, there was only one broadcaster, until that is, October of that year, when FM 100 broke the shackles. This privately-owned station offered listeners something that the increasingly staid Radio Pakistan completely overlooked; talk shows, call-ins, news and current affairs (only taken from PTV or Radio Pakistan), public service programming, cooking shows and competitions.
The success of FM 100, mainly due to the refreshing nature of its content and its attempts to interact with a predominantly young urban audience, paved the way for the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) to launch its own FM station: FM 101. Eventually FM 100 was to set the programming format which most new stations now follow.
For the following few years, both FMs operated a virtual monopoly of listeners and advertisers, until the Government’s media liberalisation policy set in last year. PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) has so far handed out 28 licenses for radio stations, with a further 10 to 15 waiting approval, and the radio revival is now underway.
Radio, as Javed Jabbar points out, can take a number of different formats. There are community-run stations – financed by local subscriptions, advertisements and grants – and some argue that there is the greatest need for these in Pakistan. Alternatively, there could be campus radio stations operating out of universities and colleges, and there are signs that this is beginning to happen in Pakistan. But, in Pakistan today, the facelift of radio is characterised by the emergence of commercially-driven FM stations.
Where radio had previously been a rural phenomenon, a Gallup survey in 1998 revealed that 35% of all rural respondents listened to radio in comparison to 29% of their urban counterparts; therefore its revival has taken a distinctly young urban flavour.
“Setting up an FM station is much cheaper than an AM station,” says Nisar Memon, Station Director, Radio Pakistan. “The transmitters are cheaper and although they offer significantly less area coverage, the quality of transmission is excellent. FM stations, by their nature, rarely go beyond a certain region and are restricted usually to cities.”
Another Gallup survey revealed that almost half (48%) of all regular FM listeners were between the ages of 18 and 29, and given the make-up of the new stations, it isn’t a surprise. In a sense, like TV, radio is thriving because of its relative youth.
Savvy, energetic, enthusiastic youngsters from a broad spectrum of urban society populate stations. Radio, or disc jockys, are generally young anyway, but now, stations are also hiring younger producers and technicians. As one station head puts it, “a lot of the younger personnel bring their own musical tastes and personalities and because programming is still heavily reliant on playing contemporary music, it appeals to a younger audience.”
Also like TV, the proliferation of radio is characterised by the lightening speed of its evolution. Almost overnight, a gamut of listening options has emerged. Partly, it is the result of PEMRA’s over zealous desire to hand out licenses – without, as some media analysts warn, proper investigation regarding the credibility of applicants. Partly, it is financial.
“The time and cost of planning to set up radio, when compared to TV, is much lower and it has attracted people to invest in quick succession,” says Jabbar.
And, as Yasir Riaz, Head of Planning at Mindshare, and Mehdi Raza, CEO, FM 107, make clear, the fact that radio was such a barren territory for so long, was enough to attract businessmen to cash in on the expected media feel-good factor.
“There was a big gap as far as FM was concerned in Pakistan. Radio offers an opportunity to personalise your interaction with the listener more than most other media options. People relate to it more,” argues Riaz.
But for all the effervescence the medium is currently experiencing, the speed of its growth has raised concerns regarding the viability and sustainability of the boom. For FM stations to survive, generating advertising revenue will be crucial and many in the industry feel that the market simply isn’t big enough to sustain so many stations.
The total advertising spend in Pakistan in 2002 was approximately 8.1 billion rupees, of which radio advertising had a meagre two percent share (0.17 billion rupees). The two percent share has remained roughly constant since 2000, but this was before the appearance of the latest stations.
It is perhaps surprising that spending on radio is so low in Pakistan. Radio is a very personal medium, naturally given to a one-on-one interaction with the listener.
“It is a tactical medium. You can adapt your requirements to suit that interaction. For example, it is excellent for carrying out on-ground events and live roadshows,” says Riaz.
Furthermore, radio filters through peoples’ lives in places other media might not reach: the car, the kitchen or the bedroom.
“TV restricts you to one place, but radio allows mobility to the listener and thus flexibility to the advertiser,” says Jonathon Mark Tatti, Marketing Manager, Kawish Television Network.
This flexibility enables advertisers to reach target audiences at relevant times; for example, running a cooking programme, branded by a cooking oil or running an advertisement during meal preparation times.
And of course, it is a low-cost option. Not only are the spot rates much lower than those for TV, costs of production are also much cheaper. Given the continuing saturation of TV and print, the cost-effectiveness of radio furthers its attractiveness.
Ufone is one of the heavier advertisers on radio. “Radio is a very good medium when it comes to creating hype or awareness of any new product or service. Radio gives you better flexibility in terms of delivery and return of your advertising spend,” says Azim-ul-Haq, Marketing Manager, Ufone.
Additionally, as a supplementary tool for TV and print campaigns, radio offers certain advantages. Radio is there at times of the day when TV audiences are low and when product relevance is high. And it helps that radio listening traditionally takes place during the retailer’s day, rather than in the evening, when the shopping day is over. Indeed, for Amer Pasha, Country Manager, Coca-Cola, radio is generally most effective as a supplementary tool to advertising in the press and on TV.
With a TV campaign, radio can add to the frequency (at a lower cost) of the campaign message, while adding length to the campaign itself. With press campaigns, it adds intrusiveness and a personality to a campaign; it can bring a promotion to life. In conjunction with outdoor ads, radio reinforces the message to those on the road.
Regional stations such as FM 107 (Apna Karachi) or Power 99 (Islamabad) also offer a very targeted demographic to advertisers. It becomes easier to target a specific audience unlike TV, which has a more diffuse following.
Pasha explains, “One of radio’s key benefits is that the media plan can be very focused. FM radio allows you to advertise in one city to a targeted audience at relatively economical rates. In other countries, FM channels are very focused and cater to targeted segments. In Dubai, you have stations for South Asians only. For focused, one city only, call-for-action advertising, radio becomes the ideal media choice. If Coca-Cola is doing a targeted promotion with our key partner restaurants, this is the ideal platform to target younger markets such as 17 to 25 year-olds, who are not avid newspaper readers.”
This geographical attribute also affords radio another avenue of revenue – the smaller, regional or local advertiser. Stations recognise that the key to many of their futures might lie here.
“We are developing new advertisers, regional advertisers who cannot afford to go on television, print or outdoors,” says Raza.
Indeed, some have argued that this is the ideal model for radio; targeting a specific district or mohalla and picking up unconventional, local neighbourhood businesses, such as the local milk store, or the butcher’s. To a certain extent, TV channels are beginning to attract smaller advertisers now and the same is most likely to happen with radio.
Despite its inherent advantages, the response from advertisers to radio is cautious. Raza, however, claims that FM 107 has had a positive response.
“Our advertiser response has been very strong. Mostly, they are national advertisers at the moment, but the ideal mix we would want eventually would be a 60-40 regional-national split.”
A number of leading companies, including Ufone, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Union Bank, Samsung and LG are trying out radio. In an article on FM radio in AURORA’s November-December 2003 issue, a marketing manager at LG said that they had spent as much as a fifth of their marketing budget in one quarter on radio. The response, he claimed, was overwhelming. At Ufone, meanwhile, “FM radio is becoming an increasingly important option,” according to Haq.
Media research agencies also believe advertisers are dipping tentative toes into the pool of radio. One source says, “there is still some scepticism among advertisers but it is slowly changing. At a recent seminar we held, many media planners were very interested in getting more figures on radio and evaluating its viability as a medium of communication.”
And therein lies the essence of the advertiser response. There is no doubt that radio is offering newer possibilities of communication to advertisers, but the medium still has some way to go before it can claim to be a favoured medium.
There are a couple of significant reasons why advertisers like Coca-Cola and Ufone would add qualifications to their usage of radio as a medium of communication. The first concerns the glaring lack of research and any statistically credible data regarding radio. For all the criticism and controversy that surrounds audience-measurement methods for TV, it is important to bear in mind that at least some research is available. It may be a rickety old diary system in use – and it may soon be replaced by the technologically superior peoplemeters – but it is something. In radio, there is nothing.
“Advertisers want to see some sort of research, some figures to justify going to one station over another; they want to know that radio is effective. They know it doesn’t have the reach of TV obviously, but they want to know what it can offer. This will come out, if proper research into listening habits and figures is done,” argues Tatti.
Developing a culture of research is something that will take time for most radio stations. In an advanced radio market like Sri Lanka’s, where radio thrived during the civil war (the frequent and long power outages during the fighting apparently encouraged people to switch from TV to radio), there is a diary system for radio audiences. India is only now reaching a stage where measurement is being introduced.
“It is not that difficult to implement such a system in homes or cars in Pakistan. It’s just that the will has to be there,” says Riaz.
At the moment, however, many of the smaller stations are trying hard just to survive, let alone think about investing in research tools. And as one cynical radio head put it, “It took TV so long to bring in peoplemeters; how are we expected to implement something like that overnight, given the amount of revenue we generate?”
But at least the problem of research is a tangible one – given the resources, it can be solved. In comparison, the problem of quality content generation – a significantly greater gripe with advertisers – is much more complex.
The quandary is, of course, that all FM stations seem to be following a pattern that FM 100 laid down almost nine years ago. There was a time in the 60s, and even until the mid-70s, when Radio Pakistan was producing quality, creative programming.
Jabbar remembers a period of people-based programming, “where they would take the microphone to the streets and speak to ordinary people about issues affecting them.”
This was combined with an amalgamation of dramas, current affairs, issue-based programmes and lighter, music-oriented programming. Most of the early pioneers of radio moved to TV in the 60s and 70s and it is here that the decline in content quality began. The brief breath of fresh air that FM 100 provided in the mid-90s has quickly become engulfed in the staler stench of unimaginative, ‘me-too’ programming in the stations of today.
“All stations sound the same today and they sound like FM 100. There is very little differentiation between them,” bemoans a station head. “The formula is straightforward – play lots of songs, mainly, but not exclusively, contemporary, get young DJs and let them talk,” he says. Occasionally, he adds, give them guests to talk to or even callers, but keep the talk heavily doused within music.
Some station heads argue that because the playlists are essentially the same, “there is bound to be some similarity between stations. It is how we play that music and the quality of the DJs playing it that provides the differential.”
There are some constraints on programming but they mainly concern current affairs and news. Stations are only allowed to broadcast news, but only if they are gleaned from an official government source i.e. Radio Pakistan or PTV, but that doesn’t hide the lack of imagination most stations have shown thus far. You will be hard pressed as an average radio listener to identify with one particular programme on one station only.
As Tatti argues, “with Radio Pakistan, at its peak, you had programmes with a devoted, loyal listener base. Stations need to develop a focused identity or a USP if they are to appear attractive to advertisers.”
Riaz agrees. “It doesn’t even have to be news or current affairs. It can be information-based programming for local events or even something like traffic updates. They have to keep their target audience in mind when they are developing content and they must have, content developing wings.”
Some argue that radio stations should treat their airtime as a commodity. That instead of running a show interrupted by a 15 minute sponsor break and causing a disconnect with the listener, they should incorporate the sponsor into the show.
“They shouldn’t sell time because that is what they have. They should sit down with media planners and advertisers and devise programmes that they can sell,” says a marketing manager at a television channel.
The argument is that content will benefit from the financial as well as creative input of the advertiser. In Dubai, Chevrolet sponsors one station’s drive time, while Lipton sponsors a morning show. The current lack of focus, specialisation and development of programming content continues to, if not entirely dissuade advertisers, at least instil in them some reluctance.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember, before drawing conclusions about the long-term future of radio in Pakistan, that it is still at a nascent stage. Most new FM stations have been around for little more than a year and to expect them to not have teething troubles – with content, identity or research – is unreasonable.
These two issues will eventually prove crucial in attracting advertisers and thus ensuring the long-term financial feasibility of radio. Most people Aurora spoke to were not optimistic that many of the radio stations that have cropped up recently will survive. It is argued that the market isn’t big enough to support so many stations – that the pie will remain roughly the same and only fragment further.
Radio is estimated to have between 25 and 30 million listeners throughout the country, approximately half of whom listen to FM stations on a regular basis, and most of whom are based in urban areas. This constitutes a sizeable – and specific – demographic. Additionally, the total ad spend is increasing year-on-year, and while TV and print continue to absorb the vast majority of that amount, it is unthinkable that with so many radio stations, their share will not increase to some extent. Perhaps it will be a case of wait and see.
In Pasha’s opinion, “radio advertisers at the moment are going to wait and see which stations start gaining popularity and then include them in their media plan accordingly.”
PEMRA will no doubt play a part somewhere along the line, although as it is facing numerous teething troubles of its own it is unlikely to be able to contribute much apart from the licensing process.
Eventually, the realisation of what radio can truly achieve, and how it can be sold to advertisers must come from within the stations themselves.
They must be aware of where their strengths lie; in the intimacy they share with listeners, the flexibility and mobility they provide to listeners and advertisers and they must work towards eliminating their weaknesses. For the moment, as Jabbar concludes, “Pakistan has been in a media deficit for so long that the arrival of the FM is a positive development.”
How positive a development it becomes, and how many of them will contribute to it, will take more time to determine.
It is often said of FM stations, particularly the new ones, that they lack originality and vision in their programming. One senior radio figure is bewildered. “Does FM automatically imply that it is for younger people? Because that is all you get on FM these days – poorly conceived programmes relying entirely on music to get through to a younger audience.”
Whichever way you look at it (and it may depend on how old you are), music content and the quality of its presentation holds the key to attracting listenership. In which case, City FM89, one of the new kids on the block, shouldn’t be doing too badly.
“It helps that we have a very comprehensive and high quality collection of music from all over the world in our library. This definitely gives us an edge over other stations. But it isn’t just that. Our RJs (radio jockeys) are of an extremely high calibre and that sets us apart,” says Maimoona Khalid, General Manager at City FM89.
Certainly, the station is becoming, along with Apna Karachi (FM 107) a must-listen for many Karachiites. Rizwan, 31 says, “I drive around a lot, but even when I am in the office, I have either FM 89 or 107 on. FM 89 has got an excellent music collection, but more importantly, they have got RJs who will play the songs. It’s no good just having the collection and not playing it.”
The innovative programming content on FM 89 also helps. Steering clear of the lunchtime meal shows or the barrage of the call-in shows, the station has avoided aping an FM 100 or 101. Instead, there are entertainment-based shows on the film and music industry, interviews and even a travel show, which takes listeners to exotic destinations every week, and unlike other stations, all shows are done in a mixture of Urdu and English.
“I think our programming is quite different from other stations, and this has helped us in establishing an identity,” says Khalid.
But some people in the industry aren’t as optimistic about the feasibility of FM 89 in Pakistan and their concern centres around the higher-income target market they are aiming for.
“Radio can’t become an exclusive medium. It is a mass medium and everyone from mechanics to sweepers listen to it and you have to gear your programming to that. I don’t think FM 89 has done that yet. ” says a marketing manager at a TV station.
Media planners are of the opinion that advertiser response will be slow until the station develops a clear personality for itself.
A source within the station confirms this. “Response from advertisers is growing. We had a meeting with some media planners who explained to us what advertisers felt. We are trying to find a good mix between English and Urdu.”
Khalid argues it will take time for the station to become the preferred choice for advertisers.
“We haven’t even had our formal launch yet. Once we do go, advertisers will definitely come in. At the end of the day, if you are providing them with quality, which we are, we will do well.”
In the meantime, many are those that are more than will to switch on to a music collection that boasts over 3,000 CDs (and growing) across all genres, from the furthest reaches of the globe, and some non-conventional high-quality programming
by Amina Sohail
Radio Buraq (FM 104), a project of Interactive Communications, began broadcasting from Sialkot in October 2003, and is Pakistan’s first community radio station. Interactive Communications has also been running a non-profit venture, the Buraq Planetary Society, for over 10 years. The Society holds annual space camps, which focus on keeping youngsters abreast of advances in space technology and science. PEMRA, having yet to disburse licenses for community radio stations, the owners of Radio Buraq felt compelled to take it upon themselves to serve the local community.
According to the CEO, Naureen Gul Mahmud, “Buraq will hopefully strengthen the voice of the community of Sialkot and enable it to take decisions regarding the city’s betterment. The station aims to make the community aware of their economic, hygiene, health and educational situation and assist them in improving conditions.”
Content on Buraq is refreshingly different from the staple fare of FM stations; programmes cover a wide variety of issues, encapsulating entertainment, health, sports, education, civic awareness, religion, business and agriculture.
Regarding why Interactive Communications opted for Sialkot, Mahmud's explanation is “we felt that working within a smaller city with little or no competition would be more feasible. Added to that, the license fees for the larger cities were very high and as we had to fund the station ourselves, Sialkot was a good place to start.”
One of the problems that confronted Mahmud and her team was the under developed radio listenership in the area. A not-so-large section of the community was tuning into Radio Gujrat and Radio Jammu from across the border (predominantly the latter, as it plays Indian music). Another problem was a lack of trained manpower.
“Initially, we had to air programmes that we pre-recorded at our head office in Islamabad. We had to hunt for local talent and train people before we could go ahead with live programming. Today, we have 11 hours of live programming and we should go up to 18 hours soon, ” says a smiling Mahmud.
To fill in content, Radio Buraq has partnership agreements to air some of the programmes broadcast by radio stations such as the BBC, Channel Islam, Deutsche Wella, Farm Radio and the Voice of America. However, the content is often irrelevant and Radio Buraq listeners often experience difficulties in understanding both the English accents and the spoken Urdu on these programmes. According to Mahmud, they are contemplating reducing the number of such programmes to make way for more home-grown content.
Language on Radio Buraq is a mix of Urdu and Punjabi, the main languages spoken in Sialkot. “Due to the demand, we are thinking of adding on more Punjabi programmes. There is also a niche market for English programming; our English music show on Sundays is very popular with a relatively smaller, yet nonetheless important, segment of listeners,” says Mahmud.
In Mahmud’s opinion, “In Sialkot, a smaller community, people are very critical of the content and are quick to react, which is why live recording is important. With pre-recorded programming, we could not be truly ‘local’ no matter how much research we did, plus one cannot react to listener feedback on time.”
The target market for Buraq is all segments of the Sialkot community, with a special emphasis on the young. The differentiating factor is that Buraq puts its listener first, which is why the station only started to accept advertising in May, once it had streamlined its programming.
“Although we are open to advertising, the volume we will get will just about sustain us,” says Mahmud. So far, two schools and Ufone have advertised on Buraq. “We will not compromise on our programming for revenue, neither will we alter our programming to suit a potential advertiser” adds Mahmud emphatically.
Radio Buraq also has an excellent website (www.radioburaq.com), which provides comprehensive information on the station and its activities, has an informative FAQ page and also contains a feature whereby one can listen to Buraq's transmission online.
Radio Buraq now has two more licenses under their belt, one for Mardan, the other for Peshawar; both stations are expected to start broadcasting in July. After conducting research in Peshawar, Mahmud and her team decided that their initial plan of keeping a chunk of programming the same across Sialkot, Mardan and Peshawar wouldn’t work, and the new stations will be offering localised programming content. The fact that there are currently no radio signals reaching Mardan, is another challenge for the team.
It seems that Radio Buraq is paving the way for community radio and could be a good model for others hoping to venture into this area.