Written By: Muhammad Tauseeef Ansari
Spring season in Pakistan brings a myriad of flowers of all colours and hue. New leaves sprout from branches and new branches sprout from old barks. It was a wonderful day during the spring season in Pakistan, March 1995 to be exact, when Pakistanis experienced the blooming of a new phenomenon in the world of audio-visual entertainment. A foreign educated and experienced broadcaster was “imported” to Pakistan to kick start the revolution in the world of radio. “Assalam-o-Alaikum Pakistan” voiced the launch of FM100 Pakistan, the first FM radio network of the country. It was Asif Ghazali, a seasoned broadcaster whose captivating voice and pleasant accent greeted Pakistanis with “Assalamo Alaikum Pakistan”. People immediately fell in love with the presenter and his style; a style that later became a landmark for all the radio presenters. Asif Ghazali, also the CEO of FM100 at that time, wears the feather in his cap of launching the first 24-hour stereo music FM radio network in Pakistan. FM100 was the flag bearer, with no or minimal competition in the early years. However, today we have a plethora of FM radio networks in Pakistan on national, regional and local levels.
But why? Why was there a need to launch FM radio networks in Pakistan and why so many? A layman can never understand the dynamics of FM radio networks as he is more concerned with what is delivered to his heart via his ears. It’s the dish that counts not the toil of the chef. FM radio networks were launched under the umbrella of the media liberalization. Before private sector gained dominance in the world of media and entertainment, we Pakistanis were subjected to the state-run media channels which aired programs of their own interest; contrary to the basic idea of airing what the audience desires. The state-owned media was used to blatantly bombarding us with those narratives which, the then government, desired to ingrain in the minds of citizens. The poor citizens had no other choice.
FM100 changed everything. The need for FM stations emanated from the realization of success of similar phenomena in many countries, especially in the West. Also, the gap created by Radio Pakistan by not repositioning itself and failing to change according to the developing demands of the listeners, pulled investments into this sector; promising and delivering huge returns. As technology brought people closer, listeners in Pakistan not only enjoyed the music in stereo sound but also the interactive approach of the presenters on the FM radio networks. The cassette players in cars were replaced with radio sets having FM frequency. The callers who went live on radio with presenters and expressed their point of views on various topics gave the listeners an opportunity to hear what people in other areas of the country had to say and learn about their psyche and experiences. The housewives had their own share of cooking and beauty shows. With the advent of FM stations, it is not an uncommon sight to see a housewife doing her chores at home with FM radio blaring out loud music and interactive programs.
The success of this FM revolution attracted a lot of people to invest in the business. Different FM stations started mushrooming. City based channels were also launched which aired their programs and music to a certain city only. Country-wide networks are more popular among listeners due to the variety in programs and music. Furthermore, these country-wide networks also have the resources to come up with better presenters and better programs. Few FM networks also resorted to create strong outreach in particular geographical regions. Focusing on a specific region and airing programs in regional languages have been a forte of a few radio networks thus creating not only a niche market for themselves but also for the marketing of product/brands catering to these geographic locations.
No sane businessman will invest his money in a project which does not give him an adequate return on investment. So how does the FM radio station make money, and enough of it to keep the investment coming? The secret lies in the advertisements and branding of programs. Most of the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies reaped the benefits of increasing FM radio networks through allocation of their marketing expenditure on the newly identified opportunity. Whether it was tea, milk, beverages or petroleum products, everything that a man could buy was advertised on FM radio. Increasing consumerism after 1999 paved the way for telecom and financial sectors to jump on the bandwagon, too. Nowadays, anything and everything, whether it is a product or service that is being offered to public, is finding its way to the FM radio. The advertisement expenditure of the companies on FM radio networks is increasing gradually as the listenership of these FM radio network increases. The marketing push by the companies is directed towards FM radio networks based on the network coverage. Thus, the largest beneficiaries are those networks which have maximum coverage within the country. The regional FM radio networks also have a certain advantage due to dedicated regional listeners which are captured by programs in regional languages. This provides a window of opportunity to those products and service companies that want to target a particular region or their promotions cater for a specific city or a specific region. Hence their advertisements are aired on those specific regional FM radio networks.
Over the years, as the competition became tough, different networks evolved their Unique Selling Propositions (USPs) to attract advertisements. Some projected themselves as the network without any RJ/Presenter airing music only, while some, on the contrary, capitalized on the excellence of their presenters. Some claimed to have maximum coverage in the country while some claimed to have captured a certain region fully. Nonetheless, competition always kept all the networks improving themselves and coming up with new and better ideas to improve the program quality and the music experience. People now seldom listen to CDs or audio cassettes in their cars. Even public transport has FM radio installed. The rapid growth in mobile phone usage across Pakistan and influx of smart phones has also brought FM radio in to the hands of majority of the population; especially the youth. Increased awareness, expansion of knowledge base and access to global digital media has made listeners very particular about their choices and the quality which they expect from a good FM radio network. Different strata of the society have their own tastes and different age groups listen to not only a specific type of music but also their interaction with the RJs/presenters is at vastly different levels.
The latest entrant in this arena is Suno FM Radio Network (FM 89.4 & FM 96). It is a well expanded network that connects all Pakistanis especially people living in remote areas of KP, FATA and Balochistan. This was primarily introduced to counter the mushroom growth of FM radio networks in FATA and KP that were launched by the terrorist networks. These networks were proving to be a very lethal propaganda tool in the hands of terrorists to not only mislead the local populace but also coordinate their terror operations. Similarly, the network has been very effective in countering hostile propaganda by foreign radio channels particularly in Balochistan and FATA. Catering to all and sundry across the nation, it airs programs in both national and regional languages, with focus on quality content and a positive narrative formulation. The network is apolitical and only focuses on positive social and security themes. Its state-of-the-art equipment, and latest technology is a welcoming sign for the listeners who have learnt not to compromise on quality. In a nutshell, Suno FM Radio Network has played an effective role in national narrative formation and countering the FM radio networks of terrorists as well as neighbouring countries that were trying to infiltrate our media boundaries near Pakistan’s borders.
Development and evolution in the FM radio world in Pakistan has increased the competition among the players. All the networks rely heavily on the advertisement revenue and hence sometimes the narrative seems to be biased. A few harsh realities regarding a certain product may not be shared with the listeners if advertisements of that specific product is contributing significantly to the advertisement revenue of an FM radio network. Similarly high commercial ratings are a key to increased advertisement share of that FM radio network. This positively impacts the healthy competition but also leads to unwanted experiments that may prove detrimental to the whole sector as well. Pakistan’s current rating system is dependent on feedback majorly coming from urban population. This may render the ratings and thus the programming reflective of a certain strata of the society even though a greater proportion of the listenership is concentrated in rural areas. These are some inherent limitations which, over time will be smoothed out and bring greater clarity to the network owners, the regulators and also the listeners.
That being said, there still are a few areas where these FM radio networks need to work hard and improve. The first and the foremost is the absence of informative and educational value content for children and adolescents. The young ones do not have any segment or specific time dedicated programs for them. The program directors probably have not paid much attention to this segment of the population; possibly because of lack of availability of resources/content for kids or due to their inability to think afresh. Countless options of songs, poems, stories, radio plays and quiz or game shows exist that can be explored and the radio networks can carve out a niche market for themselves. There are countless organizations which are working for childern’s welfare in Pakistan; hence it will not be difficult to get some support (financial and otherwise). Similarly, a lot of kids’ products, that are target marketed to young ones, are easy to rope-in to sponsor programs with such kind of focus.
Secondly, the quality of presenters/RJs needs to be improved. Big networks do have some good quality presenters/RJs but, down the line, the listener is tormented by the senseless and directionless jibber jabber of the presenters. Who in the world has the time to think and share trivial details of one’s lunch menu? The presenters/RJs need to be trained and informed that they have an audience which can be groomed and their levels of understanding enhanced by sharing valuable information and knowledge. The RJs/Presenters can, and need to, educate the listeners on what is happening in the world and how people in Pakistan need to change; to fit into the global village; which is in a continuous state of flux. This task itself needs well-groomed presenters who are capable enough to maneuver their tirade into a meaningful conversation. It’s a great asset for presenters/RJs to have dedicated listeners who listen attentively and try to follow what is communicated to them. The RJs/Presenter must realize this power and put it to good use.
The FM radio which commenced from Assalam-o-Alaikum Pakistan has matured into a powerful tool for providing both entertainment and useful information. The listeners have also moved onto a mature stage where they are beyond the recipes and “tottkas” that were relentlessly beaten into their brains via their ears. Yes, they enjoy the music of all sorts but no, they cannot be fooled by meaningless conversations and lame jokes.
The writer is an Investment Banker by profession and also hosts shows on an FM radio network.