Very challenging times for radio: Rana Barua

05 Dec,2011


By Robin Thomas


Rana Barua is a veteran media professional. He is Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Red FM. Prior to joining Red FM, he was the EVP – Programming & Marketing at Radio City. Before he moved over to radio, he was VP and Head – Mumbai at Bates. And earlier:

Client Services Director at Rediffusion DY&R, Account Director at McCann, Senior Account Exec at Ogilvy & Mather and Account Exec at JWT. He’s been through it all.

In conversation with, Mr Barua speaks about FM phase III, and how radio can emerge stronger from the ongoing slowdown.


Q: How did your transition from advertising to radio happen?

Advertising was getting a bit stagnant, the market in media was opening up, television had opened up in a big way at that time, newer media were on the anvil, movie marketing was also opening up, radio was also growing at that point in time (ie about six years ago). I have always been very keen to move into a domain which is more or less a specialized medium. Since radio was also into huge expansion mode with phase II at that time, it made more sense to move into radio rather than any other medium.


Q: And the advertising experience came in handy…

Oh yes! I think it comes in extremely handy if you come in from classical advertising or communication which is more specialized. Since I moved as Head, Marketing, it made a lot of sense because I worked with a lot of brands, and had the entire expertise of knowing clients, advertising, communication skills, media and creative agencies. Thus the entire gamut came in handy which helped me settle in easily. So, the transition was good, it was just that the scope was very different.


Q: Can you throw some light on the overall importance of phase III for FM radio?

Phase III is extremely, extremely important for radio growth. This is probably going to be very exciting, at the same time a really challenging time for the industry because radio is multidimensional. There is huge expansion, multi frequency will be allowed and news will be available but not in its best form as it will be sourced from All India Radio (AIR). FDI gets raised from 20 percent to 26 percent. I’ve always said it should have been higher because that would have allowed more international players or private investors/ equity holders to look at it in a more serious way. Fourthly, networking will be allowed, which means one will be allowed to run the FM station sitting out of a main hub; as a result the cost may come down. Therefore if you look at it on the whole, these are definitely exciting times and we will probably know how all of us shape up in the next two years. There are going to be many challenges and a great number of opportunities for everybody in the radio medium.


Q: And this will help increase the ad pie…

It should! The only contrary point is that you may have new FM players entering, but the ad pie will grow because of different genres coming in, as a result new clients may also come in who would have not necessarily advertised on radio. And since costs will also come down, you will find a lot of innovative programming happening in radio. Nevertheless, these are still early days; the overall scenario looks very positive, but the challenge is, what will be the benchmark for research? There are also other challenges like the music royalty issue, the entire migration process from phase II to phase III, the e-auction as bidding process etc.


Q: Do you view e-auctions favourably?

We are pretty okay with e-auction, and from what I have understood from a lot of people, it is a much cleaner exercise.


Q: Are there any setbacks…?

Everyone will have some issues which are different from each other. The common factor however is the music royalty issue which is still unresolved. We are still a little unclear about the multiple licensing because if the e-auction bid goes into some preposterous amount it will naturally lead to some kind of setback for the overall industry, so we are hoping that this does not happen. News could have been better if it had been a bit more independent and I am sure we would have invested in the entire medium/department. Nevertheless if you see the overall picture, especially the way radio has been growing over the last three or four years, this gives you an impetus. Today if you look at the global economic scenario you just can’t predict any more but, yes it is a movement forward, with exciting times, greater challenges. Yes, certain things could have been better or more favourable for us, but we will go step by step.


Q: How is Red FM gearing up for FM phase III?

We are still weighing the pros and cons. Yes, we will be seriously involved in Phase III. We are clear about being present in most of the markets which will have some kind of ROI but we will weigh the pros and cons, we will see the costs, we will be extremely cautious about the approach because breaking even in radio is not the easiest of forms as it will all depend on the return on investment (ROI), the advertising revenues etc. If you ask me whether we are serious about phase III, then yes we are definitely looking at it in a very serious way.


Q: Any specific cities that you are looking at?

No, we are not looking at certain cities, but we are looking at towns… say where we are not available, which are important for advertisers. We are looking at these as one of our strategies, but we are weighing all the pros and cons and only then are we going forward.


Q: Is there any lesson or takeaway that the radio industry should learn in Phase III from Phase I and II?

One of the critical learnings for a lot of us in phase I and II is probably going to be that we must not overestimate the potential of the market. We also know that we look at certain benchmark figures and we tend to overestimate and because of that one tends to overbid. This is one of the key learnings one is hoping that everybody puts on the table before one gets into the e-auction process because at the end of the day it’s a fixed pie and from that fixed pie you would probably get a certain amount of revenue for radio. More than phase I, and phase II, one of the learnings for all of us is the uncertainty of the markets as we don’t know what’s coming up in the next three months. Therefore, I think the biggest challenge that lies ahead for all of us is the uncertainty, which has become such a huge thing that everybody is talking about the uncertain future. Hence I think a cautious approach is going to be extremely critical.


Q: So, is the uncertain future – the global economic slowdown that seems to have come back – is that something to worry about?

Yes, absolutely. However, more than worry I believe we should be taking complete cognizance of the fact that there is definitely a slowdown. The clients, advertisers, everybody are extremely, extremely careful about the money they are investing in any form of media. Taking things for granted and creating business plans for the next two or three years seems passé now. It’s more like making a business model and reviewing it every month because the numbers keep changing every month, not because of wrong projections of estimation, but because the moment costs go up, inflation goes up, prices go up. The environment has become so dynamic – which it wasn’t even a year ago; every day there is a new story. So, it’s great to plan for the future, but I think one needs to be very cautious about any kind of numbers or projections or predictions made by various studies and research etc, which will however be reviewed very soon.


Q: How would you sum up 2011 for Red FM?

We have definitely grown; even this year we have made overall growth in our entire network, at a certain target we had set for ourselves. But as I said, with the environment being so dynamic naturally those numbers are nowhere close to what one would have guesstimated maybe earlier, say last year when things were so much on the rise and one had hoped that coming out of a slump the next two or three years would be on the way up. What we have managed to do very well is that as a network we have grown extremely strong – into a formidable player post the RAM numbers which were released I think a month or two ago, wherein for the first time RAM went into the nine markets which they are hoping to do more frequently. So we are pretty confident that all the efforts of building the brand and all the efforts in programming have really helped. We are confident because we have got people and our talent in place.


Yes, we are aware that with phase III coming in there would be a lot of movement again, but that’s part of the business. We have got a great team going, who are extremely motivated and work passionately for their brand and numbers therefore are showing very well. As I said the larger markets are not showing growth that it should have ideally shown, but it’s the mini metros and towns which have grown much more dynamically for us.


Q: And how would you sum up 2011 for the radio industry?

Overall if you look at the numbers one had predicted for radio, the growth has not been as dramatic as one would have expected because it is understood that there has been an overall slowdown. One of the things we need to look out for is some kind of consolidation which is how we would want the medium to grow.

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