EXCLUSIVE | Nisha Narayanan, RED FM and Magic FM: Unflinching against adversity

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Nisha Narayanan, Chief Operating Officer and Director, Red FM and Magic FM, is a true blue radio professional  and a respected thought leader  and ambassador for Radio, which we believe is such a difficult medium to manage and grow in the face of multiple challenges of regulations, licensing, content restrictions and more, that if you can survive in Radio, you can thrive in any other medium.

Nisha has remained in Radio for 25 years now — as a respected brand ambassador not just of the remarkable Red FM network she leads,  but also of the medium of private FM Radio, exemplifying its effervescence, tenacity and its honest connect with everyone the medium touches. And working as a respected Radio leader alongside other distinguished peers and the remarkable Association of Radio Operators of India (AROI), to collectively shield it from challenges and champion its growth.

Nisha has been instrumental in launching ‘Red Indies’, which featured non-film music as a part of red on-air content and has focussed on creating brands out of raw talent. She also introduced storytelling-based content  like Ek Kahani Aisi Bhi and Podcast Hour.  It was her vision to make RED FM accessible to its audiences across various touchpoints which gave birth to multiple IPRs under the aegis of RED FM, like the very successful RED LIVE, RED DIGITAL and RED INDIES, amongst others.

During her tenure as Senior Vice President for Programming and Marketing, Nisha also spearheaded the setting up of radio stations across markets in the country, making RED FM one of the largest radio networks with 68 stations. Nisha was also part of the core team of one of India’s biggest brand re-launch exercise i.e. S FM into RED FM. She managed this transition across the country to build the brand RED FM as to what’s its seen today.

In this exclusive piece, Nisha casts a reflective and deeply insightful look at 2020 from the perspective of a sensitive individual and a professional and leader of a large team. She writes about how radio has been a true companion of the masses in ‘the most unforgettable year’, how the tenacious  medium has survived crisis after crisis — first the liquidity crisis and then COVID-19 — and how her team and she stood strong amidst the challenges of the lockdown, the changing landscape of radio, and more. Read on.

2020 was the year that grabbed mankind by the scruff of its neck, flattening former realities, attitudes and thinking.

Truly, the COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a most unforgettable year for everyone who faced the agony of an endless lockdown.

While it was utterly unprecedented and chaotic, 2020 was also a great teacher, especially to those in the media sector.

Covid-19 redefined the way every business operates. The radio industry was already struggling due to a liquidity crisis before the virus surfaced. Later on, it was hit badly because of the pandemic, with negligible revenues in the first few months of the lockdown.

Having said that, radio has always been a constant companion to everyone, in both good times and bad. The medium has a pan-India reach, from the humblest village to metro cities.

According to research conducted during the lockdown, radio had a credibility score of 6.27, far ahead of television, with FM channels emerging as the second most credible source of information for the masses.

Radio has been playing a much bigger role. It has been able to unite the linguistic and ethnic diversity and connect people from all backgrounds with its numerous arrays of frequency.

Radio is both affordable and accessible, and research has established time and again that it’s a powerful and trusted medium to deliver messages to the people.

Radio has always been a medium of the common person. Great leaders have relied on radio, realizing its extraordinary power to move the masses. “I see ‘shakti’, the miraculous power of God,” Gandhiji had reportedly said about the medium of radio as he entered a studio the first – and last – time in November 1947.

Realising the importance of radio as a mass medium, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated a radio show that helps the government to connect directly with a wider audience.

The economic and social damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has few precedents in modern memory. While the impact of the global pandemic on all industries is incalculable, there are several other themes that marked the past year for Red FM.

Red FM is a Nat-Local brand. Meaning – a national brand with a local presence. The biggest trap we could fall into, especially during a bad economic year, was to have a one-size-fits-all programming that is national in nature. Happily, we completely avoided that one big pitfall.

The fact that we are present in 68 cities across the country means we can tell 68 different stories, and embrace the uniqueness and the diversity of the land and its people. And that is what FM radio is all about. It is local and we play on the absolute power of the local.

Red FM is a Nat-Local brand. Meaning – a national brand with a local presence. The biggest trap we could fall into, especially during a bad economic year, was to have a one-size-fits-all programming that is national in nature. Happily, we completely avoided that one big pitfall: Nisha Narayanan  

One of the key takeaways from COVID has been our focus on diversity and regional content. The pandemic in our view has also helped accelerate the growth of newer content like independent music, regional content, digital IPs, and online audio initiatives like podcasts.

We have realigned our strategy and the way we approach our business. While the impact on radio continues, we have seen a shift towards non-traditional business from the old FCT model.

We have done exceptionally well in our NTR business which includes IPs, content monetization and digital assets.

Our strategy to stabilize the business includes diversity, inclusion and personalization. Through our various non-traditional revenue streams, the brand has been very consistent during the pandemic with various IP campaigns, which has kept the brand alive in the public imagination.

In the current times, our views – and the economy itself – are becoming fragmented. In a fragmented and perhaps polarized world, we still see many positives, like a huge emergence of diverse, niche and specialized content.

So our focus is on developing diversified content that reflects our regional strengths. FM by its very nature is local, and our 68 stations in 66 cities produce regional content every single day. That is the power of the airwaves.

Finding space for local and regional content in the mainstream has always been a challenge, but we are convinced that it is the need of the hour.

Another key initiative that we took is to be more inclusive, by embracing different genres. In this case, music.

Independent music and the accelerated growth of independent music during the pandemic was a breath of fresh air. We are constantly trying to bridge the gap between non-film music and Bollywood through our various initiatives.

Artists from different cities hunger for opportunities to reach out to a larger audience, and the one thing we can – and should – give them is the reach and impact of a mass medium like radio.

On the personalized content front, podcasting has been a huge focus area for us. The shift of focus now is more towards audio rather than traditional radio. Podcasting by its very nature is a very personalized platform. Although the monetization of podcasts leaves a lot to be desired, we strongly believe that podcasting has a big future in this country.

The pandemic has been a truly terrible time for the vulnerable. Mental health has been a big issue in 2020, and depression triggered by the lockdown, job loss, isolation and often by poor health has been rampant among all sections of society.

The challenge was both self-motivation and keeping the team motivated. Between salary cuts, downsizing and taking tough cost-cutting measures, it was a challenge to be consistent in our output.

On the personalized content front, podcasting has been a huge focus area for us. The shift of focus now is more towards audio rather than traditional radio. Podcasting by its very nature is a very personalized platform. Although the monetization of podcasts leaves a lot to be desired, we strongly believe that podcasting has a big future in this country: Nisha Narayanan  

But then, I truly believe in the strength of the team. No brand is created without a strong and passionate team. Despite the challenges, the strength of RED FM has been our team which has stood strong and unflinching in the face of the unknown, against adversities no one was prepared for.

Social distancing has brought us closer. The past year has made us more humble and taught us to stay connected and to be grateful for what we have, both personally and professionally. Even as we mourn what we have lost, we are blessed by what remains, and prouder still of what we have achieved.

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