Listen to the radio, and you will hear the songs you know. For sales executive Rohit Shetty, this 2005 Robbie Williams song conjures up an all-too familiar image of FM radio in India.
"All the channels sound the same," laments the avid listener who has the radio crackling in the background all the time.
Shetty isn't alone in that gripe - ask almost anybody who switches on the radio, whether in the car or at home, and they'll say that all channels play identical music, based on the Bollywood Top 20. In Mumbai, at least, there was one noticeable exception - Go 92.5 FM - which played Hindi and English music. But that's changed, too.
In April 2006, Go caught its listeners off-guard when it played nothing but Bollywood Hindi tracks through the day. It wasn't long before listeners, who were waiting to hear the usual mix of English and Hindi numbers, realised the music makeover wasn't the only change in the channel - Go also changed its entire identity, rechristening itself Radio One.
Explains Radio One CEO Rajesh Tahil, "It was necessary for us to go a step further in Mumbai in order to be in a position to compete in the national market."
Radio One now plans to expand its reach to six other cities - Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Pune. "Going Hindi along with introducing a new identity was only a part of the protocol process," adds Tahil.
The journey of change from Go FM to Radio One doesn't stop there. In January, BBC Worldwide picked up a stake in the Mid Day Multimedia private FM venture, which ties in with the Mumbai-based organisation's aim to explore other markets.
Explains Tahil, "Go was trying to find a unique corner for itself as a one-city player, but after acquiring licences for seven cities it was time to play aggressive so as to be at the centre of the market." That's an ambitious target, but Shetty has a pertinent question: if all FM channels play near-identical song lists, how does one channel differentiate itself from the pack?
Make a note of this
"It's a narrow view to consider only the language of music as a factor for differentiation," declares Tahil.
"We believe that brand position, on-air talent and programming will be the finer points of differentiation." Radio One wants to make sure it's got those tracks covered, so the channel is turning to new stakeholder BBC for guidance.
Private FM channels are banned from broadcasting news, but Radio One is hoping BBC expertise will improve its presentation of sports events, entertainment and so on. Local flavour and coverage - the USP of FM radio - will be maintained, promise channel executives.
"Although we have a common agenda for a cohesive national brand, we are looking at unique programming for each city, so that we can be an all-rounder station," says Tahil.
Left unsaid is the channel's desire to appeal to a wider audience. Media watchers point out that Western music continues to be popular only among upscale listeners; the man on the road prefers Hindi music. And unless a channel has mass appeal, it's not going to get mass (read: high revenue) advertising.
Agrees Radio Mirchi Senior vice president, marketing, Kaushik Ghosh, "It is natural that all stations will target the masses. Niche channels will always be small and command nominal revenues and cheap ad rates."
At present, ad spends on radio accounts for just about 2 per cent of the Rs 13,200 crore (Rs 132 billion) advertising pie (Source: Adex, TAM). If that share is to increase, radio will need to appeal to ever larger groups of listeners. And at Rs 750 for 10 seconds, Radio One's ad rates are almost half that of Radio Mirchi, which has been aiming for mass appeal right from inception.
"Getting 10-15 per cent of advertising revenue remains the most crucial challenge," says Tahil. "Bollywood music is becoming more omnipresent and removing our earlier language barrier gives us access to larger audiences."
The sound of loyalty
Not just any audience, though. The bulk of advertising on FM is aimed at the upper middle class segment - the section that tends to switch on the radio even before the car leaves the parking bay.
It follows, therefore, that if an FM channel wants to attract that advertising revenue to its airwaves, it needs to ensure it's got the listeners. And it's not just Radio One that's thinking along these lines.
Points out Radio Mirchi's Ghosh, "Music will continue to be largely similar across stations because there is only one big source of music - films. But the differentiation factor to attract a larger listener base, which will create popularity and emerge as a brand winner in terms of revenue, will be on how the station sounds and builds a connect with the listeners in a particular city."
So, how does a channel create a loyal listenership? City-specific programming and promotions, energetic radio jockeys who speak the language of the classes and the masses, and celebrities seem to be the winning combination. The importance of localised coverage was highlighted during the floods in Mumbai last July.
Where several television channels ended up showing stock footage, FM radio came into its own. Area-wise information on water-logging, traffic warnings and listener call-ins with updates made most Mumbaikars turn to their radio sets, rather than switch on the telly.
Of course, the prolonged power cuts and commuters stranded in their cars probably also contributed to people going radio ga-ga.
On a lighter note, humour is also a powerful driver - urban listeners seem to be in need of a little light relief, even if it is of the slapstick variety. On air right now at Radio One is a spoof featuring Thakur and Gabbar Singh, two popular characters from Sholay.
Red FM, on the other hand, has created a character, Angry Ganeshan, who vents his ire on current issues. Then there are the shayari (Urdu poetry) programmes, albeit with a twist in the tail.
FM channels are also finding that big name guests and shows hosted by celebrities are huge draws on the airwaves. Which is probably why Radio City has signed on popular playback singer Sonu Nigam as a radio jockey for his own show, Life ki Dhun.
"Listenership in radio is driven by content, which is mass or broad based. But opportunities still exist to create differentiation," says Apurva Purohit, CEO, Radio City.
The name game
Roping in the page three crowd to speak into the microphone isn't enough, though. FM channel operators are also realising the need to create their own brands - for the stations, as well as the RJs.
Many channels are promoting listener-RJ interaction. Call-ins, text messages and song requests are hygiene factors now, but face-to-face meetings with RJs and contests and promotions are also becoming popular.
Says Abraham Thomas, COO, Red FM, "It is important to realise that radio is not just music, but it is about interactivity. This interaction can help build a loyal listener market, thus in turn attracting a large advertiser base."
For its part, Radio One is counting on a rub-off effect from the BBC alliance. It's already working on co-producing shows dedicated to sports, fiction and entertainment in association with its British partner.
"We are toying with the idea of Indianising some of the BBC's popular format shows, besides working at both management and technology levels with the BBC," explains Tahil.
Even as that happens, Radio One has been busy plastering Mumbai with hoardings and advertisements on bus shelters.Tahil says, "If you have a clearly defined strategy for the target audience and know well what it takes to get them, you can win the battle of ever-evolving audience and markets."