Velu Shankar was Senior Advisor, Content and Programming at WorldSpace India, the satellite radio network that became known for its India-specific content offerings in the decade of the 2000s .
Under Shankar, the network’s India arm conceptualized operations and commissioned a variety of original content from India in order to meet the needs of the genre-specific 24-hour channels it ran. This was a pioneering experiment in its day before the advent of Internet radio.
SouthWord. interviewed Shankar on the occasion of World Radio Day (February 13) to understand the story of WorldSpace, its content operations and what led to its closure in 2009. He spoke about the power of radio as a medium; the changes in listening culture; and the future of podcasting among other things. Excerpts from an interview:
Can you tell us about what sparked the idea of introducing WorldSpace to India?
WorldSpace (WS) was started as a satellite digital platform which could host multiple channels from different content creators and its footprint covered Asia and Africa. But in 2003 after I joined the company we changed WS into a content creator and introduced 22 India-specific channels on a subscription model. The rich and diverse content from India with its classical traditions and different languages made it ideal for a platform like WS which had a national footprint.
Do you believe that WS would have found a larger subscriber base and greater success today, than in 2009?
It was a success even in 2009. With a paid subscription universe of 2.5 lakh subscribers and the diversity of content which was offered, it was without parallel. The closure of WS was more to do with the Management changing hands. The new Management didn’t feel that Asia was their focus market.
WS had an eclectic mix of stations. What were your greatest challenges in managing content for WS?
We wanted a dedicated, genre or language-based 24 hour radio station. The channels were advertisement free. As the focus was on the richness of content we dived deep into each genre, which meant we needed a wide and deep database of music and non-music content like interviews etc. When we got into classical genres, especially Hindustani and Carnatic, the availability of recorded music was limited and it was restricted to a narrow band of musicians. So we organised to record concerts and commission music which was exclusive for our channel. The challenge was to maintain the depth of the content which meant that we signed deals with more than 300 record labels and even sourced music from collectors and archivists.
WS India accounted for 96% of the WS business worldwide. I know many people who say they loved listening to it and were saddened to hear it was gone. Why wasn’t it acquired and allowed to continue in India?
WS existed because of people who believed in radio as a medium and who also recognised the richness of Indian music content. Very few people believe in that if I have to go by the current offerings. Another factor could also be the fact that with technology changing so rapidly the content delivery system of WS would have been slightly dated.
Do you think there has been a revival of the listening culture in India in the last 5 years?
Definitely yes as we have more events and there is a significant growth in people who are willing to spend money for the opportunity to listen to music. But I feel we are still offering a narrow band of choice.
According to you, what incentive does a young urban Indian have to tune in to the radio rather than YouTube or other mediums?
Radio’s epitaph has been written many times but it still is as powerful as it was earlier. It’s a unique medium which combines the power of a mass media but with a personalised experience of a social medium and that’s an unbeatable combination. Most of the current offerings which are algorithm-based presumes a certain amount of music knowledge of the listener. The power of the radio is in its serendipity, where you are taken through a joyful ride of a curated playlist and an informed RJ. So radio can never be replaced in the world of a music lover. Again what I am talking about is the power of the medium and let not the current radio scenario in India fool you otherwise.
What do you think of podcasting? Do you think the medium will remain independent or do you see it merging with FM radio in the future?
I hope not. Podcasts remind me of legendary DJs who used to rule the radio world with all its quirks and individuality before the market-based research changed radio in to a standardised format. So podcasts will thrive only when they are independent and commercial FMs might rob of them of their unique voice.
Many of the top podcasts in the US are radio shows. In your opinion, is it worthwhile for an established radio station to invest in podcasting?
I don’t see that happening in our current scenario.
Subscription versus advertisement. Or a mix? What do you think is the ideal revenue model for radio today?
Every radio station aims to be the market leader and in the pursuit of that they all sound similar and boring. Both subscription and advertising models can work, if we understand and respect the medium and not treat it as an audio version of TV and run as TV stations with a centralised playlist and management.
What do you think is the future of live radio in these times of on-demand broadcasts like podcasts?
Live radio will always be strong if it’s allowed to exploit its strengths. If we continue with recorded shows and banal content then obviously podcasts will sound like a better option.
Do you think private FM radio channels should be allowed to broadcast on news and current affairs?
Yes. I don’t see why radio should be punished for TV’s bad behaviour. But even with these regulations, radio stations can create content which is rooted to their cities/towns and not have non- geographic specific programming, which is so alien to the idea of radio as a medium.
Do you think more should be done towards making radio broadcast archives (AIR, especially), accessible to the public in India, in particular to researchers and scholars who can benefit immensely from this access? What obstacles do you foresee towards this effort?
Definitely yes. We sincerely tried to do that in WS, where we offered to create a dedicated radio station to air AIR archives. Unfortunately that didn’t bear fruit. A public broadcaster like AIR should be accessible to everyone. The most amazing radio professionals of this country, who worked for AIR, built an impressive and priceless archive that will be remembered when we listen to their hard work. I hope it happens and I hope we get a chance to respect the heritage of our public broadcaster.
Do you have any advice for podcasters and radio producers today?
Nothing that they already don’t know. :)