Shalini, National Business Director, and Dhruti Vakil, Business Partner, Big FM Mumbai; Praveen Malhotra, Chief Business Officer, and Amit Choudhary, Sr. Business Partner (Retail and Delhi Govt.), Bharat Bhushan (Sales Business Partner), Big FM Delhi; Vikas Singh, Sr. Sales Manager Big FM, Hyderabad; Alston Glen Sequeira, Sr. Sales Account Manager, Big FM Manglore; Kunal Kamal, Group Head Corporate Sales, and Gaurav Malik, Account Manager (Sales), Big FM Chandigarh

FM broadcasting in India began 50 years ago in 1977 in Chennai, then Madras, and has now grown into an industry on its own with 72 FM functional radio stations across major metro cities such as Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kanpur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune and Surat. The industry is expected to be worth Rs. 33390 cr in 2019 and more than 200 cities will be hooked to FM radio in the next five years. Its growing popularity can be gauged by the fact that more than 64 per cent Indians listen to FM radio.

Now, the question is: When both print and electronic media have allowed themselves to become a tool in an agenda-driven age of journalism, can radio be far behind in serving paid content that may eat into the democratic values of the country?

It did not take much effort on part of Pushp Sharma to discover that FM radio companies were as eager to work on his malicious agenda as other media platforms. One such FM radio company is 92.7 Big FM. With a catchy tagline Suno Sunao Life Banao, Big FM is owned by Anil Ambani’s Reliance Broadcast Network. The radio station covers 45 cities and enjoys almost 20 percent market share. Last year, Zee Media bought 49 percents in the company. Like their partner Zee Media, Big FM personnel also wear their loyalty to the BJP on their sleeves, as one of its senior officials in Delhi confessed to him: “Waise bhi Reliance BJP ka supporter hee hai (Anyway, Reliance is always a supporter of the BJP).”

Sharma met National Business Director Shalini and her colleague Dhruti Vakil at their Mumbai office. Briefing them on his agenda, the senior journalist tells them that for winning elections and capturing power it is necessary to bash rivals by creating and running content, using their nicknames. Our main rivals are the leaders of the Congress, the BSP and SP. We will take care of your business interest and in return you will have to run our agenda on your radio station. “Theek hai (It is fine), and when are we gonna start this,” asks Shalini without blinking an eye. The client the journalist tells her that he is in the process of screening media houses and he will get back to her after discussing it with his chartered accountant. Seeking to know how many ads the client wants to be aired in a day, Shalini says: “Main aapko na ek accha sa package bana ke deti hoon (I shall make a very good package for you).”

But what we need the most from your team including your radio jockeys is emotional connect with our agenda. Shalini seeks some time to figure out how they can work on the agenda: “Give me some time pehle let me find out feasibility of these kinds of ads kya hota hai kya nahi … give me a day’s time. Dhruti will work on the proposal (Give me some time. First, let me find out feasibility of these kinds of ads, what is done, what is not … give me a day’s time. Dhruti will work on the proposal).”

You see, the first phase of our campaign will consist of soft Hindutva, the journalist tells them. The second phase will be semi-political and in the third when our opponents will play minority card we would also work to polarize the election scenario to make political dividends out of it. So, for the first phase we will talk of Lord Krishna and Bhagwad Gita preaching, drawing quotes from the holy text. “Ye creative aap bana ke doge (So, you will make these creatives for us)?” asks Shalini. Yes. The journalist names a certain fellow from Nagpur who will do the job. Shalini offers to get them done by her team: “We can also make some [creatives]. That’s not a problem.” Oh, yes, go ahead, she is told. It is always better if you make them in-house. “Haan aap humein brief de dijiye hum bana denge (Yes, you give us a brief and we will make them accordingly).”

You see, we are looking for a long association with Big FM, the journalist tells her. So, ensure that this operation is not blown off. In other words, you have to maintain secrecy. “Thik hai (It is fine),” assures Shalini. The first three months will help create a religious atmosphere in the country. In the second phase, you will have to promote firebrand Hindutva leaders. In the third, you have to bash our rivals, for instance, Pappu, using satire. Perfectly understanding what is expected of her team, Shalini replies: “So sir we do something call this ‘Actor Calling Actor’. These are, you know, satire capsules [caricaturing] Farhan Akhtar and uske (his) father … So we can work on something like that.”

“Actor Calling Actor” is a popular spoof on Big FM in which the characters mimic the voices of noted Bollywood actor Farhan Akhtar and his well-known lyricist father Javed Akhtar. Shalini gets the go ahead straightaway.  

Before the interview draws to a close, the journalist asks them if the core objective of the campaign is clear to them. “Yeah,” replies Shalini with certainty. Tell me if you have any problem with my agenda, for instance, the promotion of Hindutva leaders, the journalist asks again. Says Shalini: “First what we will do is theek hai [it is fine]. Just give me some time. I will get back to you.” So, what about digital promotion of our agenda? “Digital mein toh poochhna padega. You know … hum apne page par we normally don’t encourage that. So I have to check and come back to you (I will have to ask for digital. You know … on our [FB] page, we normally don’t encourage that. So I have to check and come back to you),” Shalini tells us. To tell us that she has fully understood the agenda, she goes on to add: “Third thing was what are very aggressive ad … campaign. So that is much later. So that can be discussed only at that point of time.” Talking of the first, simple phase, Shalini is ready to go: “So we can start immediately. This is not a problem.”

Coming to the agenda of bashing political rivals, she says: “So we have [to] basically write something humorous.” Yes, you got it right, using satire, she is told. “Witty stuff on, you know, netaji ye karte hain wo karte hain (The leaders do this and that) and then they will come up with nicer thing also,” she further says. Shalini has understood how the content on political bashing has to be created by her team.

After getting the Big FM Mumbai team on board his agenda, Pushp Sharma visited Big FM Delhi office in Okhla. Here he met Senior Business Partner (Retail and Delhi Govt.) Amit Choudhary and Sales Business Partner Bharat Bhushan. After discussing the agenda in detail, leaving nothing, with both, the journalist asks them if there is someone called Elston with Big FM Mangalore. Sensing that their prospective client is tapping other Big FM stations for his media campaign, Bharat Bhushan offers: “We will do it centralized for you because agar itne bade campaign kee hum baat karein toh ek particular point of contact aapke liye throughout the country hona chahiye. So that who can take care of the entire jitni bhi cities hain because as humare paas toh 60 cities hain but aapka ek point of contact hoga toh aapke liye bhi bahut aasani hogi (We will do it centralized for you because if we are talking of so big a [media] campaign then there should be a particular point of contact for you throughout the country, so that who [sic] can take care of the entire, all the cities we have because as we have 60 cities, but if there is one single point of contact it will be easier for you also to handle).”

As the discussion on the deal moves on, their client tells them that although the agenda has been dictated from Nagpur, only Shrimad Bhagwad Gita Prachar Samiti has to be shown as the sponsor of the campaign. Telling us that the payments have to be made in advance, Chaudhary explains us finer points of the deal: “Sir dekhiye har jageh ka na jo rate hai wo because political ke liye rate aur normal ke dono ke rate mein difference hai. Political rate jahan bhi aapka jo bhi hota hai political rate thoda high hota hai. Usmein do conditions hoti hain. Pehla aapka jo ad hai review hota hai humare editorial department se whether we can do it or not. Second, jitna bhi aap decide karenge jo humare beech mein jo  bhi discussion hoga finalization hoga, it will be in advance chahe wo BJP ho, Congress ho jo  bhi political party ka hota hai wo advance hota hai. Third ki ismein jingle humein banaane hain ya aapko banana hai har ek station ka apna alag rate hai (You see the rates for every station are … because there is a difference in the rates for political ads compared to the normal ads. Rates for political ads are always high. Now, there are two conditions. First, the ad will be reviewed by editorial department whether we can do it or not. Second, whatever you decide, whatever discussion we will have for finalization, it will be in advance. Be it BJP, be it the Congress or any other political party, payment will be in advance. The third point is if you make the jingles [it is fine with us, but] if we are supposed to make them, then the rate for this service also differs according to the station).”

Shouldn’t a company like theirs remain neutral?

Waise bhi Reliance BJP ka supporter hee hai (Anyway, Reliance is always a supporter of the BJP),” Choudhary thus reveals where the loyalties of their employer lies.

However, the first condition did not find any mention in our second meeting where the journalist met Chief Business Officer Praveen Malhotra and Amit Choudhary in a Delhi hotel. Rather both were eager to clinch the deal.

Now we know their client, that is, the journalist has already met her colleague and has discussed his agenda thread bare. Praveen has been briefed by her colleague. So, while discussing his agenda again with her, the journalist tells them that his organization is flush with money, but in no case should Nagpur come in the picture. Assures Praveen: “No, no, that will be [taken care of].”

The journalist tells her that he has already made everything transparent in his earlier meeting with her colleague. Turning to her colleague, she asks: “What is the kind of … have you checked with legal?” We hear Amit Chaudhary say: “Yes Ma’am, they are okay.” Now turning to the client the journalist, she asks: “So you would like to spend on pockets or all India?” Pan-India, she is told. “So you are preparing for general election?” she again asks. Yes, this is exactly what we are aiming our campaign at.

Telling her that in no way should the Hindutva agenda be toned down, the journalist asks if they can make creatives in-house, and we will not mind paying extra. Yes they can be made by her team: “We can make it agar aapke paas koi particular hai … (We can make it if you have some particular …).” You mean you will hire an agency? No, the creatives will be made in-house: “Agency nahi Sir. Wo hum creative toh khud hee bana lenge copywriting bhi kar lenge (No Sir, no agency. We will make those creatives by ourselves and we will also do copywriting).” Then, she goes on to ask: “I just saw a whole speech of Modiji which he has given somewhere, where he is saying my ideology, and only picking up one shloka and saying this is my ideology … Toh hum iss tareeqe ka bana sakte hain (So, we can make the creative that way).” She finally says she herself will choose some shlokas from the Gita to make creative in a nice way.

That settled, Praveen now asks: “Budget kitna hoga aapka (How much budget you have).” You can ask for as much as you want, she is told. At this point, her colleague tells her: “Sir ka sirf condition hai ki kisi bhi competition ke ad nahi honi chahiye (Sir [the client] has a condition. There has to be no ad [of other political parties] in competition).” Praveen asks the journalist: “Toh kisi other political party ka ad nahi chalani hai (So, [you mean] we would not have to run ads of other political parties).” Yes, we want to keep it exclusive, she is told.

As the client has told them the main focus of the campaign is Karnataka, MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where state assembly elections are due, Team Big FM says that they have a strong presence in the entire North and Northeast including Kolkata, Asansol, Guwahati and Aswal and seeks the entire campaign to be run and monitored from Big FM Delhi only. When the client the journalist tells them one Mr. Enston from Big FM Mangalore is in touch with him, Praveen asks for a favour: “Aap aisa kariye na sab centralize kar deejiye wo humare liye bhi sahi ho jayega (Why not centralize the whole campaign. That will be good for us also).” You mean, the entire campaign should be run from here? “Haan kyonki hum poora volume bhi dekh lenge (Yes, because we will be able to see the entire volume [of ad traffic] through),” replies Praveen. The entire Big FM Delhi team is pitching for a centralized deal, and the reason for their eagerness is obvious.

Pushp Sharma headed to Hyderabad where he met Sr. Sales Manager Vikas Singh, who has no qualms in providing our communal and defamatory agenda a platform on Big FM radio. Vikas tells us that he would assign the task of presenting our Hindutva campaign to their best RJ, Shekhar Basha, who has won the IRF award, a la IIFA, many times. Basha runs a popular morning show “Salam Telangana” on Big FM. “Only thing, he has to say in a such a way that Hindutva … this has been also like Shrimad Bhagwat Prachar Samiti also has been covered … we have our own property toh abhi koi association usmein nahi tha. He only says Hyderabad mein ye hone wala hai … ye hone wala hai … ye hone wala hai ([The] Only thing, he has to say [it] in a such a way that Hindutva … this has been also like Shrimad Bhagwat Prachar Samiti also has been covered … we have our own property but there was no association. He only says in Hyderabad, this is going to happen, this is going to happen, this is going to happen).”

Then, we will be happy to sponsor the programme, the journalist offers.

The offer is like music to his ears as he says: “We can … we can ... you people want to get sponsorship for this project morning show?” Yes, why not. Offering his station a budget of Rs. 1.5 crore for this sponsorship, the journalist places a condition: no rivals of ours should get time during that entire slot. None of their ads should run on this programme. “Got it. It will be exclusive,” agrees Vikas.

After arriving at this understanding with “Okay theek hai sir (Okay, it is fine Sir),” Vikas explains how they will fit in our agenda in their programme: “Haan ismein hum log kar sakte hain morning wala toh ek spot mujhe samajh mein aya ki usmein kahan isko kahan fit kar sakte hain. Uske baad another ye 10 hour jo peek timings hain where exactly we can fit you also we can find out timings, not a problem for us (Yes, we can do it in this morning show. So, I understand where we can fit in this [your agenda] in that programme. Then we have another … peak timing at 10 hour where exactly we can fit you also. We can find out timings, not a problem for us).”

What can you offer us on your digital platform? The journalist asks him. They have pages on Facebook and Twitter, we are told, which are linked to their jockeys. You see, the journalist tells him, our supreme leader gives live programmes on such Hindu festivals as Dusshera, Diwali and Holi. So, what about giving his programmes live coverage on your social media platforms? “Theek hai (It is fine),” we hear him say.

Sharma’s next port of call was Big FM Mangalore where he met Sr. Sales Account Manager Alston Glen Sequeira. At the outset, the journalist makes his agenda clear: First, the promotion of Hindutva and second, bashing of political rivals through their radio station. While Sequeira responds with a “Haan (Yes)” or “Ji haan (Ji, yes)” intermittently to the proposition, the journalist asks him to suggest some innovative ways to accomplish the job of bashing political rivals. Our objective is to take political mileage out of this campaign.

Well, Sequeira has got it well as he explains how it would be done on his radio station: “See means abhi kya hai ki agenda aapka bahut clear hai. We will have to highlight the positive points. It can be close FCT ho sakte hain, RJ mention ho sakte hain ya hum jaakar (See, [it] means your agenda is quite clear. We will have to highlight the positive points. It can be close FCT or in the form of RJ mention).”

Why not use political satire?

Agreeing, Sequeira says: “Haan aisa something purely. We will only talk about positive, for example, spots jaise humara Modiji ka jaise how their marketing strategy went, positive impact, positive impact wahi ismein. We will have to talk about positive, for example, let’s take Mangalore. Abhi Mangalore mein kya accha (Yes, something purely like that. We will only talk about positive, for example, spots, for instance, of Modiji. How their marketing strategy went, [its] positive impact, the positive impact which it had. We will have to talk about positive, for example, let’s take Mangalore. Now what is good about Mangalore).”

Sequeira moves on to explain further: “What all good things they have been done … sirf wo point lekar localize karke wo point mein FCT run hona hai fix commercial spot wo 20 second ho sakte hain it can be 30 second wo kar sakte hain (What all good things they have been done [sic]. Taking those points only FCT will run, fix commercial spot, which can be of 20 seconds or it can be 30 seconds. We can do that).” The journalist now tells him that he would like to buy the complete time slot of Big FM so that none of our political rivals could find space to advertise on their radio station. The second important point to be taken care of is bashing of our political rivals. Now, tell me how your station will go about doing this for us.

Kar sakte hain FCT wo spot jo rehta hai (We can do that. There is that FCT spot),” replies Sequeira with promptness. Can you do that using FCT? The journalist asks him again. Then he tells how it will be done: “Wo aapko kaise hota hai. You can have the positive spot. Aapke positive ke baare mein aapne jo accha kiya hai. There you can go for the shoot karne ke liye unhone jo galati kiya hai wahan par aap highlight kar sakte ho so your spots throughout the day can have multiple wo kaam humara hai. Humko content dena hai, humko production karke karna hai (How can it be done? You can have the positive spot. This positive spot will tell all good things you have done. There you can go for the shoot those wrong doings they [your rivals] might have done. You can highlight those [wrongdoings] in that spot. So your spots throughout the day can have multiple … that is our job. You provide us the content, we have to complement it with the production of [the programme]).”

Have you done anything like this before? The journalist asks him. Yes, they have done, we come to know. They will do it by creating hype around our agenda. Giving example of a politician from Mangalore, Ramanatha Rai, he explains how they did it for him in the last elections: “Toh humne kaise package kiya tha (So, how did we package it)? We did FCT spots throughout from morning. Ramanatha Rai, Ramanatha Rai CM is coming Ramanatha Rai.”

You mean you will create hype? Asks the journalist. Yes, and they will do it for us as well. “Yes, just hyping Ramantha Rai. It’s like that. Same yahan karenge ye plan jaisa lagega agar plan … we will do it as a plan (Yes, just hyping Ramantha Rai. It’s like that. We will do the same for you as well. It depends how this plan goes with you … we will do it as a plan),” says Sequeira.   

In the same breath, the senior sales account manager goes on to explain how RJ mentions will be used for our agenda. Hear what he is saying: “So what we can have one is commercial time that is just the spot which keep going throughout the day. We can have RJ mentions. RJ mentions means RJ jab baat karta hai sadak pe kuchh main uss taraf se jaa raha tha sadak bahut kharab ho raha tha jaise main humaare minister aap logon mein se kisi ne bola hum toh aakar help karke ye sab kiya. That will be paid RJ mentions. So RJ exclusively (So what we can have one is commercial time that is just the spot which keeps going [on] throughout the day. We can have RJ mentions. RJ mentions means when RJ says ʻHe was walking on a particular street, the road there was in a very bad shape. So I spoke to our minister or you [audience] did so. The minister helped in this regard. He did all this.ʼ That will be paid RJ mentions. So, RJ exclusively).”

Who is bothered if that was done by the minister or not? The journalist interjects. Replies the senior manager: “Wo humko nahi jaise aap phone kiye kaun kisne shuru kiya tha inki wajah se yeh hua tha. So these all things will be highlighted and RJ will mention about it (We are not concerned with that. For instance, you called over phone to ask who started it. We will say it happened because of this fellow. So these all things will be highlighted and RJ will mention about it).”

What Sequeira is telling us is how RJs run their programme, simply taking their listeners for a ride. Then, RJ mentions can be bought by any client, as the politician did. This is how Big FM peddles paid content to mislead the audiences! 

Before wrapping up the interview, the journalist tells him that his campaign should be run aggressively on their radio station. Sequeira is quick to offer: “Idea bahut saare hain Sir aapko ideas dene ke liye bahut saare hain I have lot of like wo bolte hain na mera poora radio jitna saal mein rakha tha idea sab dene ke liye. Road block jaise bolte hain road block kuch nahi subah se shaam sirf aapka naam chalta rahega Sir … RJ shuru karega aapke naam se end karega poore din (I have many ideas. I have many ideas to give you. I have [a] lot of [ideas] like I have ideas to give the whole year round. There is nothing like a roadblock. Sir, every morning and evening your name will run on our radio … The RJ will start the day with your name and end it with it only).”

Gaurav Malik, who works as Account Manager (Sales) with Big FM Chandigarh, gave a warm reception to the journalist when he heard his proposition. As their discussion on the agenda runs smoothly, Malik seeks to know: “Hindutva ka agenda jo pehle three months rahega (The Hindutva agenda which will be played out for the first three months).” Yes, you got it right, and after that the agenda moves to polarization of the political scenario. This polarization will help us consolidate Hindu votes in Punjab to our benefit. Now, tell me you have something to offer on digital, the journalist asks. Yes, we do, says Malik: “Digital karte hain hum … aap ek baar likhwa dijiye kya kar sakte hain kya nahi kar sakte wo ek baar fir dekh lenge (Yes we do digital promotion … let me note it down [what you want] and then we will see what we can do and what not).”

You see there is our supreme leader, the journalist tells him. Then there are leaders like Uma Bharati, Vinay Katiyar and Kalyan Singh, and when people see them our Hindutva agenda remains alive. So, promote their speeches on YouTube and other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. This will help further our Hindutva agenda. “Nahi nahi, I understand. Dekh lete hain Sir ek baar koshish karke digital ka dekh lenge ki kya karna hai digital mein bahut critical ho jata hai (No, no. I understand [what you are telling me]. Let us see Sir, let us try on digital and see what we can do about it. [But] It becomes very critical on digital),” Malik raises a red flag on the digital promotion of Hindutva. For instance, the audiences become very abusive on the medium. Explaining such pitfalls, he says: “It has to be very modest .... We can’t write anything which is controversial.”

So, in this case, we are left with only FCT?

Agrees Malik to say: “Yeah primarily because FCT mein what I will tell you … (Yeah primarily because in FCT I will tell you …).” So, what about thrashing our political rivals like Behanji and Pappu? Malik suggests how best this could be done: “And it has to be usko ek that humor angle can be there (And it has to be … that humor angle can be there).” Fine, all our rivals such as the Congress, the BSP, the SP and JD have to be the target of this bashing, the journalist makes it clear to him again. All things thus discussed, both parties settle for starting the first test and trial phase. Says Malik: “Main ek baar aapko na ek baar unke saath baithte hain aur ye banwa ke dete hain jo doubt honge we will make them speak to you (I will seek a meeting with them and make this proposal for you. If they have any doubts we will make them speak to you).”

The interview thus comes to an end with Malik telling his client the journalist that it is Big FM which provides a far superior coverage as their station covers Jalandhar, Amritsar, Patiala, Ludhiana and Shimla.


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