Passion beats qualifications: Harrish M Bhatia, CEO – MyFM


Image-MyFM-Logo-PavanRChawlaDotComIn a country where most of the leading FM Radio networks are definitely stationed in the major metros and Tier 1 cities, 94.3 MY FM is the largest radio station network of a growing India with a presence in 17 tier-2 and tier-3 cities – the high-growth frontiers. MY FM is spread across the seven states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, MY FM is available in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Chandigarh, Bhopal, Jalandhar, Ahmedabad, Surat, Udaipur, Gwalior, Indore, Ajmer, Amritsar, Bilaspur, Nagpur, Raipur, Kota and Jabalpur. When it launched in 2006, MY FM, the radio business of DB Corp Ltd., took a bottom-up approach and set up its network across small cities in 7 states, building on the strong local understanding that the Bhaskar Group had in those markets.

MY FM is led by someone whom I’ve had the pleasure of having known for several years now.

Image-for-Harrish-M-Bhatia-PavaRChawla-dot-comHighly experienced and strategic, Harrish M Bhatia is as feisty as he is effective, and  never squeamish about preferring straightspeak over diplomat-‘ease’. He may be a soft-spoken gentleman, but is rather like that  historic figure he sort of resembles in a better-looking way – Winston Churchill;  as determined, tough and tenacious as the most famous sobriquet the late British Prime Minister was known by. In fact, I recall how once, years ago, Harrish thundered at a major M&E event while riding roughshod over the logic of using a print readership survey — he was referring to the India Readership Survey — to measure listenership on FM Radio.

Harrish commands enormous respect in the powerful corridors of the print-led Dainik Bhaskar  Group, for having nurtured and steered MY FM in all the local markets where, while vying with sister print publications for the local advertising pie, the FM radio network has grown to its leadership position in the tier-2 and 3 markets on both, listenership, and the retail advertising market share counts. Per its own research, 94.3 MY FM has also emerged as No.1 amongst the affluent class in car radio listenership, decision makers, and youth.

Harrish is undoubtedly one of India’s best radio industry experts, and under his leadership, MY FM has become one of India’s most significant  Local FM Networks to be backed by in-depth market understating and high audience engagement.

I caught up with Harrish in a free flowing exchange that yielded a deep dive for professionals keen to learn about and grow in the FM Radio business. Harrish is an embodiment of his network’s base line and brand philosophy which encourages its listeners to live life to the fullest – Jiyo Dil Se. That’s what Harrish does.

Edited excerpts.

Harrish Bhatia is the sum total of a lot of professional and personal influences. Can you sit back and reflect on the most important amongst those? It could have been a person or a job profile or an experience, but I want the young professionals reading this, to benefit from your vast experience.

Image-for-Harrish-M-Bhatia-PavaRChawla-dot-comYou learn many things from many people and not always do you get a chance to acknowledge them all. Both, my personal and professional lives have had a huge influence on me and my work. My professional life has been extremely challenging,  but of course,  with lots of learning. My personal life has been equally tough —  or rather,  much tougher…  almost since the start of my career, right till a few years ago. At the time I started, it was not at all easy to reach here. Though God has been always kind to help me succeed, through the hard work and perseverance that I put in.

A lot of people have influenced my professional life – starting from Rajeev Karwal,  my first boss,  to S.L. Mirchandani, my first promoter, to K.R. Kim, my boss at LG,  and my current promoters and of course,  my family.

What was your education like? How did it prepare you for your current role of leading one of the most difficult of mediums, Radio, which is not so well supported by advertising spends?

My education has been quite ordinary, but I have been an avid reader and a keen learner since childhood. Even now, wherever and whenever I find a worthy short course — from IIM to Harvard — I do go and attend it. 

I believe that in the end, your passion beats all qualifications, and that is what helped me join radio and spearhead the brand from zero to more than Rs 100 cr today with one of the highest EBITDAs (40% EBITDA) in the industry.

You are leading a radio network that is in the smaller markets; not a single metro market, actually. How easy or challenging is it to monetize radio in the smaller markets?

We don’t believe it to be a challenge. It’s actually an opportunity that we identified at the right time,  when none of the competitors had thought of it. Our strategy, always, was to cater to the audiences where the parent brand (the Bhaskar Group of publications) already had a stronghold. Moving along the same ideology,  MY FM was created to cater to the Tier-II & III cities because we knew we had strong connects in these markets through Dainik Bhaskar. The metros are slowly saturating. The high-growth markets are the one we are present in — the growing towns where the malls and multiplexes are growing, where consumerism is increasing by leaps and bounds. And we entered these markets at the right time. 

A RAEL Study USA has highlighted that a Print+Radio campaign increases brand recall by 3 times

Part 2 of my previous question: You have to monetize MY FM in a market where you’re up against print, which not only has a stranglehold, it’s also from your parent group, ie Dainik Bhaskar. How challenging is that? 

The world over,  various media co-exist. Likewise, both print and radio can and do co-exist. Actually, there is a need to understand that both the mediums are totally different,  and media buys are obviously planned basis advertiser needs. A RAEL Study USA has highlighted that a Print+Radio campaign increases brand recall by 3 times.

Why not combine both, radio and print ad sales? Are you wary that bonusing will bring down the average rates?

It is difficult to sell two different products through a single channel,  and there are many companies in the media space — without naming them — that had combined sales teams for TV and Radio,  but have been forced to sell off one of the businesses.

Also, the age of every medium is different and if you give the same food, same care to the new and the old,  one of the two will either be under-nourished or over-nourished,  and both the scenarios are not good. The approach and requirement for every medium is different, which should be kept in mind while deciding the ground force.

Would there be any advantages to unifying ad sales to push out the other competing print and radio competition in your respective local markets?

Unifying ad sales is a tricky thing,  and can be advantageous in rare cases. The business heads have to understand that they cannot undercut each other as both have their own PAT n EBITDA targets.

MY FM has always moved along the ideology of the parent group and has come out strong in its markets

How much of cross promotions are happening in the local Bhaskar print editions and MY FM stations? 

Both brands use each other as and when required; there is a lot of synergy in our working style. MY FM has always moved along the ideology of the parent group and has come out strong in its markets.

How many advertisers and brands do you have on My FM? What about its digital and online plans, presence and performance?

Real Estate, Automobile, Education, Lifestyle & Dot com have been major spenders. We enjoy almost 60% of the retail market share in the markets we operate in.

At MY FM we have a dedicated digital team which drives the content on digital to enhance our reach 

What were your plans for Phase III of the FM Rollout?

Harrish-M-Bhatia-Featured-PavanRChawla-dot-comAs you know, we were awarded licenses for 17 radio stations by the Ministry of Information Broadcasting in 2005-06 and additionally acquired 13 frequencies successfully in the Phase III auctions in 2015-16, consolidating our presence in line with our strategy to be the market leader in the ‘Unmetro’ geographies where D B Corp Ltd has a significant print media footprint.

We strengthened our network in the existing states and further consolidated our presence in Maharashtra. We acquired stations that could add value to all associated with MY FM. With stations in Karnal and Hisar, we became the largest radio station network in Punjab,  Haryana and Chandigarh. And we are already the largest network of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

MY FM is now present across 30 cities; earlier we were a 17-station network and we added 13 . All the new acquired frequencies are now live.

How do you identify, train and retain talent, which is always in short supply? How will you fill the requirements for Phase III of FM in India?

We have started hiring freshers extensively so that we can train and groom talent internally through the best people in various functions. There are customized training modules for people coming from radio- and non-radio backgrounds. Also, our engagement efforts and our excellent treatment and nurturing of our people helps us retain them.

Let’s talk about a common lament of the Radio industry: Listenership measurement… ratings. How do you cope with the pressures of selling in the measurement-dark,  small markets you operate in?

Audience research has occupied centrestage within a rapidly evolving mass communication market. It is imperative that a credible and transparent system be put in place to generate radio ratings. The industry is working towards measurement, and soon these challenges will be addressed. 

We are not selling on perceptions; it is experience that we offer to our listeners,  which creates perception

So you must be selling on perception.  In such a scenario, how important is marketing for you? What specific initiatives do you undertake to inform your consumers and create and retain a place for MY FM  on their mental home pages?  What is the total marketing spend like?

We are not selling on perceptions; it is experience that we offer to our listeners,  which creates perception. Being a strong customer-centric organization, we are committed to providing our listeners unique and engaging content that we create on the back of the extensive consumer research studies we conduct regularly in our markets through reputed national research agencies. We have attained leadership status in our markets because of strong listenership.

Unlike other metro players in our markets, we a very local station, our product is very localized and as per the taste of the city. We are informative yet entertaining, adding value to the audience who tunes in to us

How do you measure the impact of your content and marketing initiatives? What market inputs and sources guide you on the quality of your content, your presenters, your activations, etc? 

We do our own periodic independent researches through independent reputed national level research agencies. The findings guides us on what has worked for us,  and what hasn’t. 

If the industry were to invite you send a measurement creation paper, like Punit Goenka, Uday Shankar and others helped the industry with the BARC creation, what would your primary recommendations be?

Image-for-Harrish-M-Bhatia-PavaRChawla-dot-comSince we are concentrated  in the non-metros, our first and foremost recommendation would be to give these cities their due importance. Too often the industry focuses on Metros, leaving the other towns  to fend for themselves in spite of  being big markets in their own right.

Secondly, we would recommend a move away from recall-based measurement systems — such as the Diary system as followed in RAM or the Yesterday-based listenership system as followed in IRS — to a peoplemeter-based system, where the memory of the respondent plays no role in audience measurement.

Thirdly, we would recommend formation of a governing body which would ensure fairness and transparency in the system thus established. The governing body should necessarily have broadcasters, advertisers and advertising agencies as the stakeholders.

Years ago, Bharat Kapadia had mooted measuring radio listenership in mobile though a sound-recognition-based app which, for some strange reason, did not see light of day. I understand it was vested interests in the market and I won’t ask you to comment on that, but if such an initiative were to be brought back, how would you react, considering there isn’t only drive prime and car radio which is an important accept point for FM Radio, but also the mobile. And if something like that were to be implemented, it would cover a major pipeline of radio access by consumers. So would you support it? A completely measurable measurement system…

Yes we will support it. 

What are the three biggest roadblocks to FM Radio growth that you would wish gone if you could wave a magic wand, and why?

The Copyright Board needs to be set up to resolve the music royalty issue.

The second has to do with the restrictions on news and current affairs: FM radio is the only medium on which restrictions are imposed with respect to sourcing of news content. Neither newspapers nor TV channels,  and not even the online medium, websites, have any similar restrictions. Most radio broadcasters belong to news groups with good capability of sourcing news. (Also see: Why can’t FM stations broadcast news, asks SC)

The third is about Reserve Price – Unfair RPs have made it completely unviable for the radio broadcasters to even participate in the bidding process. Such high prices just don’t make business sense for us. 

Are you satisfied with the kind of industry body representation FM Radio has in India today? What would you do to improve it?

There is always room for improvement. Radio broadcasters should come together to set up a common currency for measurement;  it will be beneficial to both — advertisers and broadcasters.

Give us a brief history of MY FM’s arrival and growth. How has the recent past been, and what have been the major achievements of your network?

The journey has been challenging and we have witnessed our share of ups and downs. Starting in 2006, we took the MY FM brand through 17 spectacularly successful launches in less than two years,  and to the operational break-even in just three years. 

MY FM sailed through recession unscathed and showed excellent results through highly evolved resource optimization and revenue generation strategies. 

We are immensely pleased and satisfied with the way the stations are performing, and are definitely looking forward to similar performances from the  new stations.

Anything else you want to share with the young professionals out there?

Unlike the  other metro players in Radio, we are a very local station, our product is very localized and as per the taste of the city. We are informative yet entertaining, adding value to the audience who tunes in to us.

Before calling it quits on this piece, let me share that I shall keep bringing you similar conversations with Harrish. 

And now, let me share with you Harrish M Bhatia’s self description, taken from his LinkedIN profile. Here goes:

Harrish M Bhatia’s professional profile from LinkedIN:

image-for-Harrish-M-Bhatia-Leaderspeak-on-PavanRChawlaDotComDo you believe that ‘execution is greater than the idea’ ? I firmly do and have successfully translated my learning with the consumer durable industry with brands like Onida and LG to grow media brands across Print and Radio, Dainik Bhaskar Group. From executing retailing efforts (much before India realized it’s power) to building MY FM as an brand , I have enjoyed every bit of value added to the consumer.

Steered the growth of MY FM building it into a 350 people strong company. Accelerated the pace from a single station to a network of 17 in record time and achieved breakeven in the shortest time in the radio industry, in less than 3 years and PAT in less than 4 years. ‘Customer centricity’ being a critical aspect in building a business, have managed to inculcate the culture across the organization. Importantly, aligning strategy across functions in the organization to see it through till the end has been my hallmark. This has culminated into delivering a growth which is 50% higher than the average growth of the Radio industry since the past 5 years. My favourite line “We are not in the best efforts business but in the results business,” distinctively sums up my approach to building a successful organisation.

People say I am down to earth, humble and grounded. Being at the helm of affairs, have established a one to one bond with the teams across levels with unique HR practices unheard of in the Radio industry. An open work culture is my success mantra and feel Questions are the Answers wherein teams are encouraged to feel free and come up with suggestions which are evaluated and implemented.

Awards like New York festival, CMO Asia for Radio Station of the year, Asian Leadership are few of the accolades which make us proud.

Expertise: Building organisations from the scratch, turnaround specialist, multi industry experience, go getter, adaptable and peoples person. 

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