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Radio from the skies
Arati Menon Carroll
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August 13, 2005

If music be the food of life, WorldSpace is here to provide the soundtrack. When Noah Samara, the Ethiopian founder and CEO, conceived of a satellite community radio venture that would provide an information platform to the under-served markets of Asia and Africa, he had ambitions of trading for the public good.

Years later, his product may not have exactly empowered the masses, but he did manage to pioneer satellite radio; his two satellites orbiting the earth took world-class Western programming to the homes of those African and Asian middle-classes who could afford a $100 receiver.

WorldSpace India, a subsidiary of WorldSpace Inc, has spent the last few months screaming "launch" across five major cities in India. It is India's very first satellite radio service, offering multiple listening options in more or less crystal clear digital sound 24x7.

They claim that even if you're on the Siachen glacier, you can take your WorldSpace receiver with you, and it'll work. And big brother regulatory authorities haven't managed to stymie its course - not yet anyway. So what's the catch? Well, it's not free. The receiver will set you back by upwards of Rs 3,750, and if you tune in, you have to pay up -  the annual subscription fee is Rs 1,800.

But hold on, let's rewind a bit. WorldSpace has actually been around for longer than most think, or know. For five years now, electronic goods retailers have had WorldSpace receivers tucked away in dusty shelves, lost among larger white goods. With no focussed thrust on marketing and high cost barriers, sales were slow while potential was swelling. That's when WorldSpace India realised survival tactics were called for.

Deepak Verma, managing director, WorldSpace India explains, "Initially when we launched our services in India, we had few stations and very limited communication with customers. We've now escalated our communication activity." Earlier this year, a leaner, meaner WorldSpace was launched in Bangalore, followed by Chennai and Hyderabad, and now Delhi and Mumbai.

They have reduced costs by 60 per cent and have augmented their offerings. They started with 19 international channels. Today, it has close to 40, including six regional channels -- a combination of news feeds from the BBC, Bloomberg and now NDTV, sports, music, brand name content and education programming.

Its area of strength, though, is still niche music content (jazz, bluegrass, hip hop, Indian classical, the list is extensive) -- there are music channels for music lovers of every persuasion, a welcome break from the predictability of tired AM/FM advertising-driven formats. And most programming is free of both commercials and banal jockey talk.

Retail is also an overhauled version of its former self. So while WorldSpace radio sets are still available at leading consumer durable outlets, they will also be sold at exclusive WorldSpace stores called lounges.

These are no-pressure zones (or so it claims), complete with beans bags and listening posts. And as it's discovered, experience is a key driver in conversion; in the Bangalore lounges, the conversion to sales is as high as 70 per cent.

The big push to revenue though, will arrive when receivers are made totally portable and they acquire a toe-hold in the Indian car radio market (the company has about 60,000 Indian subscribers). But there's headway being made in that direction too. Just this month Delphi Corporation, an automotive systems and components manufacturer, announced an agreement with WorldSpace to make portable satellite radio available in India.

The Delphi MyFi, launched in the US late last year, is a pocket-sized portable radio that even comes with a TiVo-like time-shifting feature that lets you store and play up to five hours of recorded programming. But at $300, it is not for everyone. WorldSpace India would do well to ensure the Indian avatar is more accessible.

The truth is that, as a subscribed service, WorldSpace will take its time to be accepted by Indians who are happy with being radio freeloaders. And as much as WorldSpace receivers are meant to work anywhere you can get satellite reception, there are areas where reception gets spotty.

There is also a limit to how many sexy contraptions we can own, and if eventually technology could get to the point where the iPod and satellite radio receivers could be rolled into one petite, affordable, portable gizmo, music lovers would shout Hallelujah in unison.

Industry analysts have hailed the $25 million investment made by XM, the market leader in satellite radio in North America in WorldSpace as a move to turn satellite radio into a global service similar to satellite television, say analysts. That kind of global strategic coalition might be the one to sustain WorldSpace if it is to hold its own against the Pacman of music sourcing -- digital music sharing and music downloads.

But Verma is upbeat, "The format we follow is exclusive to us, so we'd like to think of ourselves as complimentary to and not replacements of other mediums. In fact, we believe that we will play an important role in promotion of the entire category of the music entertainment industry."

But for now, for those who can afford it -- and many can -- the price of four CDs is what you pay for a year of listening, so the launch of WorldSpace is still cause for joy. At least until the government plays spoilsport again.

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