In the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, marred by over three decades of armed conflict, music is in the air as more and more private FM radio stations open up in the valley.
This year alone, three leading Indian FM brands, Red FM 93.5, Radio Mirchi 98.3 and FM Tadka 95.0 commenced operations in Kashmir, at an estimated initial investment of around Rs 20 million (US$ 277,000), each.
This investment was in addition to a fee of around Rs 6.5 million ($90,025) paid to the Indian government by each station for the granting of licenses by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, after requisite clearances to operate in the sensitive-region were granted.
Major Indian radio broadcasters are investing rapidly in the valley to open state-of-the-art studios, opening with them exciting new employment possibilities for young Kashmiris. The public response to the new broadcasters has been so overwhelming that the stations began generating advertising revenue within the first month of operations.
Up until now, the only private player on air in Kashmir was 92.7 Big FM. Having debuted in 2006, Big FM has grown over the years to become a staple household entertainment name while carefully avoiding controversial content in a region where Islamist insurgents have been “fighting for liberation from India.”
With more players joining the radio industry in the restive valley, the selection of programs is growing rapidly. Some new radio anchors are touching on topics like love, romance and dating, subjects often deemed taboo in conservative, Muslim-dominated society Kashmiri society.
Soon after the start of Radio Mirchi in May, one of its show hosts, Mirchi Vijdan, a Kashmiri in his 20s, shot to instant fame when he discussed his own love life on air during a show dedicated to dating.
Despite being hailed by some as a break from conservative entertainment, some of his shows have also drawn widespread criticism on social media.
One mainstream political party, Jammu and Kashmir Political Alliance, went to the extent of issuing statements critical of such shows. “Such lewd content is not acceptable to us,” said the party spokesman Auqib Renzu.
However, he may be swimming against a tide of millennial listeners who clearly appreciate what they see as ground-breaking content.
Apart from Bollywood numbers, Radio Mirchi also airs popular music from the Coke Studio Pakistan. Interestingly, unlike other Indian states, where Bollywood gossip is the staple attraction to hordes of listeners, Kashmiris appear to be more interested in music gelled with topics that touch their day-to-day lives than they are concerned by what happens in the Indian film industry.
Creativity in the airing of local content is also proving to be a game changer, one in which players like Red FM are taking a lead.
Since the start of its operations in August, Red FM has been banking heavily on humor. Kashmir Ka Bhaijan (Kashmir’s Big Brother), a thematic satire show focusing on local issues and presented by stand-up comedian-turned-radio host Rayees Mohi Ud Din, has been an instant hit. Rayees plays the character of a traditional Kashmiri shepherd who talks to his lamb named Kat Bacha.
A staffer at Red FM explains the idea: “Our popularity focuses on local content. It’s the first radio show that integrates humor with issues of the common man’s life. Kashmir has lot of seriousness and so listeners want some cool stuff that makes them overcome stress through moments of humor and other entertainment.”
Regional language has also had an impact on new broadcasters’ content. Unlike other stations, who broadcast mostly in Urdu, Red FM presents shows like “JK935” in Kashmiri, and listeners love it. “I enjoy these shows more when they are in (the local) vernacular, because I find it more natural then,” said Showkat Ahmed, a radio listener.
While the new players are happy to be generating an overwhelming response from their audiences, the established player in the market, 92.7 Big FM, claims to welcome the competition.
A household name and popular radio host for the last decade, radio host Nasir who works with 92.7 Big FM said, “Every radio station is doing its best. For me there’s no competition. But given the choice, the listeners should have competition.”
He further said that Kashmiri youth have started looking at radio presenting as a viable career option. “People never took radio work seriously before, but now given the expansion, it’s a viable career.”
Even experts from the industry look at the opening of new stations as a positive development. Radio jockey and Programming Head at 92.7 Big FM Haya says: “It’s a very good and positive change. We have different types of listenership and now every radio station will have something to offer to suit their mood and taste.”
Having started her career in 2006 as a young college graduate, Haya this month threw a party to mark her 13th year in broadcasting with Big FM, a record in Kashmir. She is seen as the most experienced host at the private FM station, having been successful without courting controversy in trouble-torn Kashmir.
Hailing from conservative downtown Srinagar, a hub of separatist sentiment, Haya has a word of wisdom for fresh faces in the field: “I feel that the kind of radio Kashmir needs has to be in line with the sensitivities of the place. Keeping local sentiment in mind is a must. Only then this entertainment medium can survive here.”
In the absence of outlets like cinemas or any forms of nightlife, entertainment in Kashmir is largely confined to FM radio music shows. The cinemas were closed down in Kashmir in the early 1990s, when Islamist insurgents imposed a ban on movie theaters and liquor stores. Since then, despite attempts by the government, the cinema halls have not been able to reopen.
The situation in the valley continues to be uneasy, more so since the killing of Hizbul Commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani in July 2016.
Though the Indian government has launched a major military offensive and killed over 600 armed ultras in the last four years alone, more local youths continue to resort to arms. According to recent reports, for the first time in a decade, more than 300 local youths have already taken up arms this year.