WorldSpace India: were they listening to consumers?

So another brand is dead. WorldSpace India is winding up services from Dec 31 this year. Around 300 of it’s employees in Bangalore have been given the pink slip. The 450,000 subscribers have been left in the lurch too – with many of them (including yours truly) having paid for a year in advance. And having to wonder what to do with the hardware which is rendered useless suddenly. A lot of the brand’s woes can be attributed to fuzzy regulatory policies. The company was looking to increase revenue streams but didn’t get a clear go ahead from the Government. It’s parent company filed for bankruptcy in the US and that didn’t help matters.

As a consumer, I have been noticing the steady deterioration over the last year or so with poor customer & technical support. But aside from the policy-driven issues, I feel WorldSpace erred in understanding Indian consumers and weren’t listening closely enough. Herewith some unsolicited thoughts:

1. Pricing: the average Indian consumer isn’t going to pay Rs.150 per month for ‘radio’. Everyone has grown up listening to Vividh Bharathi and FM Radio which was always free. If they were to see merit in paying a little extra for a new kind of radio service, their entry into the radio category should have been made easier with low hardware prices. The pricing at the launch stage (in 2000) was way out of whack for the Indian consumer. When they re-launched in 2003 with a corrected pricing structure they saw the numbers swell. Yet, I feel that the numbers would have been better if the hardware was priced even lower.

2. Value proposition: as someone who grew up in the 70’s & 80s the magic of radio is still vivid. Yes, a CD or a playlist puts control in your hands – you know exactly what’s going to play next. The magic of radio, on the contrary, is the surprise element. When your favourite songs are played often or when a long-forgotten favourite number is played again, it’s an ecstatic feeling. It’s as if radio knows you, it’s your friend. Even today, when I occasionally switch to Farishta channel on WorldSpace and it plays some number I last heard some 20 years ago, it’s a great feeling  and the words are still not forgotten. That’s the power of Radio. And then came commercial radio with it’s chatterbox RJs and ads in between songs. Not to mention that all FM channels sound alike and play pretty much the same music. While FM Radio is extremely popular, I believe there is an audience out there who will gladly pay for a service sans commercial messages and more suited to one’s taste.

Imagine the plight of a Jazz lover or an Alternate music fan – the choice is limited to music CD’s (expensive), ripping music of the internet (common) or online radio (not always free, broadband issues). WorldSpace was the ideal solution and I am sure most of the current subscribers are these kinds of music fans. They were the ones who saw the value proposition immediately without much explanation or convincing. But one mass media campaign I recall was the AR Rahman endorsed, ‘music is everywhere‘. It made for stirring, great looking advertising. And then there was the one establishing variety of music -it showed a guy waking to having M S Subbulakshmi, Elvis and Queen performing in his house. IMHO both were not pressing the right buttons. For a proposition like ‘music is everywhere’ the likely response will be ‘yes, I agree’ – it is in the FM Radio blaring through taxis and autos. It wasn’t telling consumers why they should by WorldSpace. And the second one was focusing on one of the many features of WorldSpace  – not the most relevant one.  The relevant one was at long last, the choice of not putting up with only the current Bollywood hits on radio and choosing the music you like, uninterrupted. I doubt if that proposition was driven home to a larger number of people. It should have created dissonance about the current radio option but didn’t.

3. Mass approach: the product was a perfect fit for niche audience like jazz aficionados, rock fans, Carnatic music fans and so on. Sure, commercial establishments like restaurants and retail outlets were common installation points, mass media presence gave brand visibility and most people would be listening to popular stuff even on WorldSpace, but I wonder if enough was done to communicate with the niche audience. An online survey of music preferences leading to customized mailers? A sponsorship of Jazz evenings?

Contrary to popular belief, 70% of India’s radio listenership happens at home – not in-car. I doubt if the housewives who listen to radio at home were fully aware of the benefits of WorldSpace. As outlined in Marketing Practice maybe a direct consumer activation program was the need of the hour.

All said and done, it’s the money-paying consumer who is suffering. And this time video didn’t kill the radio star.

Note: This post was written listening to the Voyager Channel on WorldSpace. The irony of it all.

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