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Radio Ha-ha

Shuchi Bansal  |  New Delhi 

Humour on FM is a new trend, even though indians still haven’t learnt to laugh at themselves.

is not an interesting conversationalist. But put him in front of a microphone and call him “Sud” and the mimic transforms into the biggest entertainer across Radio Mirchi’s 22 Hindi-speaking radio stations. Called a “sparkler” in radio jargon, Sud, or Sudarshan — the deadpan raconteur who reads out jokes that make you groan from a “book” called — was first aired on the station about eight months ago, and his has remained one of Mirchi’s most popular humour capsules since.

Tune into Radio Mirchi’s morning show, and you’ll find that radio jockeys Anant and Saurabh also keep Delhi listeners glued to the radio with their understated humour. Though Naved’s evening show is popular, it may not measure up to his outstanding impersonations for — the interludes in which he plays pranks on unsuspecting listeners.

The buzz is that, like Mirchi’s tagline, the humour on its Delhi station is hot. “We are a sunshine channel, and head and shoulders and waist and chest above the competition in Delhi,” says Sapna Rana, Mirchi’s programming head for the city. “We may not make you roll on the floor with laughter, but we definitely make you smile.”

They certainly make Sud, aka — the perfect Shah Rukh Khan mimic in — smile. “I enjoy listening to Sud. It is one of my own favourite works in humour,” says Grover, who studied theatre in Chandigarh but had to make do with playing tragic characters like Kalidas, Hamlet and Oedipus. “And, by the way, there is no book called Hansi Ke Phavvare,” he chuckles. The jokes that he cracks in those flat tones come from Radio Mirchi’s programming team and elsewhere.

To be sure, humour — in-your-face or subtle — has been an integral part of the repertoire of private FM stations in India since they started eight years ago. One of the oldest humour capsules on Radio City is Babbar Sher — a take off on Urdu poetry mehfils. According to Radio City’s executive vice president and national programming head Rana Barua, “It still remains one of the best-produced because of its unique and humorous style of delivery and the ambience of a real mehfil.”

Big FM from Reliance ADAG is relatively new to the radio business, but it too turned to humour in a “big” way for its Mumbai station. “We had Sunil Grover, Laughter Challenge champions Sunil Pal and Raju Srivastava and even Shekhar Suman as RJs for our shows,” says Nirupam Sonu, programming head for Big FM. “The plank for our Mumbai station is ‘twisted humour’,” he adds. Sonu believes that such shows put the channel in the reckoning — that is, neck-and-neck with RED FM in the Mumbai market. Now he is bringing Raju Srivastava back to the prime-time show.

Back in Delhi, RED FM banks on Sharmaji Se Poocho where “hasya kavi” Surendra Sharma gives peculiar replies to listeners’ queries. RED FM also airs Comedy No 1 with Suresh Menon and Jose. In fact, the station’s Delhi-based RJ, Khurafati Nitin (Jonathan Nitin Brady in his off-air avatar), is pretty popular. Like Anant and Saurabh, Nitin may not be a radio “character”, but Delhi listeners connect with “my very basic kind of humour. My humour is downmarket… I mean mass-market,” says Nitin, and bursts out laughing. Then he adds, “It cuts across classes.”

But how critical is humour for FM radio stations that, for now, thrive only on music (80 to 90 per cent of the programming mix)? “Humour is the greatest appeal on radio. It is one of the most powerful, though the most difficult, tool for radio,” says Tapas Sen, chief programming officer at Radio Mirchi.

Agrees Abraham Thomas, COO of RED FM: “Humour on radio is tougher to do than humour on TV or in print. Radio is live and sans the visual element. It completely rests on the script or the jock’s ability to improvise and play on the theatre of the mind — which is also why humour on radio is so much more explosive.”

While humour may ensure audience “stickiness”, putting out good-quality humour is not easy. Grover believes that humour is an art that you are born with. “It’s not an acquired talent, though if you have it you can polish it.” Nitin, who used to teach jazz dance, feels on the other hand that experience helps in developing humour. He claims to have learnt a lesson or two from his previous jobs as a call-centre executive, credit-card salesman, airline executive and documentary filmmaker.

An electrical engineer by qualification, RJ Anant feels that humour emerges from intelligent thought and the power of observation. “You have to keep investing in it and you can’t repeat yourself,” he says. His mantra is to read anything in sight — books, newspapers, magazines, even advertisements. Saurabh, who once dabbled in apparel merchandising, admits to reading agony-aunt columns.

“Frankly, people tell us we are funny. We don’t even think so,” says Saurabh. In one anecdote he tells, he recalls finding it perfectly acceptable to imitate Doordarshan’s signature tune on air to illustrate Ustad Bismillah Khan’s talent and body of work. Except that Khan sahib had just passed away and the programme producer had passed the RJs a little slip with the news, expecting some kind of a tribute to the maestro.

“I realised what I was doing when I saw her screaming outside the glass door,” says a poker-faced Saurabh. “That’s why Mirchi will never employ us and we remain consultants,” adds Anant.

Radio consultant Sunil Kumar has just finished setting up FM stations in Chennai and Siliguri. He firmly believes that there is hardly any humour on private radio. “In India, radio is primarily about entertainment and not really humour.” He cites the example of the BBC, which runs several high-quality comedy channels. “Except for a few sparklers here and there, we are not even attempting humour,” Kumar says.

As a genre, radio humour is better-established in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia, countries where radio has a longer history. Says Rana Barua: “Having a broader evolutionary cycle internationally, the genre has seen many specialised radio presenters come to the fore, each known for his or her specific brand of humour.” There’s Chris Moyles, who hosts The Chris Moyles Show on England’s BBC Radio 1. “Chris is known for his style of delivery and hallmark humour relying mainly upon observational material,” says Barua.

Australia’s Troy and Zara, a popular husband-and-wife breakfast radio team, have won several National Radio Awards for Best Comedy Team on-air. Howard Stern remains the most controversial — and highest-paid — radio personality in America. “Also the most ‘fined’ personality in radio broadcast history,” says Barua, “he is dubbed a ‘shock jock’ for his highly controversial use of ‘Howard Stern humour’.”

Tapas Sen points out that “Americans and Europeans are naturally eloquent. For us humour is always an attempt.” Our politicians and celebrities, unlike in the West, take themselves very seriously and feel vulnerable when laughed at. To be fair, they haven’t had much practice — and in that they are like the rest of us. Until we Indians learn to laugh at ourselves a little more, Sud’s ilk will be the mainstay of humour on Indian radio.

First Published: Sun, September 14 2008. 00:00 IST