Radio Mirchi and the Nostalgia Market

Radio Mirchi ad (Mahesh Hiremath for Radio Mirchi)

Radio Mirchi ad (Mahesh Hiremath for Radio Mirchi)

Where else can you hear tonight’s all-white Democratic debates described as “bahut gora, bahut white”? 

Only on Radio Mirchi, Queens-based Arkalgud Ramachandra’s favorite radio station. Ramachandra has not missed a single day of listening to Radio Mirchi since its launch in the United States last January. The 61-year-old, who has been living in the U.S. for over 40 years, grew up in Bengaluru, India listening to bhajans and classical music on the local radio. Now, he reminisces about home by tuning in to Indian songs on Radio Mirchi. 

“I listen to the same bhajans and classical music that take me back to India,” said Ramachandra. “I feel youthful, very energetic when I listen to Radio Mirchi and it brings back fond memories — especially of yesteryear songs.” 

This is precisely what Radio Mirchi hopes to achieve. Unlike in India, where it targets young people, Radio Mirchi in the U.S. targets people over 30 to 35 years who moved out of their home countries at least a decade ago.

That means featuring radio jockeys (RJs) who slip between American and Indian accents, roll their r’s, and say alliterative catchphrases. Mirchi is like an aunty in your ear, supplying hot takes on American and South Asian news, airing celebrity and political gossip, and of course, playing your favorite Indian tunes. They’re not afraid of having fun, with show names like “Sunset Samosa” or “Purani Jeans.”

Most other diaspora stations play similar mixes of Bollywood and Indian music, whereas Mirchi offers a variety of shows beyond music, from advice on love to prank calls. It may be this understanding of what the diaspora wants that will protect Radio Mirchi from streaming platforms such as Spotify or JioSaavn, which come replete with Bollywood and other Indian film and pop songs. 

Even Radio Mirchi’s ads recall some of the most iconic ’90s marketing from the homeland, featuring chirpy men with faintly British accents. The radio station isn’t afraid of its Indianness — Mirchi’s shows delivers the best of both worlds with unabashed confidence. 

After all, Radio Mirchi is the most popular radio station in India. The station grew its audience from 4.8 million listeners in 2008 to over 40 million listeners today. Its logo is in the shape of a red chili and includes the phrase “it’s hot!” A product of India’s largest media conglomerate The Times Group, Mirchi started operations in 2001 in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, operated by Entertainment Network (India) Ltd. Since then, it has garnered a cult following, where most people in India, especially in bigger cities, have the radio station on in their cars.

But Radio Mirchi — like its parent group — has global ambitions. Times Group has an array of products, ranging from Gaana for music streaming to Willow TV, a cricket broadcasting channel for those outside India, acquired in 2016. The Times Group took its time to launch Mirchi in the U.S., probably because it had so many other properties. It had to streamline insights on listening patterns and audience preferences to offer a tailored experience for South Asians in America.  

Hoping to tap into the growing South Asian community in the U.S., Radio Mirchi launched in North America a year ago when its first station went on-air in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The population of Indians living in the U.S. has grown to around 4 million in 2018, a major jump from 2.8 million in 2010. 

One year later, Mirchi now has stations in nine cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, and Cleveland — with plans to launch in many more in 2020. 

While some Indian brands, such as MTR Foods, have crossed over from India to the U.S., Radio Mirchi is one of the few that has shown such early signs of success. Within a year of launch, Radio Mirchi garnered around 150,000 listeners in New York, says Sai Patnaik, programming head in North America for Radio Mirchi.

“Our target audience in the U.S. is people who have left India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in the ’80s and ’90s and want to listen to a radio station from India,” said Patnaik, who heads content for Radio Mirchi U.S. “There are many local stations that offer Bollywood music. But we bring our Indian experience to the diaspora here knowing what they want to listen to. Some of our top radio jockeys from India are also doing specific shows for America.”

With their extensive experience across languages, Radio Mirchi believes that they have strategies up their sleeve to keep the South Asian diaspora happy.

Soon after Mirchi launched in the tri-state area with mostly Hinglish content, they realized that New Jersey has a 60,000-strong Gujarati-speaking population. So Radio Mirchi launched a show called "Pakko Gujarati," hosted by popular Gujarati radio personality RJ Dhvanit. They also launched "Sunday Suspense," a narration of Bengali stories by RJ Mir on the weekends, for the Bengali-speaking population in New York.  

“While the U.S. has desi radio stations, most of them play the same music and have similar kinds of interviews,” said a former employee of Radio Mirchi, requesting anonymity. “They don’t really differentiate themselves from one another. But with Radio Mirchi’s experience running stations from Kashmir to Kerala, they know how to cater to the different kinds of cultures.”

This isn’t Radio Mirchi’s first venture out of its home turf. In 2012, it forayed into the Middle East — which included Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Bahrain. The following year, the company launched a studio in Dubai, underscoring the company’s seriousness to achieve success in international waters.

In the U.S., Mirchi’s strategy is to continue playing shows by well-known RJs alongside local content and news. When the network launched in the U.S. last year, it started with feature shows from RJs already popular in India such as RJ Sayema, one of the most tenured RJs at Mirchi. Sayema is known for her show “Purani Jeans,” a go-to for people who love to listen to classical film singers like Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar. Mirchi also launched with popular prank show Mirchi Murgas by RJ Naved and dance mixes on Club Mirchi.

“I’ve been living in the U.S. since I was five, so I had never listened to Radio Mirchi but heard a lot about it from my family,” said 30-year-old Priya Shah from Edison, New Jersey. “Now we listen to it whenever I am traveling with my parents because they usually have that station playing in their car. It helps them connect with back home.”

Radio Mirchi’s nostalgia pitch is what makes it so successful as a brand — something that may not have worked for other brands that tried to cross over from India. And it’s not easy for Mirchi to get outdated by new technology — it can be streamed on traditional radio, the web, and even its app, which launched in the U.S. last month and had 16,000 downloads within 25 days of launch.

“Radio Mirchi targeted the audience that was hungry for a connection and provided it through their shows,” said Pete Canalichio, a brand strategist and adjunct professor of brand management at Mercer University. “A brand should be willing to spend the marketing dollars to build awareness. In the case of Radio Mirchi, they are a media platform themselves and can build their awareness much more easily.”

That said, experts believe that for Radio Mirchi to be truly successful, it will have to move beyond the Indian diaspora. “We have positioned ourselves as South Asia’s number one station,” said Patnaik. “There are people beyond Indians who come and listen to our stations because they love Bollywood music.”

Varsha Bansal is a journalist based in Bangalore covering the new economy. Previously she has worked with The Economic Times and Mint where she spent most of her time writing on consumer internet companies including Flipkart, Ola, etc. Before that she was a reporter in Washington, D.C. working at Kiplinger, a personal finance magazine.

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