Bihar’s largest radio station is not a radio station at all

Radio via mobile. 15 minutes at a time.
Radio via mobile. 15 minutes at a time.
Image: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
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To tune into Bihar’s largest radio station, listeners don’t use a transistor radio. They use a mobile phone.

They call a number and hang up, and the mobile radio station will dial back and play songs, jokes, and ads for 15 minutes. Call again and you can listen for 15 more minutes. It costs the listener nothing. The ads are products for the operator of the radio station, India’s largest consumer products company by sales—Hindustan Unilever, which sells everything from soaps to shampoos to skin-lightening creams.

Kan Khajura Tesan, which literally translates into centipede channel, runs in Bihar and Jharkhand. Its promotion message: Missed call lagao free manaronjan pao (Translation: Give us a missed call and get free entertainment).

The service’s popularity among the rural population in Bihar and Jharkhand is a huge coup for the Indian arm of Unilever, known as HUL. Regions here constitute the so-called media-dark zones, the places media consumption and ad penetration simply don’t reach. The initiative has been so successful that the company, one of India’s largest advertisers, has stopped advertising on radio in Bihar, as its own channel reaches more people than any other station.

The content on the radio channel is interspersed with HUL’s mass brands. On June 17, the campaign won three gold awards at the Cannes Lions 2014.

Most of the villages in this region do not have electricity for several hours a day and yet they form part of a key market for HUL—potentially $25 billion worth.

Kan Khajura did just that by leveraging on the high mobile phone density in this region. More than 85% of the community owns a mobile phone—three times the number that owns a TV.

“Areas that were otherwise termed to be media dark are now entertainment-enlightened with Kan Khajura Tesan reaching out to more than 11 million subscribers,” says Priya Nair, a vice president at HUL. “Our ads have been heard 100 million times.”