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UpFront/Close Range | Sep 9, 2011 | 8295 views

Former Head of WorldSpace India Shares His Comeback Plan

M. Sebastian tells Forbes India that his new venture could replicate the success of the satellite radio network
Former Head of WorldSpace India Shares His Comeback Plan
Image: Gireesh GV for Forbes India
M. Sebastian,Co-founder and CEO, Timbre Media

M. Sebastian
Occupation:
Co-founder and CEO, Timbre Media.
Age: 44
Education: M.Tech IIT-Kargpur
Career: Research Associate in satellite applications – IIT Bombay; Scientist, ISRO, Bangalore; Joined WorldSpace in 1998, was in charge of India and Middle East when WorldSpace closed operations in 2009; launched Timbre Media in 2010
Interests: Space technology and reading

Q. Looking back, what do you think went wrong with the earlier set up?
First of all, it was a mammoth exercise. It was a business where $1.2 billion was spent even before the first consumer was acquired. We had to launch our own satellite, create infrastructure, and develop product and technology. We were introducing a new concept, a new product line, a subscription-based service in radio for the first time in the country. It involved a lot of education, customer awareness and brand building. We were probably a bit ahead of the times. We introduced our services in 2000 and DTH television came to India several years later. At the same time, WorldSpace then was only a percentage of what it could have been. We could not provide the service in automobiles, because we did not get regulatory clearance. That’s a long drawn process here. Meanwhile, the parent company got into a bankruptcy problem — and once that happened it had to go through that process. Also, it happened at the thick of the financial crisis. WorldSpace India was a profitable operation. But we had to close it down.

Q. How much of the earlier popularity can be attributed to your tie up with Airtel DTH?
That came later. I used to sit inside Worldspace outlets to see what customers looked for. They came for its digital quality, the programmes, the number of channels. For the first time in history, they could listen to their favorite genre - be it Carnatic, Hindustani, Old Hindi songs – whenever they wanted, without ads. They saw it was unique. It’s possible to get one hour Hindustani programme. But, to get it 24 hours, you need a lot of depth and breath.

Q. Can the earlier success be replicated?

If everything goes well, we could do much more than that. Earlier, there was a limitation of portability and mobility. If you wanted to listen, you had to sit in front of your set. Now we are tying up with multiple platforms – internet, mobile DTH. The same team has come together and I can say the content will be as good, if not better. Earlier, we were constrained by the number of stations. Now, we are constrained only by our energy.

Q. But many customers seem to have loved the satellite radio platform.
If someone launches a satellite radio tomorrow, that could very well be another platform. It really depends on the distributors. I understand how WorldSpace customers feel. I have got so many letters from WorldSpace customers. They are from old people, and I know how emotional they feel about it.

Q. But a reason why customers went for satellite radio is the quality of sound.

Very true. In the case of satellite radio, there was no degradation of signals, and we had control of the process. Here, the final reception quality will depend on the platform and end device. At our end, we will ensure that it is of high quality. Technology is progressing a lot and there might not be significant quality degradation.

Q. Any updates on the tie ups?
We have several discussions going on with distribution companies. We are talking with mobile operators, websites and DTH operators. We are primarily a content company. A lot of things need to be worked out at the distributors end –integration, pricing, marketing and so on. At the moment I am not able to say when exactly we will launch.

Q. How different will be the pricing?

In case of earlier Worldspace, it was rigid. Customers had to pay an annual fee of Rs 1800, and with tax it came to about Rs 2000. There was no other option. What’s going to happen in the present set up, there will be different types of offering. A mobile operator could for example offer weekly and monthly subscription. It’s possible to go for specific channels. What we will have is more freedom and flexibility.
 
Q. Coming back to satellite radio, in your view, what are the chances of it coming back? Have you made any attempts so far?
There is a logical possibility. I don’t know what their problems are, and I don’t think they have made any decision one way or the other. We got the license from its present owner. They were happy to work with us, because we were the same team running Worldspace in India. Personally, I hope it comes back.
 

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 23 September, 2011
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Comments (11)
Pradeep Kumar Nair Oct 4, 2013
Dear Mr. Sebastian

The reasons you are attributing to us listeners taking to Worldspace at least surely do not apply to me and btw not a single one.

It is surprising that a company like yours invested $ 1.2 B before you acquired customers a.la. Motorola/ IRIDIUM (which I am sure you are aware).

I am not surprised that your fate is the same as theirs, because when they were laucnhing their 66 satellites, they kept saying the same claptrap, "we are ahead of time" and they didnt even have regulatory restrictions like you are claiming ! What a shame !

Please understand the real needs and expectations of the consumers you expect to serve especially what music means to us in our lives , maybe some time, money and commitment) on that may help Worldspace come back and remain a sustainable proposition (something truly me
Raju Hariharan Feb 20, 2013
Please bring back World Space as it was, at any cost!! Have to start listening to music again !!
Dr Manoj Niranjan Nov 5, 2012
Sir,
Kinldy guide me whether this time world space is digital or not///How to get this on mobile//Why not old radio set is working//what is contact phone number.
Ashootosh Jul 1, 2012
Th time when world space started, i was a student and i got my set as a freebie with some purchase of provogue clothing. still the radio set is with me waiting to sing again. today, given a chance i will be first customer.
Adv. Devdutt Gawande Mar 19, 2012
I am diehard music fan.... transcending languages, regions, countries and styles. However, the transmission of worldspace radio was stopped in most suspicious and abrupt way so as I felt to be cheated and believed there was some foul play...
M.s.n.rao Feb 15, 2012
when do we get to listen to worldspace radio again? how to go about subsribing for it?
Anjali Gupta Feb 15, 2012
i would love to work for worldspace again.. working for it again after a gap will be a promotion for me..
Dhananjay Rau Feb 2, 2012
When is it finally coming? I've read a lot of articles dated 2011, but no dates have been mentioned. How does one subscribe?
Magesh Krishnamurthy Oct 15, 2011
We've hopelessly been dreaming about worldspace's comeback and this news gives us immense pleasure that our beloved friend, worldspace is back (with a bang hopefully!). Please do inform us of the further details of its comeback. waitng eagerly,
-Magesh and family
Kotecha Sep 12, 2011
I prayer to lord universe sri krishna that good things prevail on this earth and tune worldspace back.
Edavath Kutty Sep 10, 2011
Wishing Mr Sebastian best on his determination to succeed....He has tremendous ability to interact effectively with stake holders and satisfy their quest... also, knows what to do, how and when. Looking forward to the pleasure of enjoying his menu.....
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