Dial M for Media: CallFREE brings news bulletins and popular content to rural India on a simple toll-free call


Here’s the blatant reality about building for the next billion: Governments have repeatedly had to force airlines to fly north-east if they want trunk routes. Medicos are forced to do rural stints as part of their curricula. Companies make bold statements about going rural – but end up fighting over the diminishing urban pie. Rural promotion conferences concentrate on the simplification and availability of mobile apps. Rural markets are a grossly untapped powerhouse that can insulate India, making it near recession-proof.

Co-founders Krishna Babu and Neeraj Harlalka

Do you notice a theme running through all these facts? “No one is interested in investing on actually understanding rural – their compulsions, limitations, apprehensions and comfort levels. We end up widening the gap or intimidating rural audiences. While everyone knows and recognises the potential – ROIs defy the investment. While developing mobile apps is great, where is the bandwidth or literacy,” asks Sanjiv Gupta.

At a time when everyone is looking at urban and hi-tech, CallFREE – a telephonic news portal that brings on-demand news and popular content toll free to villagers, is defying the wave with a rural focus and very low-tech disruption

The quad behind this service has Sanjiv (55), who was raised in Mumbai and Delhi, and has previously founded a public listed company in the IT space and led other entrepreneurial ventures in media, education, art, online counterfeit detection, enterprise collaboration and cloud security; Neeraj Harlalka (44), who is an engineer also spearheaded a family venture that was a leader in the horological industry, and founded an art marketplace with Sanjiv; Raghavan and Krishna Babu, who have been associated with Sanjiv from his early IT days.

Co-founders Sanjiv Gupta and Madhubhushi Raghavan

Expectations vs reality

They observed that currently any brand, product or service’s contact with rural India is facilitated through radio, TV, newspapers or the Internet,be it for the use of NGOs or the government to announce schemes, CSR or public service initiatives, or for FMCG companies to market their products and services. “Radio, TV, newspapers base their audience size on unscientific estimations or guesstimates, while the Internet is super dependent on infrastructure and literacy. Moreover, these are broadcast channels and cannot give any more insights into consumption metrics, with none of them having any loopback and feedback mechanism,” says Sanjiv, adding, “So, there was an opportunity for a breakthrough that can help reach rural audiences through an intuitive on-demand offering in regional languages and one that is transparent, traceable and audit trailable.”

With a full-stacked newsroom in Hyderabad, CallFREE fashions byte sized capsules of popular regional content over eight different genres, and grants rural India toll-free access to it through a simple phonecall.

“We currently run eight genres: news, cinema, health, astrology, bhakti (Hindu devotional), Islamia (Quran devotional) Bible, CallFREE easy English and entertainment with a local flavour. All channels are in regional languages. Each genre is headed by a genre producer, and supported by domain experts, content writers, voiceover artistes and audio engineers. We also have an additional team of field correspondents,” explains Sanjiv.

Screenshot of their website

Who, what, where?

For NGOs or the government, it is a robust and scalable medium to interact with the masses – be it for public service messaging, or educating or natural calamity caution or even announcing schemes. For the corporate sector, it can measure impact for not only advertisement of products, but also CSR activities, through a loopback mechanism. For agencies engaged in monitoring moods and sentiments of its citizens, CallFREE offers a unique ability to conduct near real-time surveys and opinion polls with complete traceability and at a fraction of the cost of current methodologies.

CallFREE primarily targets everyone who lacks access to information, but has access to a phone. They will monetise this service through announcement advertisement, transactional advertisement, and sponsored campaigns. “We let the audiences consume at will, change the content frequently, and charge agencies who want to capitalise on our reach,” Sanjiv says.

Whispers from the village

When they instated sporadic dip-test experimental activities to test the waters, the result was truly viral, with a great deal of stickiness and multiple repeats.

A fairly detailed ground activation exercise is under way covering seven districts in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. “Starting mid-June, we are targeting receiving of 20,000 toll-free every day, from the seven districts. Extrapolate this over the 23 districts in the Telugu -speaking regions… and onwards to the over 200 districts in the Hindi belt,” Sanjiv quips.

With a unique business model, they have filed for patent in India, as well as for a provisional US one, among other filings.

CallFREE have raised some seed funding from HNIs thus far, and are looking to raise a bigger round to meet their immediate target of reaching the rural populace in the Telugu speaking belt, and medium-term goals of expanding to the Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali belts over the next four to six quarters.

Looking at hard numbers, rural India boasts of 800 million citizens. “We do not want to get intimidated with the huge numbers or the task at hand. We want to concentrate on doing that bit before we fade away…” Sanjiv says.



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