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Sun 4 Feb 2018 10:48 PM

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Shock and awe: Changing the radio dial in the UAE

In a little over 14 months, the newest players in the UAE's radio space have made significant waves by sticking to the medium's essential format

Shock and awe: Changing the radio dial in the UAE
“It’s about being creative with the content. The right presentation will always drive through the barriers of new technology”

Despite the insistence of the classic Buggles track from 1979, video hasn’t yet killed the radio star.

Indeed, not only has radio seemingly outlived music television, which no longer carries a whole lot of music these days, but the medium that predates television by 30 years and the internet by almost 90, is in many ways still largely the same as it ever was – music and conversation in a studio somewhere relayed to devices somewhere else.

So far, radio has also managed to survived the digital assault other media have endured, especially in the Gulf, where the car and the car-based commute are key drivers for audience figures experiencing year-on-year growth.

According to figures published by Ipsos in 2016, fully 78 percent of UAE residents listen to radio on traditional AM/FM frequencies for at last an hour every day – with 3.2m of that figure non-Arab expats, and 1.96m locals and other Arab nationalities.

Up until 2016, though, what the UAE lacked wasn’t listeners but variety – at least for fans of Western music, where the choices were limited to ARN’s Virgin and Dubai 92, the Ajman-based Channel 4 and the repackaged Abu Dhabi-owned Radio 1 and 2.

Other than the accent of the presenter, audiences would be hard-pressed to tell their processed-pop products apart, with respective playlists based around near- identical selections of Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Rihanna and whoever Sia was writing for that week.

An opportunity, not to say desire, for a station offering something new, more focused and perhaps more musically serious was self-evident. One such product arrived in the autumn of 2016 when a combination of Theo Makris, a young British entrepreneur who’d already launched a dance music radio station in the UK, radio veteran Digby Taylor, and Palestinian investor and real estate developer Raed Zidan launched Dance FM 97.8, a station dedicated to house, techno, trance and EDM – a musical style that the UAE, with its clubs, parties and guest DJs, seems to embrace more than any other.

Together, under the newly formed Shock Media banner, they managed to turn Theo’s idea into reality at blistering speed.

“I’d been trying to get a station launched here for a while and had already met Digby, who had agreed to help, but things started happening when I met Raed in Abu Dhabi,” Theo explains.

“We chatted about the idea, I showed him the feasibility studies, he went through the figures and said ‘Let’s do it’. We signed the licence four days later and were on air within a week.”

The near-instant success of Dance FM, which consumer surveys have stated is the fastest growing station in the UAE over the last two reporting quarters with more than 250,000 daily unique listeners, was the ultimate proof of concept – and it prompted a swift follow-up.

Almost exactly a year later, Shock launched Heart 107.1, a station of feel-good, upbeat tracks taken (mainly) from the 90s and “noughties”, and they have already inked in another station for Q2 to cover another niche musical demographic. The team has expanded from three full-time employees to 42 in a little over 12 months.

Raed Zidan has launched successful real estate and telecoms businesses prior to Shock Media

Shock Media’s template, then, is established: find a clear but under-served musical category and move quickly to create a brand around it, complete with on-air talent to reflect the communities in which they live. “In the case of Heart, we realised from day one that this was a brand that was needed in Dubai,” says Digby Taylor, sitting inside the slick and very spruce new studio space in Dubai’s Internet City.

“It’s not like Dubai 92 or the old Radio 2, which have their own segments; this has cut through those and captured a very interesting demographic.

“Radio is categorised into formatics and Heart is defined as a ‘Hot AC’ or ‘Hot Adult Contemporary’. There’s a special way of programming that you can’t afford to dilute, and our team is very selective about every single song we play.”

Tried and trusted

What is perhaps interesting about Shock Media’s approach to the radio landscape is that the basic premise remains the same as the rivals they are now taking on.

They bought a license, acquired an FM frequency and started broadcasting music-plus-chat formats in the usual pillars of breakfast show, drive time and so on – all of which is supported through advertising. This is essentially how Channel 4 started nigh-on 40 years go; this isn’t really a disruptive Netflix to an MBC, or a Spotify to a Polydor.

It’s an approach that might seem a touch conservative. While radio has managed to hold off the digital tide, it’s certainly coming. In a 30-page report from New York University’s Steinhart Music Business Program published in August 2017, AM/FM radio consumption by teenagers in the US declined by almost half between 2005 and 2016. Just 19 percent of that demographic cited radio as a source of discovering new music, down from 28 percent the previous year.

Moreover, as streaming statistics are now included in chart compilation, what is heard on Spotify will now impact what is heard on the radio – a significant shift.

“AM/FM radio had been able to wait out the digital disruption that has already affected every other form of media. Now radio is the latest industry facing massive disruption from the digital age,” the report said. “To survive, radio must innovate, learn from other media and take control of its path to maintain its unique position with advertisers, audiences and other stakeholders into the third decade of this century and beyond.”

If there are is concern about those changing habits at Shock Media, they aren’t showing it. “We’re obviously very digitally focused, there’s no doubt about that,” says Zidan. “We have the apps, the website, the social media, all that. But what makes people listen to the radio over other formats is the entertainment and information layer.

It isn’t just about the music; people like the human interaction, they want to know what’s going on in the city, whether that’s the weather, the traffic or the next big show happening here. Also, people still spend a significant amount of time in their car. So, you have an audience that will always listen to the radio.”

“It’s about being creative with the content,” adds Taylor. “The right presentation will always drive through the barriers of new technology, such as streaming sites or YouTube. There’s only so much non-stop music on a playlist you can listen to. Radio is all about building formats and we see our presenters as the differentiators. It would have been easy just to go the UK and hire ten great presenters, but that wouldn’t be right for Dubai – and that was a route we didn’t go down. Ours reflect the community here.”

New frontiers

That’s not to say Shock Media haven’t future-proofed their business, though. They clearly have; their modern-as-tomorrow studios are all digitally prepared in case the government introduces fully digital audio broadcasting – “which we think they will,” Taylor says. They also have a Dance FM app with four digital stations that has been downloaded all around the world. They’re just about to launch the Heart app, too, and with the new Arab-language station, they’ll be setting their sights on lucrative regional markets, including Saudi.

Digby Taylor has more than 30 years experience in radio broadcasting

“We definitely don’t want to be restricted to the UAE,” insists Zidan. “Dance is already listened to in Canada, the US and across Europe. As I said to my brother, who is my partner in my real estate business, ‘I don’t start small businesses’! We definitely have big ambitions and the digital products can help us reach them.”

Perhaps more importantly, though, they have focused strongly on the revenue side. They have production facilities to work with advertisers to develop on-air commercials that fit in with the tone of the music, not act as jarring, uninspiring breaks that encourage a swift dial-flip. “We are extremely strict about the ads we play – and from whom we accept advertising,” says Zidan. “We now produce our own ads for clients in-house, and we outline to them how an ad should feel on our station. Happily, we haven’t lost an advertiser through this approach – and even gained a few who have never advertised on radio before.”

In addition, they offer content delivery on a contract basis, and they now provide the music played in 54 Spinneys stores in the UAE, with fully curated track lists and responsive programming.

The bread and butter, though, remains the two, soon to be three, radio stations. Whatever the uncertainties the media landscape is facing in the Middle East, Shock clearly feel that there is plenty of gold left in the hills here – and that they have the right picks and shovels with which to dig it out. Considering how their first two launches have gone, it’s difficult to argue with their belief in the medium.

“Radio is a very personal medium,” says Taylor. “Unlike TV, which people watch in groups, whether family or friends, radio is still something that you do on your own. That’s why it retains its place in our lives.”

Radio formats in the UAE

Contemporary hit radio
One of the most popular formats around the world – and especially in the UAE. This is very much focused on playing current and recurrent popular music as determined by the top 40 charts. UAE example: Virgin Radio Dubai 104.4

Hot AC
A broad variety of classic hits and contemporary mainstream music aimed at an adult audience, typically shunning more youth-orientated chart music. UAE example: Heart 107.1

A format that has evolved from its late-1970s meaning of disco and RnB to the dominant EDM, house and techno genres of today. Focus on extended setlists from named DJs. UAE example: Dance FM 97.8

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