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Thu 4 Jun 2009 04:00 AM

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Riding the airwaves

Arabian Radio Network has raised the bar for radio production in the Middle East with a brand new upgrade at its facility in Dubai Media City. Digital Studio reports.

Riding the airwaves
Riding the airwaves
Venkat Raghavan, GM, Al Futtaim Technologies.
Riding the airwaves
ARN staff at work at Dubai Media City.
Riding the airwaves
ARN staff at work at Dubai Media City.

Arabian Radio Network has raised the bar for radio production in the Middle East with a brand new upgrade at its facility in Dubai Media City. Digital Studio reports.Radio, although traditionally the medium of the masses, has remained a relatively untapped commercial media platform in the Middle East with very few players competing for air space. One group that enjoys a big presence in this market is Arabian Radio Network (ARN), which falls under the umbrella of Arab Media Group (AMG).

Over the last two years, the state-backed media giant has spent millions of dollars migrating its systems to a brand new, state-of-the-art tapeless TV station at Dubai Studio City. Now that the TV infrastructure is complete, the Group has turned its attention to its radio network, where its studios are being revamped not merely because they were in need of an upgrade, but also perhaps to remain on top of the game in the light of strong rumours that several new radio launches are in the offing from rival state-backed forces in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

There are several firsts to this project. The first is the choice of Al Futtaim Technologies (AFT) as the systems integrator for this installation. Although Al Futtaim has undertaken several studio projects in the past under its Panatech banner, this is the company's first high-profile radio installation. The project is a big win for the company, which has marked its entry into the radio business with the ARN installation.

Al Futtaim Technologies installed five edit suites; one general edit room for recording news and editing clips; seven production studios and two on-air studios at ARN's facility in Dubai Media City.

Besides upgrading from legacy systems to new solutions, the installation has also ensured that all studios at the Media City facility are connected to the control room.

In essence, this means that all signals from the studios will be sent to the control room before they are sent back to the production, edit or on-air studios for broadcast. This streamlines the workflow while also maintaining quality control over all content.

An important part of this project is the installation of the Studer On-Air 2500 console. Claimed to be the first new Studer model to be installed in the Middle East, the 2500 brings more functionality as well as user-friendly features to the presenters, explains Mahmoud Al Rasheed, general manager of ARN.

"Our RJs take on an all-in-one role at the studio. They are the presenter, the director, the announcer as well as the person who attends the phone calls and reads all the SMSs that come in. Therefore, it's very important to give them equipment that will allow them to focus on their core job of presenting while also enabling them to instinctively use the equipment. This is why we chose the Studer - it is very user-friendly besides the fact that it is also one of the best mixers for radio," explains Al Rasheed.

Hassan Ali, business manager - Broadcast & Professional Division, Al Futtaim Technologies explains that two Studer 2500 units will replace a couple of Studer 2000 models, which have now been discontinued by the manufacturer.

"The 2000 was a modular mixer that was designed to the customer's requirements. The 2500 is a single unit; it is portable and can be fitted onto any studio console. It has a main panel that has both inputs and outputs. This is a very user-friendly model," Ali reiterates.

ARN has also used a mix of two different kinds of microphones at its facility namely Electrovoice and Neumann. ARN's Al Rasheed again points out that he left the choice of mics to his presenters.

"Some of our presenters prefer the quality of one mic over the other because one probably carries their voice better than the other. These are individual preferences and while we maintain a certain quality that is in line with international best practices, we give our presenters the solution they want. If it puts them at ease and helps them to produce their show better, I believe we should provide systems that cater to their needs," adds Al Rasheed.

The general manager speaks from his own experience. Having started off as a presenter at ARN in September 2001 when the radio network was first launched, Al Rasheed worked his way up the ranks by sheer hard work and learnt each part of the business.

Al Rasheed believes that equipment should submit to the end user's requirements rather than the other way around.

"I have done everything at ARN. I joined purely out of my love for music and was associated with many of the lead singers and musicians in the Arab world. I started off as a presenter and then became head of music at our Al Khaleejiya station, which is aimed at Arab nationals who want to listen to Khaleeji music.

I worked my way up to head of music and quality at ARN before getting to this chair. I have done everything from being a presenter to producing music to working on the mixers. Being on that side has helped me appreciate and respect some of the challenges that presenters face, so we have tried to implement the flexibility to accommodate them," explains Al Rasheed.

As he takes Digital Studio on a tour, he states that one of the key aspects of this project has been ensuring that all of the studios are connected to the main control room. As a result, signals are sent from the studios to the control room before they are diverted to the edit, production or on-air studios for going on air. This ensures that content is constantly monitored before it is broadcast.

"This ensures completely quality control as well as control of the signal," explains Al Futtaim's Ali. "This is also an entirely tapeless workflow in keeping with the rest of AMG's requirements. Previously, the presenter would have to write the content onto a CD and bring it to the control room. The new installation allows the feeds to be routed from the studio to the control room, and from here, back to the studio and on air. It also enables the studios to be used together if there is a much bigger production," he explains.Until early this year, all of Arabian Radio Network's eight channels were located at Dubai Media City. However, unable to accommodate any more expansion within the existing facility, four of the radio arm's channels moved early this year to the parent company's facility at Studio City.

ARN's GM maintains that although the radio channels have been split for logistical reasons, the old and the new facilities have the same equipment and offer the same quality of broadcast service to listeners.

The old facility, however, has only one backup studio while each of the four stations at DSC has one corresponding backup studio.

"The equipment is the same in both facilities. But we have more space in Studio City so each station has its own backup. What's different is Noor Dubai, which we launched last year. Noor Dubai has a special look because it is a radio TV. Its setup is different because it is broadcasting as well. Here, the presenter sits in front of the mixer and the camera films him in a radio broadcast environment. Since we are showing the radio environment on TV, it's a different setup," Al Rasheed explains.

An interesting point to note is also how the present economic downturn has suddenly played up the importance of radio.

With less money to spend on more expensive media such as television and print, Al Rasheed believes that more companies will see the value of advertising on radio.

"In the past, companies used to allocate only about 2 or 3% of their budget to radio. They failed to understand that this was one medium that had a lot more peak hours than any other medium while also giving them a cheaper means of advertising and perhaps, more visibility. The peak times for television are usually thought to be after 7 or 8 pm. For radio, there's morning when everyone's going to work, there's evening when everyone's returning home and there's all the time in between if you look at the roads and see how much traffic there is at any hour of the day in Dubai."

As a result, ARN, which has maintained a fairly low profile in the past, kicked off a series of educational seminars last month for the business community to explain why they needed to incorporate radio into their daily marketing mix.

"We are running a strong marketing campaign and have won a lot of new business as a result," explains Al Rasheed.

Besides the fact that ARN's studios at DMC were in need of a kit upgrade, there also seems to be another underlying reason for the network making itself more visible in other media.

Government-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company, which has three radio stations, is mulling an aggressive entry into the radio business this year with many new launches in Arabic and English. Besides this, there are also strong rumours that more radio stations are in the offing in Dubai as well from another state-backed media giant although this is unconfirmed.

With so much competition on the horizon, it is not surprising that Arabian Radio Network wants to remain on top of the game in terms of both technology as well as programmes to ensure it maintains its leading position.

COO Steve Smith, in the meantime, explains that ARN is ready for any competition that comes up.

"Depending on the formats that emerge, we might have to tweak our own programmes but we pretty much have the premium brands in the market for radio. We never sit back and say that we have done it all though. As we target three distinct cultures through our radio stations, namely Arabs, and English and Asian listeners, we don't have a one-size-fits-all arrangement. Radio is always a work in progress and we are constantly improving our technology and programming to ensure we remain the top player in this market," explains Smith.

Al Futtaim technologiesAl Futtaim's systems integration and services department, which was thus far a subsidiary of Al Futtaim Panatech, the division that offered Panasonic solutions to end users, has now re-aligned itself with Al Futtaim Technologies, the IT arm of the parent company.

General manager Venkat Raghavan says this was done to ensure the company could provide more turnkey solutions to the market.

"The convergent nature of the two technologies - IT and broadcast - has compelled us to rethink the way we approach the industry for projects in these areas. Studio equipment, for instance, needs to be complemented by video storage. The former was previously handled by one division and the latter, by another. Having both divisions under one umbrella enables us to offer better integrated solutions to our customers.

This is our first high-profile radio installation but more such projects are in the offing.