The media industry is still coming to grips on what 2017 will be like. A tough economy has been predicted again but for some media domains, a slash in budget may mean good news. Radio falls in that category. Even as the going for radio has not been easy, it has not slowed down the Arabian Radio Network (ARN). The UAE government-owned radio network kicked off 2017 with two new digital Arabic channels – Al Arabiya Cassette and Al Khaleejiya Classic. With enhanced focus on content, continued efforts to embrace digital, encourage local talent and invest further in data-led decisions, the rest of the year promises to be busy for ARN.
“The 2008 slowdown taught us that when marketers reduce budgets, we are among the ideal choice because of cost efficiency and reach,” notes ARN’s General Manager, Mahmoud Al Rasheed. The online revolution has augmented ARN’s radio business. “There is strength in radio going digital. We can create traffic both on radio and online, and create successful work interference between them. This is why we are seeing marketers shift their print and TV budgets to radio. When a marketer sees that they are getting more for their dollar, it enables us to build a stronger relationship,” he explains.
While the media company is cautious on expectations from the first half of the year, ARN’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Smith divulges that ARN’s forward bookings are “massive”.
Eyeing Future Listeners
Traditional remains the strongest business driver but technologically advanced options are critical. “ARN is part of the community and media, and also part of the smart nation vision set out by His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the UAE leaders. We have radio frequencies to entertain our listeners in cars but we have also expanded our reach to be available in other platforms such as apps and streaming. We are on smartphones, websites and smart TVs. We are preparing for tomorrow,” Mr Al Rasheed says.
ARN realized early on in the race that digital is radio’s best friend. The Network’s dual strategy comprised extending traditional radio to digital, and creating digital-only brands, taking its overall offer to 18 channels.
Pop channel Virgin Radio and Bollywood focused City 101.6 are examples of terrestrial meeting digital. “These are powerful brands and for their digital strategy, we created digital-only assets. For example, we created Virgin Chill and Virgin Big, which is a dance format. Instead of moving out and going to other options, listeners stay within our ecosystem for much longer. Time spent on listening has increased on our terrestrial brands,” Mr Smith explains.
The flip side with digital is the lack of monetization, a challenge that online audio faces globally. This has not deterred ARN to consider its own streaming service. “We have to look at the cost but we are the only network in the region that has music rights. If anyone can do it, we can, and it would be strong step forward,” adds Mr Smith.
Blazing Beyond Radio
An interesting highlight for ARN last year was that it has not limited its expansion to audio. In 2016, ARN launched Blaze, a creative agency that produces videos, digital animation, audio production and digital intelligence. With a team of eight, Blaze has already created video content for Jumeirah, Dubai Holdings, du and Tecom among others. Mr Smith asserts that the point of difference between Blaze and other creative agencies is that Blaze has the power of ARN behind it. That being said, Blaze’s first mandate was to not operate as a radio player.
“Blaze got a leg up because it has a massive 3.8 million listener base but it is being appraised on its own performance. We hired non-radio people for Blaze who may understand radio but Blaze needs to bring video content related insights. It needs to push down its own path and break new ground,” Mr Smith says.
Of Growth Drivers
ARN has historically placed especial focus on growing local talent. The Network has different initiatives to do so. For instance, Star of Al Khaleejiya invites people to record and send voices, and listeners vote for the best. ARN then organizes a concert at venues such as Global Village for the winner and supports the winner to produce his or her album with recording companies. Another example is supporting local artists who release their own songs. “If we find them to be up to the mark, we broadcast it. ARN supports local stars by promoting their new albums and activities too. It is a very important area for us,” Mr Al Rasheed informs.
While Mr Smith hints at UAE seeing a radio audience measurement soon, he advises that it is important to focus on understanding the consumer and data plays a crucial role in that. “Data is important for creating product, solutions and knowing our audience. We are investing significantly for good quality data that we can use internally to create and plan and externally for commercial reasons,” he says.
ARN’s future agenda also includes pushing its content out of Dubai to the broader region. With more expansion plans and leveraging digital, ARN chooses to be on the aggressive in 2017 as well.