The following article was penned July 2006 and destined for Pro Audio Middle East and Asia
The intrigue deepens as we go to press and by all accounts there is a possibility, although not exactly strong, that a Virgin Radio will hit the Dubai airways later this year. A pure Virgin seems unlikely but the twists and turns in this saga is akin to what happens in the Bermuda Triangle or why Sir Paul McCartney or U2 are musically so popular. Mysterious Rumours abound in a nearby Kingdom as well, that Shaikh Abdulla Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, he of Two Seas Records and Two Seas Studio fame, along with being Michael Jackson’s ex best friend, had talks with Virgin International. Those rumours are far from substantiated despite several enquiries made. Talk of the Ajman based Channel 4 FM approach fizzled out without any real credence or impetus, but there is still one serious contender flicking through the pros and cons of taking a Virgin on.  However, it is extremely unclear as to who is actually approaching who in this quagmire. The impression given is that Virgin is being approached rather than Virgin testing the water by initiating the contacts, although both scenarios appear to be the case.
Of course, the name Virgin is synonymous with Sir Richard Branson but he no longer owns Virgin Radio UK, but retains rights to the name and cleverly utilizes it with extreme judgment at every opportunity with astounding results. The Scottish Media Group Plc actually own Virgin Radio UK and is nothing to do with Virgin Radio Asia which is based in Singapore and part of Virgin Radio International which is still part of the Virgin Group. Are you still with us?  Virgin Radio Asia has one station broadcasting in Thailand with others in China, plus Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkatta set to become Virgins in the immediate future, as they link up with a leading Indian media group. Oui Fm is another in Paris along with the Internet based stations Radio Free Virgin out of the USA and this is all part of Virgin Radio International, so it is no surprise that C.E.O Ian Grace and C.O.O Mark Fisher are sniffing around Dubai and their neighbours, either invited or working on intuition.
Could Virgin exist in any Arab state other than Dubai?  UAE radio is a hot topic and it has taken the activity Grammy compared to any other country in the Middle East now.  A little bit of history is in order to explain the workings of commercial Gulf radio because it is nothing like the UK, Australia or the USA for example, where independent stations exist in their hundreds. In the Middle East, all stations are Government financed and controlled, or have close links to the Government in one way or another, therefore most were monopolies until very recently and even then, there have been some spectacular reversals of opportunity.
Middle East trade magazines and newspapers are awash daily with stinging and quite open criticism of the quality of media in general with radio taking a very heavy toll, so Virgin is perhaps seen as a potential savior. Complaints are related to the lack of professionalism, presentation and dire advertising creativity, with articles and letters highlighting mediocre presenters of little or no talent, doing it for ego rather than the paltry salaries offered. Preference is also given to nationals of dubious ability or indeed
having any idea of how bad some of them sound stumbling in a language not their mother tongue with the respective authorities having total disregard for the adage that ‘art has no nationality’. On the other hand, very little criticism, if any, is directed at the non commercial stations such as the English language ‘Aramco Studio 1’ out of Dhahran  in the Saudi Eastern Province and Radio Sawah, which is an American Government financed network, allowed to broadcast throughout the region in Arabic. Both these stations enjoy the larger audience share, yet Studio 1 is really intended only for Aramco employees, but has a considerable footprint.  It therefore does not take a rocket scientist to work out the difference in quality between local government stations and the two other platforms which are not.  With only one English station in Qatar and Bahrain, all the above complaints are heard, along with a few more in Bahrain, such as signal strength and quality which has been seriously degraded over the last decade or so. DJ Khalid Izzeldin, copyrighter, translator, mass communications geek, avid media critic and Gulf resident said: ‘The standards have quite constantly declined to beyond abysmal over the last 15 years compared to the early 1980s when it was much more a feeling of “anything goes.” Now it is “anything will go.” Everyone says it, but nobody cares or does anything about it. What will a new station achieve; only spread the muck further, if they let inexperienced but privileged individuals with money take advantage, rather than concentrate on the art and get the right people in?’
Bahrain was the first station to start English language commercial pop FM broadcasts back in the late 70s, with veteran BBC Broadcaster and Journalist Ahmed Suleiman at the helm. The English service is called Radio Bahrain and the Arabic takes the reverse option as Bahrain Radio, so it is obvious to one and all that considerable thought went into naming these stations. Suleiman, a Palestinian and totally bilingual, had his work cut out trying to operate the station as a commercial entity. Always frustrated, trying to obtain some budget autonomy when all revenue goes to the Ministry of Finance and nothing comes back to the station itself, which is common in the Gulf. He also had his own strict criteria which others copied initially, which was to keep English away from Arabic and would never allow Arabic music to be broadcast on the English frequency. Until sweeping Government interference started in the mid 80’s, Suleiman maintained an on air compliment of mother tongue English presenters and the station was pumping out a considerable amount of reasonably produced advertising product. In 1985, this all changed suddenly and ultra keen, very charming Bahrainis were hired for on air. Totally unqualified with limited English, these DJs, polarized listening demographics, causing the station to quite markedly go down hill ever since. Of course, by this time, Dubai and Abu Dhabi had started Capitol FM and Dubai FM respectively, using similar formats. The former being an offshoot of Capitol Radio in London initially, but the group pulled out after a short spell, sighting indifferences, or as one former DJ put it: ‘Mostly differences’. Kuwait launched Super Station, which was simply a name for the government controlled English language FM service, but again any slight deviation from the old established ways soon brought strong retribution. Although Kuwait is one of the toughest on media content, they have allowed another station to operate, by the name of Marina FM. Doha had considerable success in the 80s as well with their own English service called QBS, which is a good name for rolling off the tongue, but simply means; Qatar Broadcasting Service. QBS is quaint and tends to live in a world of its own with some extremely banal presenters who have been there for centuries never evolving and will eventually suffocate in their own cobwebs.  It still plays military music for the news breaks and also stops for prayer time.  Saudi Arabia has never entered in the foray but this has a lot to do with Islamic thinking, so to overcome this, commercial MBC is allowed to broadcast throughout the territory as an absolute monopoly.  Aramco also has its own non commercial English language station confined to the campus in the Eastern Province.
During this decline in standards, Suleiman frequently offered up his own indifference saying:  ‘It starts at the top. If the top have no perception of what is good and bad, the bottom of the barrel will just keep on getting muddier. After all, if you went on Arabic radio as a DJ speaking pidgin Arabic, there would be a public outcry and you would not last one minute, but I don’t think they hear any fault in English, whoever speaks it.’ Suleiman would also champion the fact that since most of the stations take the country name and are heard in neighbouring countries, they can be considered as international, but are more akin to community or campus radio because of the standard. Sadly, Ahmed Suleiman passed away very recently, but while he was alive, he never missed a day at his radio desk.
Arabic radio is no different and put side by side comes off even worse in most cases. With the advent of Al Jazira Television, the 24 hour news channel out of Doha in Qatar, more experienced Arab talent from Egypt and Lebanon were attracted to the region, so
there are areas of improvement. However, there is marked and quite often resentful reaction by Gulf Nationals, not liking the different Arabic accents (which they can detect), emanating from their radio stations, but this appears to be diminishing as they get used to it, knowing that home grown talent is few and far between.
For several years Virgin Radio UK has been available in high quality stereo throughout the Middle East on the satellite side bands of the Orbit Television Network, but audience figures are extremely sketchy or non existent and Orbit does little if nothing to promote this service. So who listens? On air in 1994, Orbit claims to be the first regional satellite broadcaster catering for Arab audiences offering stable, superior picture and sound quality and a quick flick through the multitude of alternatives out there, does in fact endorse this. Before arriving in Bahrain in 2003, Orbit originally broadcast out of Italy and having enjoyed considerable popularity in its early years, lost its rights to broadcast Sir Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV network to the mysterious Firstnet carrier. This move hit Orbit hard as western audiences migrated to other networks, none of which carry the Virgin service. If it is not unreasonable to assume that the amount of advertising on any particular channel is an indication of its popularity, it would appear that MBC with its four channels and expanding and Showtime Arabia with its bouquets excel beyond doubt. Having said that, Orbit is the cleanest signal and the most stable, plus they promise new channels soon.  By all accounts the Arabic channels offered by Orbit do enjoy a considerable number of subscriptions, plus Orbit now offers internet services as well, but finding viewers who tune in for the channel’s English media is as rare as finding unicorn tracks.  This noticeable demise in the Orbit viewer stakes could be assimilated with the perceived need for a Virgin in the UAE, whereby Orbit’s on air vocal promotions inspire little confidence as far as empirical professionalism is concerned. Audio perceptions, which include choice of voice talent and direction, severely lack variety, which indicates little concern for the medium in general or lack of capability. With Dubai’s influx of all things foreign, it attracted more talent and voices to boot, so the presentation of the likes of Showtime improved very slightly.
All forgotten now, but at the time of Star TV’s demise from Orbit, there was considerable, quite public condemnation of the situation, with local DJs taking pop shots at the network and a barrage of emails being sent asking why this happened without notification. Of course, these critics listened to Virgin Radio UK and fearing they would cancel their subscriptions hoped that Orbit would fix the situation. A reply from Orbit’s public relations arm falsely stated that they did notify everyone and dismissed the relevance of the issue by emphasizing that Orbit’s market is predominantly Arabic.  These facts are perhaps why reference to Virgin Radio UK is almost non existent and most only find it by experimenting with the remote control as they flick through the channels.
Who wants a Virgin? A mention of the words Virgin Radio in Dubai and the entire British fraternity jump about with glee thinking of ways to capitalize on it especially with the apparent new found media freedoms ostensibly being allowed these days. With
Virgin Atlantic flying into Dubai now and a string of Virgin Megastores making their presence well known, the name has certainly been generating a buzz.  Whether the majority of residents are that familiar with the name is another story, since the Dubai British element is only a small minority, but as Grace relayed to Pro Audio in an email; ‘Virgin would very much like to launch a Virgin Radio in the UAE and has been having discussions with several parties to this end.’  Digital Media magazine also quoted Fisher as saying that conditions in the UAE were right for a Virgin Radio station.
With all this apparent fame and branding of the Virgin name, ADmaze Media WLL, an internationally acclaimed Bahrain based hi-end recording studio and advertising agency with keen interests in the Virgin development, decided to do a small survey to test recall on the name Virgin, after Etihad Airways, the Abu Dhabi based carrier cleverly responded in the press to the Virgin Atlantic launch campaign in Dubai. The Etihad Airways caption referred to their existing number of flights per week to London, stating: ‘London was not exactly virgin territory.’ ADmaze Media WLL questioned 35 people made up of three British, two Americans, 12 Arabs of various nationalities and the rest predominately Eastern Europeans who are represented in large numbers in Dubai. The questions asked were: a) Have you ever heard of Virgin Radio? b) What does the ‘Etihad Airways’ caption mean to you? In response, the British understood both questions well. The Americans only knew of Virgin Atlantic but did not know of Virgin Radio, but understandingly laughed at the caption. The remaining people polled had not heard of either Virgin as an airline or as a radio station. Furthermore, understood the caption to mean that it was easy to obtain sex in London and most would not believe that a company named Virgin would be allowed to operate in this sensitive area. ADmaze Media’s Operations Manager Svetlana Prodanova said: ‘The result was actually expected and although this might seem strange to the outside world, one has to understand the mentality and understanding of English in this region. Ok, it was only fun and only a few people we asked, but for sure if we multiplied the field by 100, we would still get a similar result at this time.’
The question begs; why would Virgin be looking for a partner if the law ostensibly allows them to set up on their own as independents in Dubai? Guidelines can be found at and no doubt some radio entrepreneurs have tried, but to date only Free FM successfully achieved terrestrial broadcasting rights before amalgamating shortly after launch with Arabian Radio Network and their existing channel Dubai FM. Even then, Free FM had links to the government. Nearby Gulf states are proceeding with great caution regarding deregulation of the airwaves and so far only Kuwait has tentatively ventured along with Bahrain. However, the very first independent FM station in Bahrain, Saut El Ghad (The Sound of Tomorrow) went to air at the beginning of this year, only to be abruptly ordered to shut down one fine morning at the end of June. On the same day, Bahrain’s Minister of Information and State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Mohammed Abdul Ghaffar was quoted in the Bahrain Gulf Daily News saying that until there are formal regulation of this industry no more licenses will be issued in Bahrain. Other government sources stated that Saut El Ghad abused power restrictions and antenna placement and this upsets neighbouring Saudi Arabia.  If that meant they were beaming omni directional, transmitting above their allowed power rating, we shall probably never know. Government 1 – Private 0.
There has been little if anything in the way of comment in the press from Sawt El Ghad’s Director Raja Sawaya, other than to say that the station is asking for meetings with the Bahrain Ministry of Information to give them their points of view. Some extremely bizarre  appeasement appears to have manifest itself by allowing ‘Group Plus’ the recently signed Lebanese  media representatives for Sawt El Ghad, having lost their job, to now solely represent and control all advertising space on several frequencies belonging to Bahrain Radio & Television Corporation.  This has created a monopoly controlling a monopoly whereby any Advertising Agency must go through Group Plus if they wish to place radio commercials. The problem there is; Group Plus operates as an Agency itself and since it has the only platform which they set the rates for, it can swipe your client right from under you.  This has caused immense bad feeling among Agencies, many demanding competitive radio, but so far all complaints have fallen on very deaf ears. According to a Group Plus spokesman; ‘We have a six year contract which allows us to change everything. We will try and bring Lebanon’s Radio One here.’ These and many other similar bravado promises were made with a previous Lebanese outfit who were given similar benefits.  As we understand it, Group Plus personnel claim to be an independent split-away group from the Choueiri Group which is headed by Chairman Antoine Choueiri. The Choueiri Group has had considerable success in the region and a few controversial failures. Astonishingly, some 4 years ago a Choueiri sub group going by the name of Wasila secured a five year contract with Bahrain Radio & Television Corporation, controlling all channels of both radio and TV. Someone high in Government abruptly terminated Wasila’s contract and removed them from Bahrain less than 2 years in for bad business practice. This move appeared to be received with joy and graciousness by the swathes of the public as well as all non related Agencies.  Those Agencies not affiliated to Group Plus are naturally very dissatisfied with a monopoly controlling the monopoly and Izzeldin added: ‘There are not a lot of happy teddies in the industry. Some individuals and agencies totally rely on Radio Bahrain (English FM service) to make a living. Besides, these episodes are very sudden and not at all transparent. If this new lot are anything like the other lot who were terminated, then I doubt we can expect any transparent dealings either, but we will have to see. We need choice and if they (the Government) won’t allow individual private radio stations here, then the standards are unlikely to get better as it’s all how much money you can make without too much outlay.’
Oddly enough, the Bahrain Government allows Emirates FM, the popular Arabic service from Abu Dhabi to broadcast from Bahrain, providing them space for a powerful transmitter and radio mast in the Ministry of Information complex.
The first sightings of Virgin in the UAE appeared earlier this year in the Mango Media camp when Chairman Mekki Mahmoud Abdulla, teamed up with the new Fujairah Media and it was decided to launch a new pop FM station based in Fujairah itself. Abdulla reveals: ‘Meetings have gone on for a year now and we even signed a letter of understanding. The Ruler of Fujairah is forward thinking and likes the idea.’
Abdulla is affectionately referred to by many as Mekki Mango these days and he is well heeled in the business of setting up various stations in the region. He also has a clear perception of what radio really is, stating: ‘I love radio; I love that fat sound of a professional radio station. Here we have the opportunity; it is the content and professionalism which attracts appeal.’ As mentioned, good content and professionalism is rarely if at all, considered in the Middle East and totally opposite to the general
perception in an area, where despite art having great value, no value is attached to it. Abdulla’s vision for a Virgin is not purely commercial and he agrees with the statement that ‘art has no nationality’, yet the airways are predominately filled with non existent creative advertising with extremely poor levels of execution. Virgin’ has a brand and very strict criteria.’ Abdulla points out: ‘Virgin is very very finicky and look after their name; they do a heck of a lot of due diligence and they are not cheap. But Branson flew in and told them that this was an extremely important market.’ Abdulla also stresses that the people want entertainment and to make a station successful the content must hit this criteria and it is the content and execution that attracts listeners.
All this said, how free will a Virgin UAE be to implement creative thought and actually offer entertainment value instead of the normal palette of banal but safe clichés such as ‘Five at five’ and ‘Never more than 60 seconds away from music’ and boundless crude rap which somehow currently escapes the culturally sensitive ears in the area.  Izzeldin said; ‘All this is already emulated extensively by the ‘wannabees’ and seems to be aimed at a group of 10 year olds or anorak devotees, which is of course far removed from the upwardly mobile 25 – 60 group of potential listeners who represent the majority in this “here for the job and lifestyle” expatriate community.’ Then again, is the audience sophisticated enough to accept something as radical as the perceived Virgin?  In Dubai maybe, but it would take a great deal of initial punishment if it were in any of the nearby states with professionalism costing money, resulting in higher advertising rates, much more than the market is currently used to.
After a media frenzy, with claims that Abdulla, was bringing Virgin to the UAE, he somewhat unceremoniously had the initiative swept from under his feet by other local enterprises saying: ‘We can’t wait any longer. Their eyes became big and a lot more people heard they were in town and started talking to them. We are not married to them and these other boys are big boys. Two frequencies as opposed to one, so a bit more attractive. So, a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that one.’ The two frequency element that Abdulla refers to suggests Emirates Radio One and Two, but as you will read, this could be a misnomer, since a third frequency has ostensibly been allocated.
Emirates Media Inc, the Abu Dhabi Government based operators of ‘Emirates Radio One and Radio Two’ report in several somewhat candid press releases, that they are making strong headway with Virgin.  There is a twist to this story; it is unclear who is actually doing the talking at this stage. As of 1st August 2006, ‘Emirates Radio One and Two’ came under the control of the Gulf News which is published by Al Nisr Publishing LLC, Dubai. Gulf News is a daily broadsheet which has seen incredible expansion and popularity in recent years and they obviously feel it is time to get into radio. According to Vikram Dhar, who heads up Corporate Business Development at the paper: Gulf News does not approach anyone, Virgin came to us. It (Virgin) is an exceptional brand name and we were pleased when they approached us.’ It is thought that news of any real changes will manifest themselves around September, with regard to either a Virgin brand or ‘Gulf News Radio 3’.  When asked about recruitment, regarding management, production and talent for the station Dhar said: ‘The option is entirely ours.’ Referring to the existing Radio One and Two he said: ‘We are not permitted to fiddle with the brand and Gulf News has approached the Abu Dhabi Government requesting a third frequency.’ It is this frequency that the almighty Virgin Radio might occupy.  Dhar comes across as  very straight forward without the hype which some of the other players uttering the V word tend to exert, however this will be the first time that the group has entered into the murky depths of local radio. Emirates Radio One and Two Programme Controller Jeff Price on the other hand states: ‘I made contact with Ian Grace several years ago while I was working in radio in the UK and I wanted in on the product.’ So again, who approached who?  Price was also aware that Abdulla and Fujairah Media were no longer being considered before any informal intelligence was leaked adding: ‘Mekki may well have bailed on this’ and that Virgin see too many complications.  Abdulla was aware of this development and sent Pro Audio a text confirming this and his prior speculation when he said: ‘We will probably know the answer before mid July.’  As leaves begin to fall in the Northern Hemisphere, we know that Fujairah media are out of any running, but we are still none the wiser regarding any one else. Grace wrote to Pro Audio way back on July 12th stating that:  ‘Unfortunately, Virgin has not yet found a suitable opportunity and so I am afraid it has nothing to announce. We are also unable to comment on the discussions we have been having as these are commercially confidential. I am sorry that we cannot give you any more at this stage.’ My bet is that Virgin will go to the government one way or the other and Dhar is well out of his depth when it comes to broadcast, which is perhaps why he appears so blasé. The only network that has said nothing about Virgin is the Arabian Network which is Dubai FM, so one wonders?
In the very scanty but truly professional circles that do exist in the region, most fearful to speak out publicly, it is a general consensus that although Virgin is a well respected brand, in retrospect Abdulla doesn’t really needs it as he has the perfect virgin platform, unbranded and ready for action. If managed correctly and allowed a little creative license, it could excel well above anything that has gone before in the area. Then again, Gulf News has a similar opportunity but lack of experience and possible fumbling over which personnel will be unleashed to lead the advance if any and at what rate, might prove to be nothing more than just another name change with an increase in the number of inane commercials being aired due to its well established sales force.
Referring to the opportunities that these two new platforms offer, ADmaze Media’s Prodanova said: ‘They must all be a little naïve and the clash of corporate ego versus creativity will take its toll. If they had the sense, they would brand it professionally and create a stomping platform themselves and strive to keep ‘Virgin’ out of the market altogether and not have to share profits.’  At the end of the day, it will all come down to perception in this culturally sensitive mine field, thus the search for a Virgin in the UAE or surrounding states remains an interesting assignment.



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