Zee En­ter­tain­ment CEO Mukund Cairae tells Austyn Allison about the net­work’s foray into ra­dio in the UAE.

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On 30 Jan­uary, if your ra­dio was tuned to 106.2 in the UAE you would have been among the first to hear Big FM. Un­til 15 De­cem­ber it was home to an­other Hindi-lan­guage sta­tion, Hum, but since then the Umm Al Quwain-owned fre­quency had been play­ing only ads, mu­sic and cricket commentary while its new ten­ants got ready to bring their DJs to the air for the first time.

The launch is only the sec­ond time In­dian tele­vi­sion broad­caster Zee En­ter­tain­ment has ven­tured into ra­dio. It bought a 49 per cent stake in Big FM in In­dia, which op­er­ates about 50 sta­tions, and had pre­vi­ously been owned by mega-con­glom­er­ate Re­liance Cap­i­tal. It will com­plete the buy­out af­ter a lock-in pe­riod ex­pires in 2020.

In the UAE, Zee took over the broad­cast li­cence when Shar­jah-based Hum de­cided not to re­new its con­tract.

Zee En­ter­tain­ment first launched in the Mid­dle East in 1994, ‘skim­ming’ its In­dian pro­gram­ming with lo­cal com­mer­cials. Ten years later it be­gan broad­cast­ing specif­i­cally to the lo­cal mar­ket, and in 2008 launched Zee Aflam, which added Ara­bic dub­bing and sub­ti­tles to Bol­ly­wood films. In 2012 Zee Al­wan launched, of­fer­ing Ara­bic series as well as dubbed In­dian, Turk­ish and Eastern Euro­pean ones.

In 2015, says Zee En­ter­tain­ment’s Mid­dle East and Asia Pa­cific CEO Mukund Cairae, the broad­caster an­tic­i­pated an eco­nomic slow­down. Look­ing back at the fi­nan­cial crash of 2008 it saw that ra­dio had been one of the least af­fected forms of me­dia, and de­cided to in­vest in that area.

“It’s ex­tremely af­ford­able and it’s ex­ceed­ingly lo­cal, and it’s there­fore so much more tar­geted,” says Cairae of ra­dio. “And be­cause you spend at least an hour to an hour and a half in this part of the world in your car, you are a cap­tive and a very highly en­gaged au­di­ence.”

Ra­dio ad­ver­tis­ing is worth $130m net in the re­gion, he says. Big FM, which will be tar­geted firmly at mid­dle-class South Asian ex­pa­tri­ates (on monthly salaries of AED7,000 [$1,900] and more, aged 25-44), will fea­ture DJs who have al­ready made a name for them­selves as singers in Bol­ly­wood. Cairae hopes Big’s unique for­mat will al­low it to take a slice of the $30m-worth of Hindi broad­cast­ing now shared be­tween five ri­vals. Cur­rently City is the big­gest earner, says the CEO, fol­lowed by Ra­dio 4 Aj­man and Ra­dio Mirchi, then Suno, then Spice Ra­dio. Hum had been earn­ing sim­i­lar rev­enues to Spice; Big will com­pete with City.

Zee will use its tele­vi­sion sta­tions to pro­mote its ra­dio, as well as me­dia space bought through ex­ist­ing part­ner agen­cies. Cre­ative, says Cairae, will be done through lo­cal bou­tique shops.

The rest of the UAE ra­dio mar­ket sees $35m of ad spend split be­tween 22 Ara­bic sta­tions; $35m-37m split be­tween 13 English sta­tions; $21m be­tween six FM and four AM Malay­alam sta­tions, and $2m-4m split be­tween the rest of the fre­quen­cies, in­clud­ing of­fer­ings in Ta­ga­log, Farsi and Rus­sian.

Big will broad­cast from the Zee-branded build­ing in Dubai Me­dia City. “The orig­i­nal plan for Zee Tower was to have a TV stu­dio on the ground floor, but the crash hit in 2007-08, so we put it off,” says Cairae. Pro­gram­ming will in­clude a range of In­dian mu­sic, from Bol­ly­wood hits to more laid-back Sufi songs, broad­cast from those stu­dios and from In­dia. There will also be cricket cov­er­age. “We in­tend to do commentary ball-by-ball only on T20s,” says Cairae. “For one day in­ter­na­tion­als, etcetera, we will be do­ing up­dates only.”

The transmission masts are sit­u­ated in Umm Al Quwain, giv­ing cov­er­age from Abu Dhabi’s western bor­der with Saudi Ara­bia to the Ha­j­jar Moun­tains in Ras Al Khaimah to the north.

The Hindi sta­tion is “step one”, says Cairae. Zee plans to launch two more sta­tions on top of Big, in Malay­alam and Tamil. “And we are hav­ing ex­ten­sive talks even for English,” he adds. “The largest num­ber of lis­ten­ers in the UAE, be­cause of the pop­u­la­tion, are In­di­ans. But In­di­ans listen to English mu­sic. So if you ask me if it is go­ing to be an English chan­nel with an In­dian twist, no; it’s go­ing to be an In­dian chan­nel the way an In­dian wants to listen to it.”

Zee has not yet se­cured the fre­quen­cies on which to launch those sta­tions but is in talks with more than one emi­rate – each has an al­lo­ca­tion of fre­quen­cies it may lease out – and Cairae is ‘hope­ful’ of work­ing fur­ther with UAQ Broad­cast­ing.

The con­tract for Big’s use of the 106.2 fre­quency will last 10 years. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have no fre­quen­cies cur­rently avail­able, even though last year Gulf News Broad­cast­ing closed its ra­dio sta­tions af­ter fail­ing to come to an agree­ment with Abu Dhabi Me­dia to re­new its li­cences for Ra­dio 1 and Ra­dio 2. Abu Dhabi Me­dia said last July it would re­launch the sta­tions in Septem­ber, but that is yet to hap­pen.

Zee is also mov­ing into dig­i­tal, with a plat­form due to launch be­fore Ra­madan, says Cairae. This will be an ad-funded site al­low­ing view­ers to stream Zee’s tele­vi­sion con­tent, es­pe­cially Zee Al­wan, which was “ob­scenely huge” on­line. Zee last year closed its YouTube chan­nel, be­liev­ing it could bet­ter mon­e­tise the 823 mil­lion views it had re­ceived. A 30-mem­ber dig­i­tal team has been re­cruited, and a dig­i­tal ra­dio plat­form should be on air by the start of April.

Zee is also mov­ing into Ara­bic tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion, with work on a sit com and a drama series due to star shoot­ing in Lebanon and Egypt, ready for a launch in the fourth quar­ter.

“Be­cause you spend at least an hour to an hour and a half in this part of the world in your car you are a cap­tive and a very highly en­gaged au­di­ence.”

CEO of Zee, on why he is mov­ing into the ra­dio mar­ket.

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