Why Virgin Radio Middle East would make sense

I was always rather delighted by the fact that London’s Capital Radio used to be relayed on the Brunei airwaves. It seemed romantically exotic that, as drivers in the sultanate headed home for dinner in the sun, they would be entertained by the latest news about the rainy London breakfast rush hour.

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By  Tim Burrowes Published  May 14, 2006

Why Virgin Radio Middle East would make sense|~||~||~|I was always rather delighted by the fact that London’s Capital Radio used to be relayed on the Brunei airwaves. It seemed romantically exotic that, as drivers in the sultanate headed home for dinner in the sun, they would be entertained by the latest news about the rainy London breakfast rush hour. The reason for this arrangement — long before digital satellite and the internet made it commonplace to hear whatever station in the world you wanted — was that a member of the Brunei royal family had spent time in London and fallen in love with the station. More recently, of course, came the equally bizarre experience of online lunchtime listening to the Capital Radio breakfast show, presented for a London audience, but coming from Dubai 92’s studios because the DJ was stuck in the UAE. So the initial reaction on hearing that Virgin Radio is set to move into the Middle East is to wonder why nobody has already done it. There are lots of powerful radio brands out there — rumour has it that Kiss FM nearly had a crack too. And at this point, it becomes a story about brands and branding which, with Virgin, it always does. First, those familiar with Virgin Radio in the UK may get the wrong impression. You won’t be hearing the likes of Suggs and Christian O’Connell holding forth. Virgin Radio in the UK was indeed part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, but he sold his stake many years ago. However, his interests in having a media arm to his empire remain. Virgin Radio has established stations in Thailand, China and France and India is set for this year. And it is from this stable that Virgin Radio Middle East (and they’ll have to think of a snappier name than that, of course) will spring. In practical terms, it should work. The packaging and programming expertise gained in other markets can be applied relatively easily. And combine that with what will presumably be a willingness to invest slightly more than existing stations and you’ve potential to be on to a winner. It’s all the classic Virgin model — use the power of the brand, and let another partner with local knowledge take a bigger share of the financial risk. It’s also a classic model for the Middle East. Consumers are used to brands coming in on a franchise arrangement. From advertising agencies (we’ve just seen the Lowe franchise change hands) to media titles (we report the launch of Time Out Beirut today) to shops (Harvey Nichols, for instance); it’s the established way of building a presence here. So it’s surprising it has not already happened in radio. The other part of the jigsaw is that of brand power. That’s what won Virgin Atlantic airline’s arrival in Dubai all that PR attention. And Virgin Megastores are here too. That cumulative presence is going to be a powerful persuader for the consumers to give it a go. Ironically, one of the stations that’s been doing its bit to help stoke the Branson myth is Dubai Eye, with its broadcast of the grinning pullover’s autobiography over recent weeks. Yet it seems Branson could soon be a competitor to parent company the Arabian Radio Network. There is, of course, one more issue. Without audience research, the commercial success of a station is determined entirely by advertiser sentiment. The best sales team tends to win the day, not necessarily the best station. So there will need to be a first class sales operation too. So depending who the local partner ends up being, the station is going to need to get in some very strong sales people. Existing stations would be wise to be generous in forthcoming staff pay rises. The poaching will begin soon. The Middle East Radio conference is now just over a week away. He may be as far away as the distance from Brunei to London, but Richard Branson will still be the most talked about person in the room.||**||

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