Radio’s Mr Mango waits for Virgin to bear fruits

Mekki Abdulla has played a pivotal role in shaping the region’s airwaves. And as Richard Abbott discovers, he hasn’t finished yet

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By  Richard Abbott Published  June 18, 2006

Radio’s Mr Mango waits for Virgin to bear fruits|~|mekki200.jpg|~|Abdulla… ‘Radio is weak because we can’t justify anything. Who can say how much airtime should cost?’|~|The story of Mekki Abdulla starts in a clapped out Volvo. He was driving through the night in northern England to meet up with what turned out to be a rotten consignment of mangoes. The fruit, imported from his homeland of Sudan, would not even make him back his commission. The fruit wholesaling business was back-breaking work. Mekki Mango, as he was known in the trade, was getting fed up. The car radio was on and then came a commercial break. “Are you looking for a new life?” asked the man in the advert. “That’s when I realised that radio worked, because I found myself staring back at this beat-up radio in the Volvo and I started talking to it,” says Abdulla. So he wrote the number down and the rest, as they say, is history. He ditched the mangoes and 4am market day starts to join the northern English radio station The Bay FM as a trainee manager. After a tough start selling airtime on the mean streets of Barrow-in-Furness (“the cul-de-sac of the world”) he climbed the ladder to sales and marketing director within three years. “I always had this real interest in the fruit and veg market, it was like my pet evil,” explains Abdulla, who now runs a Sudanese station called — you guessed it — Mango FM and is a key player in the bid by UAE-based Fujairah Media to import the Virgin Radio franchise. “I suppose we are all selling perishables, whether it is airtime or rotting fruit.” Few media owners can match Abdulla’s rise from English local radio salesman to the apparent elder statesman of Middle East radio. It all started with a mission to obtain a radio broadcasting licence in the UAE. Twice a month he would make exhausting trips from Manchester to Dubai, leaving on Thursday evening, returning overnight on Sunday and going straight to work. “I was roasting my credit card and getting my wife very worried,” he says. But his quest for a frequency hit a brick wall and he came close to quitting. “I remember sitting in the Meridien hotel near the airport and thinking ‘that’s it, I’m not coming back again’,” he says. “Then I got a call from a relation in Abu Dhabi asking me to change my flight and meet some guys in Ajman.” The resulting conversation with Ajman Independent Studios led Abdulla to leave the UK and launch what is known today as Channel 4, the first privately-owned English language station in the UAE. “It was my baby. I love it. I still rank it as the top station,” he says. But Abdulla is a man for whom the phrase ‘itchy feet’ could have been invented. Within two years he was on the move again, travelling to Abu Dhabi, where he relaunched the government-run Capital Radio into two new stations — Emirates Radio 1 and 2. Another year passed and Abdulla was again ready to move on. The planned launch of Dubai Media City presented an opportunity for a new radio network and this led to the creation of the Arab language Al Arabiya, part of what is now known as Arabian Radio Network. “The support was tremendous from the advertising market,” he says. “For me it was a signature project.” Since then, ARN has evolved and grown into a portfolio of English, Arabic and Hindi stations, part of the umbrella Arab Media Group, which also includes newspapers, events and a distribution arm. “I hope that the radio doesn’t lose the attention it used to have,” says Abdulla. Despite his best efforts, advertising spend on radio still languishes behind TV, newspapers, magazines and outdoor, according to data from Ipsos-Stat for the 12 months to April 2006. “Radio is weak because we can’t justify anything. Who can say how much airtime should cost? He’s [the client] got the money in his pocket, you’ve got the mouths to feed. Usually, he will win. If you don’t take the US$40 he will tell you that the next station will. “It is really weak and nasty but unfortunately most campaigns are bought like that.” He also blames the radio industry itself for being too introspective: “They don’t realise that their main competitor is not the radio station down the road but every other media owner in town,” says Abdulla. And don’t even start him on how radio advertising is under-priced. “The sponsorship of a mainstream show on one of our top radio stations would cost you about the same amount of money as buying one lamp-post on Sheikh Zayed Road,” he says. According to Abdulla, the market lacks the basic commodity of research. “The advertiser wants evidence of an audience. We can’t give that on radio,” he says. “The buyer comes to the radio market and looks at us all — I don’t want to use fruit again — like we are all just selling apples. “Supply and demand comes into play, so the buyer says ‘look, there are lots of apples on display — the price must go down’. It’s not true. Dubai Eye is pears, Dubai 92 is something else, Channel 4 something else, and so on.” Abdulla has been involved primarily with start-up radio stations, but he never hangs about long enough for you to pin him down. Does he see himself as a media owner, a consultant, a media guru? “I sometimes come across like an American consultant,” he admits. Apart from Mango FM, which he hopes to develop into a portfolio of three channels this year, his latest adventure is with Fujairah Media, bidding to bring three stations to the East Coast of the UAE. The Arabic station is undergoing its first test broadcast on the day we meet. It is not yet known what shape the English language station will take, although he is optimistic that Virgin will be the partner brand. “We have an agreement in place, it is just a case of signing it off,” he says. “They want to make sure they have the best deal. The importance of Virgin to us is instant brand recognition.” Abdulla says the station could be on air in 30 to 40 days if and when an agreement is reached. If successful, he says the early days will be crucial. “Right now the dial is so jam packed, it is really difficult. People go through all the effort of getting a station and then they put a load of crap on it. It’s like running a marathon but not crossing the finishing line,” he says. With three stations in the UAE and two more being readied for launch under the Mango banner in Sudan, Abdulla is more than satisfying his hunger for radio station launches. “You can’t keep a good dog down,” he laughs. “God knows, how they try. I’m like a proverbial bad penny. I keep cropping up, and usually on a radio station.”||**||

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