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Radio remains resilient, but for how long?

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Quality of content and long-term engagement with the listeners will judge the sustainability of broadcasting in the digital era

BY: Fazal Malik

In a demographically young country, dominated by social media with high penetration of broadband connectivity and mobile phone penetration, it is rather surprising to learn that conventional radio broadcasting is still thriving. Last week’s report on radio listening figures in the UAE by Nielsen, a global measurement and data analytics company, is good news for radio enthusiasts and a discouragement to those who have been writing obituaries for the good old radio. But as the originality in content and innovations in formats falls short of public imagination, the canned laughter and recycled content cannot guarantee the sustainable growth of a medium that still has a huge potential to inform, educate and entertain.

The UAE, with its huge eclectic expat community, makes a highly diverse radio audience. From Arabic to English, Hindi to Urdu, Tagalog to Malayalam, Persian to Russian, Tamil to Telugu, airwaves in the UAE weave a tapestry of languages and music, reflecting the rich cultural variety of the country. Radio in this car-loving country has become a permanent companion for many drivers during long daily commutes. As in many other parts of the world, as the commute increases due to traffic congestions the playlists on iPods and smartphones get staler and drivers browse between the frequencies to listen to something fresh and funny.

The Nielson survey which is based on 17,000 face to face interviews and the use of both paper and digital diaries to record listener responses in all seven Emirates is the first step towards a systematic measurement of radio audience in the country. There are some interesting observation that 84 per cent listen in cars, 48 per cent at home while 20 per cent at work but the outstanding finding is that about 98 per cent of listeners aged 10 to 14 and younger millennial aged 15 to 24 listen up to six and eight hours of radio every week. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this age group consumes media mostly through hand-held devices like tablets and smart phones, and unless they listen to radio online, spending 6-8 hours listening to the radio should be good news for the parents who struggle to get the eyes of their children off the screens. There is a disparity in how the radio content is consumed in the UAE and rest of the world. The mobile access to radio listening is at 35 per cent in the UAE while in the United Kingdom the digital share has reached staggering 50 per cent in the last quarter of 2017, but the technology savvy younger profile of the radio listeners in the UAE is surely going to increase the online/digital access to radio broadcasting here.

Comparatively, the United Kingdom has one of the most vibrant radio-scapes in the world with broadcasting veterans like BBC, a range of highly sophisticated commercial radio station and a growing band of community broadcasting platforms. Radio is driven by a glorious history of broadcasting, impressive journalism and above all the big personalities of RJs (Radio Jockeys). Radio personalities like John Humphries (BBC Radio 4) Chris Tarrant (Smooth FM) and Chris Evans (BBC Radio 2), Chris Molyes (Radio 1) and John Vaughan (Capital FM). All these presenters are known for their unique styles and strong personalities, which helps them to pull millions of listeners to their shows. People do develop a brand loyalty to a station particularly when a RJ (Radio Jockey) has a personality that develops a rapport with the listeners.

Distinguishing one from the other

In the UAE, the big presenter phenomenon is mostly restricted to the English language music stations while the rest of the stations sound almost the same, with similar sounding RJs and almost identical playlists. It’s difficult to make out the difference between the individual stations. Only when the jingles and station Indents are played, a listener distinguishes one from the other. While the South Asian stations mostly recycle songs from Bollywood, there is generally a lack of originality in the content of these stations. Few stations have from time to time brought some imaginative content to give listeners a break from wall-to-wall Bollywood music. However, Radio Hum (now acquired by Big FM) did some imaginative radio sketches which brought Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan characters together in a very interesting format.

Among the Arabic and English language stations, there are a few names that stand out in the radio-scape of UAE. Mariam Al Jasmi of Al Khalejiya, Kris Fade and his side-kick Big Rossy of Virgin, Catboy of Dubai 92FM, Damian Watson of Abu Dhabi Classical FM and the Business Breakfast team (Brandy Scott, Malcolm Taylor and Richard Dean) of Dubai Eye are the most recognisable voices of radio in the emirate. The radio scene in the UAE looks promising though a number of stations need more authentic content and formats to keep public engaged. While the audience research carried out by Nielson, though imperfect in few areas, is a positive move towards understanding the powerful reach and impact of radio, it is the quality of content and the long term engagement with the listeners that will judge the sustainability of broadcasting in the digital era.

  • Dr Fazal Malik is the dean of Humanities, Arts and Applied Sciences, Amity University Dubai. He had previously worked as a producer and broadcast journalist with BBC London.

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