Building the “The World’s Best Radio Network” in Dubai | radioinfo

Building the “The World’s Best Radio Network” in Dubai

Sunday 09 September, 2018

Guest Columnist Steve Smith

They don't do things by half in Dubai. Everything aims to be the world's biggest, tallest and best.

Former GM of the Melbourne ARN duopoly, Steve Smith has spent the better part of the past decade in Dubai pursuing a Purpose: To Build “The World’s Best Radio Network”. Here, he provides an insight into how he, along with a strong contingent of Aussie expats, took on the challenge.

An Unexpected Phone call
Imagine this:  You are happily living in the bayside Melbourne suburb of Elwood with your young family. You are heading up the local operation for the Australian Radio Network (ARN), when out of the blue one evening, you get a call from an old friend at an international recruitment firm asking if you might consider moving your life and family to the fast growing Middle Eastern city of Dubai to lead that city’s major media network (coincidentally also called ARN - Arabian Radio Network).  
I was immediately attracted to the opportunity of working and living overseas. But was the timing right? There was definitely a risk involved. At first, I dismissed the thought. But the seed was sown. As a family we loved to travel and loved an adventure. My wife and I as media professionals who had spent 20 years working in both the Sydney and Melbourne markets felt we perhaps could both learn and contribute to this dynamic emerging market in a meaningful way. 
After some consideration and discussion with family and friends we decided to take the leap of faith. 6 months later I was boarding an Emirates flight to the Middle East.
On August 1st 2008, I arrived in Dubai to commence as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of The Arabian Radio Network (ARN) part of The Arab Media Group (AMG). At the time AMG was led by CEO Abdullatif Alsayegh; an incredibly talented and hardworking local Emirati media professional with a very energetic style and a tremendous ambition for this emerging group. 
He exuded confidence and enthusiasm and shared a clear vision for the next stage of development. The foundations were strong, however, as with all media businesses, there were ongoing challenges. ARN had grown very quickly, the GFC was on the horizon and  there was a pressing need to build a cohesive, collaborative culture going forward. I will always remember his first direction to me. We are here to build the “The World’s Best Radio Network”. The Purpose was set.
The United Arab Emirates is a great example of multicultural communities working and living together successfully. Diversity is much celebrated and is on display everywhere. When you walk the malls you see an array of color in dress code from jeans and tshirts, to colorful sari’s and flowing robes. At the international school my children attended, they openly celebrated a variety of festivals including Ramadan with its bountiful Iftars, Diwali the Indian festival of light and stood shoulder to shoulder with their friends from all religions and from all around the world singing traditional carols at Christmas. The world certainly comes together in the UAE.
ARN was perfectly poised to service this diverse community by creating content that catered for local needs in an international setting. Targeting specific communities, Programmers were encouraged to educate, entertain and celebrate their cultural differences via all available platforms. There are approximately 200 different nationalities across the UAE’s 9 million population with 90% of these people being expats. The Indian and surrounding Arab speaking countries make up the lion’s share of this population, however, there is large community representation that originated from Iran, Philippines, Pakistan, China and Western markets including UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and broader Europe. 
All of these communities had a common necessity. They were away from their home countries and yearned for a piece of home in their everyday. Clearly this job ahead would challenge my intercultural competence in a very real way. Many of those who are reading this article will understand that success in commercial radio can only occur if indeed there is a cohesive culture right throughout the network. Bringing people together from all around the world to work towards a common purpose was going to take mindfulness, flexibility and positivity.  

Above: With the family at The Dubai International Film Festival
Purpose and People

There are so many elements that go into developing a sustainable successful culture in a media and entertainment group. Two common elements are recruiting and retaining the best people and setting a clear, definable purpose for the entire team. 

Energized people with a clear purpose must be part of a group’s DNA to have any chance of success. World’s Best Radio Network

The agreed purpose of “World’s Best Radio Network” was reinforced across all levels of the organization. Our aim was not only to achieve success as the largest network in the UAE but to set standards that would be far reaching across the MENA region and maybe one day the rest of the world. The group clearly faced some major P&L challenges in 2008. This coupled with a predictive downturn meant we needed to work quickly. Rigorous assessment of staff and assets led to a re-allocation of resources towards content creation and enhancing our digital assets.     In creation of a great culture often difficult decisions by leaders have to be made especially in the initial stages of implementation. This was a very challenging time for our group but a pivotal moment in clarifying and setting goals to pave a successful way forward. 
Great People
At ARN I was partnered with local Emirati General Manager, Mahmoud Al Rasheed (left). Mahmoud had worked his way through to senior management. He began his career as a talented Khaleeji music artist on ARN’s iconic Al Khaleejiya 100.9. His talents were quickly recognised and he was promoted to Music Manager, Station PD and then onto General Manager. Mahmoud stepped into the GM role as a 25 year old. He was deeply involved in the creative process. He was passionate about his people and its culture but was hungry for international input and world’s best practices. It was clear we could collaborate and work well together. In so many ways we could not have come from more different pasts however we both shared a passion for radio and the role it played in bringing communities together. Mahmoud understood the nuance of content creation across multiple languages. There was no better example than how passionate the local Emirati community were for their very own Khaleejiya 100.9.

Developing Great Talent

The VIRGIN radio brand has made a great contribution to the UAE landscape in terms of bringing people together from all around the world. Amongst our stable of radio and digital platforms it became a true success story.
In 2009 due to an opening in the breakfast slot on Virgin Radio Dubai (VRD) a pivotal moment occurred. The host at Virgin Radio Dubai (VRD) had to return home to South Africa at short notice. A replacement who could navigate this unique international audience had to be found quickly. Australian/Lebanese DJ Kris Fadewho was then our night time announcer was called in to fill the breakfast slot in an interim capacity. 
Kris was being developed for a larger role within the group however breakfast radio was a significant step-up. Accomplished PD of VRD Steve Pulleyknew Kris had raw talent but like all appointments nothing was assured. We would all admit today we never expected how successfully KF would connect with the UAE audience. 
In hindsight this appointment would become one of the key moments in our successful development of a “World’s Best Radio Network” purpose. Kris and his team very quickly gained a connection into the multicultural community in the UAE. This show delivered great content, the team displaying a genuine passion for the community around them. They connected on air and out in the street. The Kris Fade Show tapped into the emotional core of the experience of living and working away from your home country. They rode the audience’s joys and successes, as well as navigating the dark times of expat life. 
The Kris Fade Show bought people together and became an important unifying voice across multiple cultures. Without doubt this is one of the best shows I have ever had the pleasure to work on. It was a great moment for the team when on a station visit Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Bransoncommented on how proud he was of Virgin Radio Dubai highlighting its ability to connect with audiences from such a variety of backgrounds.
With co-hosts Ms Priti Malik(New Yorker of Indian heritage) and Big Rossi (British National) The Kris Fade Show became a juggernaut in the UAE. Today it is syndicated across the MENA region and can be heard on The Australian Radio Networks KIIS brand nationally on Sunday mornings.
Recruiting Great Talent
The team at ARN have come from all parts of the world. 
The more success we had at ARN the more talent we attracted.  
Making the right choices on who joined the team became very important to our ongoing success. There were many great people who joined ARN across my 9 years there. 
It’s very difficult to single out individuals. However, when recruiting the best people this was never more encapsulated with one such hire at ARN’s Bollywood station City 1016.
The influence of Bollywood due to the high density of Indian nationals living in the UAE is dramatic to experience when first settling into the market. 
The magnitude of Bollywood and the influence it has over so many sectors including music, fashion, language, travel, hospitality and entertainment is fascinating to observe and experience. ARN had already launched a Bollywood format called City 1016 prior to my arrival in Dubai. The opportunity for growth was so massive in the market it was fair to say this brand was underperforming to its potential. Pre-existing cultural clashes between some staff within the on-air team and some practices in programming and sales were far from world standard.   It was clear a drastic change had to happen!
After an extensive search within the Indian Radio market Program Director Fiona Munro out of Mumbai was identified as an excellent choice to achieve City 1016’s potential.
On commencement Fiona set about resetting the City1016 strategy implementing a “team first” dynamic that flourished. This team under Fiona’s leadership was one of the first to really live the ARN Purpose of “World’s Best Radio Network” and very quickly results both for audience engagement and commercial revenues followed. 
Fiona showed great leadership and excelled in producing and developing on-air talent . Her signature skill was her ability to drive a culture of honesty and integrity with her team. Each team member understood their role and effect it had towards the broader Purpose. Still today this station is recognised globally as the benchmark for Hinglish (Hindi and English) Bollywood formatted radio across multiple platforms.
Developing a successful long lasting culture into a media and entertainment group takes many elements. At the core of any such strategy having an Agreed Purpose first and foremost needs to be clearly defined. At ARN in Dubai the “world’s best radio network” Purpose certainly worked well to be a guiding light for ARN’s ongoing strategy. 
Match this with the very best people and ARN became an incredibly successful organisation  well on its way to achieving its Purpose.

Above: Mahmoud Al Rasheed, Sir Richard Branson & Steve Smith

Arabian Radio Network, Dubai
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Steve Owens
10 September 2018 - 6:11am
What a great article. It shows how Aussies can be so successful, they become world leaders in their chosen industries. Congratulations Steve Smith on a job well done.
Darren Moss
11 September 2018 - 5:03am
What an amazing life experience Steve and his family have had, not only in radio but culturally.
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