Lebanon 2013 | ICT & MEDIA | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Najy Cherabieh, General Manager of Virgin Radio, on the station's launch in Lebanon and the strategies behind its rapid listenership growth.

Najy Cherabieh
Najy Cherabieh became an award-winning DJ at the age of 13 and has over 25 years of radio experience across the region, having helped to set up and manage a number of top radio stations that have gone on to be market leaders in their respective countries. He has been working on setting up Virgin Radio in Lebanon for over two years.

Virgin Radio was very recently launched in Lebanon. What has been the reaction so far and what are your expectations for 2013?

We launched Virgin Radio on May 14, and so far the response has been phenomenal. We did not expect the reach and penetration to go this far. We have many advertisers and have signed most of the major festivals, including Byblos International and Fête de la Musique. We have all the major resorts, which have switched very quickly to Virgin, such as Edde Sands and Iris Beach Club. Even the big clubs, such as White or SKYBAR, are now working with Virgin; even Middle East Airlines (MEA) is now affiliated. We ran a very successful marketing campaign and the brand name also helps. People know that Virgin Radio belongs to one of the biggest media brands in the world; it is number one in several countries.

What makes Virgin Radio different?

The Lebanese market has been the same for 15 years. Even the way radio has been executed in the past few years has not changed. We are calling Virgin the “next generation of media." We take technology, such as FM, and merge it with social media and mobile communication. This is why I think Virgin has been so successful with its penetration. People in Lebanon are used to interacting with stations by calling a phone line, and only using Facebook or Twitter as complementary media, whereas, for Virgin Media, social media is the access point to the station. For any promotion we are running, people actually answer through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or WhatsApp; we call the people, they don't call us. We do not use the classic model of “call us now," when only one person can get through; we usually have thousands of entries per competition.

What makes the Lebanese listener unique?

I would not say there is much difference between a Lebanese listener and listeners elsewhere. Culture helps, but, more or less, habits are similar worldwide. If a song is a hit in the US or in the UK, it is going to be a hit in Lebanon. What differs is what kind of music people listen to at what time of day. We conducted a massive market survey on listening trends with thousands of participants, from Beirut to Mt. Lebanon, covering ages 14-40. Our main target was ages 14-40, but it is now 14-28. The radio station is positioned according to the majority of the habits of that age group. From 7.00 am-9.00 am, the slightly older age group is going to work. From 9.00 am, the age group drops and younger people begin going to the beach during summer time. We know that our three main competitor stations play electronic music on Friday and Saturday nights. Based on our research, electronic music only targets 2% of FM audiences. This means that 98% have no choice. There are three stations competing for 2% of the listenership, so our policy is just the hits for Fridays and Saturdays. Of course, when you are going out to a club, restaurant, or cinema, you do not want to hear club music; you want to hear the music you know.

Virgin Radio has very few commercial breaks. How can you pair this with profitability?

Our rate card is at the higher end of the market norm, with a 30 second spot costing around $70. Statistically, we actually have a much higher listenership ratio during commercial breaks than other stations, because for the 40-minute duration of the 10 hits in a row, we are just gaining listeners nonstop. When other stations go to commercials, people usually zap. We have commercials, but you notice them a lot less and thus it becomes much more effective. Also, we conducted extensive research to find talented people with Lebanese roots to present our shows, as they can relate to the listenership and speak fluent English.