Personalities

WORKING THE NETWORKS

WORKING THE NETWORKS

The fast-talking, smooth-jiving radio industry is always beating in rhythm with the pulse of popular culture. We talk to Seelan Paul Thurai, CEO of Media Prima Networks, to find out
what it takes for the networks to stay ahead of the curve.

BEING THE CEO OF THIS YOUNG AND CREATIVE FAMILY, WHAT DO YOU THINK NEEDS TO BE DONE TO KEEP EVERYONE MOTIVATED AND HAPPY?

I think that is a very good question and a lot of HR specialists are asking the same question. I would say that the Gen Y workforce has totally different expectations from the older generations when it comes to work. They need to be inspired, so we need to enable and encourage them to achieve a lot more than what they originally set out to do; we need to empower them and build that environment for them. I believe that they will be very motivated to perform when they are able to be vocal, creative, and feel appreciated.

Of course, the salary is something that everybody will be looking at whether you are Gen Y, Gen X, or a baby boomer. Money will always be a priority, but when all the other factors come into play, money will not be the sole priority.

SINCE YOU STARTED OUT BACK IN 1998, WHAT WERE SOME OF THE MAJOR CHANGES THAT YOU HAVE WITNESSED THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME IN THE INDUSTRY?

Between 1998 and 2005 the industry was relatively healthy, but it became far more competitive very quickly after that. This was mainly due to the fact that we had new players in town and everybody was stepping up their game to compete for their share of the pie.

The growing number of local radio stations was one thing, but we were also faced with the rapidly rising popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as newer ones like Instagram and Pinterest. These factors constantly change the dynamics on how we can complement our stations with social media.

Today, there are almost 50 radio stations operating nationwide, so it takes a lot to secure
a spot amongst the top six pre-sets in everyone’s car, or even the number one smartphone application. It is targets like these that push us
to our limits and keep us on our toes.

WITH THE STIFF COMPETITION SURROUNDING YOU, HOW DO YOU STAND OUT FROM THE REST?

What makes us stand out is how we engage the community; how we actually approach and speak to the market. We want to be seen as the market specialists for Gen Y and Gen Z. So our entire outlook, our manner of speaking and interacting, whether on our own or with partners and advertisers, has to be in line with what appeals to that audience.

We are always looking at ideas that will create ‘talkability’, because radio is no longer just about listening to music – it’s about having a conversation. The trick is to do something so interesting on your radio show that it would compel people, who listened to it on the way to work, to talk about it when they are at work.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN KEEPING WITH THE TRENDS?

Understanding the youth would have to be one of the biggest challenges. These days, a major trend can shift in less than six months. Take PSY for example, the man basically became an international sensation overnight, especially amongst the kids and teens. He alone has made such a massive cultural impact on a global scale with his music video (over 1.2 billion views to date) that people are still talking about six months after its release.
PSY is just one of many examples, therefore research remains one of our key components; we need to feel the pulse of the youth by engaging them on a regular basis. By doing research and listening to them, it is possible to spot certain upcoming trends. Once we have identified an upcoming trend, we need to ride that wave, not just to keep up, but to stay ahead of the curve and maximize it. Our very own Super Kampung Style video on YouTube, for example, managed to hit over three million views.

SINCE IT HAS BECOME EXTREMELY CHEAP AND EASY FOR PEOPLE TO BRING THEIR OWN MUSIC WITH THEM ANYWHERE THEY GO, WHAT’S STOPPING RADIO FROM LOSING ITS AUDIENCE TO BESPOKE PLAYLISTS ON MP3 PLAYERS AND SMARTPHONES?

This is a good question, especially since we are moving into the digital age. I believe that radio will always evolve to remain a relevant component of today’s society, and it will always remain at the heart of what we do. Mobile devices like the iPod and MP3 players are great, but their main downside, I feel, is that they disengage you from the community.

The truth is that we humans cannot be alone. So we will always consciously or unconsciously seek to connect and interact with the community one way or another. In this sense, radio will always be about building and maintaining that sense of community by interacting and connecting with people. Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the trends are changing and evolving along with the advancement of technology, so we make sure that we grow with the flow by means of convergence.

WHAT ARE EXAMPLES OF SUCH EFFORTS THAT YOU HAVE BEEN TAKING TO CONVERGE?

Over the past decade, we at Media Prima Radio Networks have basically been enhancing and expanding our digital offerings via the internet, so that people are able to listen to all three of our radio stations and access our other digital material from anywhere in the world as long as they have an internet connection.

To harness the power of today’s smartphones and tablets, we have also rolled out our interactive application for all three stations, through which people can not only listen to music, but also as download lyrics to their favourite songs, interact with the station, and gain access to a constantly growing base of engaging contents.

I believe that it’s all about how we use social media to get people to listen to us. Currently, we do this by putting up the most interesting parts of our content on platforms like Facebook. This way, we can reach out to people who don’t listen to us in the morning, but spend their time on social media sites instead. We are constantly on the lookout for new innovations and opportunities to explore, because we believe that as much as it is important to keep up with the trends, it is also important to be able to set trends.

HAVE ANY OF YOUR STATIONS PIONEERED ANY TRENDS THAT PEOPLE ARE NOW FOLLOWING?

I don’t mean to brag when I say this, but as far as social media is concerned, Hot FM is the number one in the country in terms of having the largest fan base. The reason for that success is because we started that space much earlier than everyone else to engage with our listeners.

Apart from that, I believe in remixing ideas. Basically, you pick up a few good ideas, combine them, and make them your own. That is how everybody is doing it, and that is how we should make the best out of it.

WITH SOCIAL MEDIA AND NEW TECHNOLOGY BECOMING A MAJOR PART OF TODAY’S MARKETING STRATEGIES, DO YOU STILL BELIEVE IN THE NEED OF A GROUND TEAM (I.E. CRUISERS)?

I think it is very still very important to physically interact with your listeners because radio is still a very personal affair. You cannot build a relationship with your audience by relying only on broadcasting your content; you need to engage them up front and personal. The radio team is just an extension of that focus.

We are now involved in a lot of activities, not just with our ground team, but also with gigs. We actively seek partnerships with concert organizers just so that we can speak to our listeners on the same level. Since radio should be a personal form of communication, our listeners need to know that we are actually their friends. That is why it is so important to inject a personal touch, not just on air, but also online and on the ground.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, YOU PERSONALLY EXPERIENCED SUCH A CONNECTION
AS A LISTENER?

Of course! I don’t know about you, but I used to listen to the radio at night when I was still studying. During that time, I was listening to Casey Kasem, Shadow Stevens, and Fly Guy. I felt like they were the kind of buddies who I could relate to and enjoy some drinks with. More amazingly though, is how they were able to make me feel like they were my buddies despite being disembodied voices.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MAIN FOCUS IN TERMS OF SPONSORSHIP AND COMMUNITY WORK SO FAR?

For the past two years, we’ve launched a program called LOL (Live Out Loud). The program is all about engaging secondary school kids all the way to university students, to give them a voice, and to let us listen to them directly without all the red tape and bureaucracy in the way.

A site is currently being built to house this new community. We will also eventually provide internship programmes, as well as visiting schools and universities for activities and events. However, since we can’t possibly attend every one of those activities and events, we will invite them to make a pitch to us to tell us why we should come for it. For now and the foreseeable future, that will be our focus.

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU HAVE TO PLAY SAFE WITH BROADCASTING IN A COUNTRY LIKE MALAYSIA?

I believe that it’s about respecting and understanding of each other, because we are living in a multicultural country. Being a broadcaster, it is our responsibility to make sure that we do not go overboard. We may unintentionally offend someone from time to time, but so far we have found that the best thing to do is to apologize and move on. As long as we are mindful about what we do, we should be safe.

ON THAT NOTE, HAS FLY FM OR ANY OTHER STATION EVER GOTTEN INTO TROUBLE FROM MAKING PRANK CALLS?

We have not had any problems after years of prank calling the general public, because we always ask the ‘victims’ if they are okay with us airing the recorded prank calls before doing so. We will only air those who give us the go, but will respect them enough to not air the recording if they are not comfortable with the idea. So far, I have been getting the impression that Malaysians in general are very accommodating, because many of us we enjoy having fun and laughing at our own expense.

SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE AS HARMFUL AS IT IS HELPFUL. HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH FEEDBACK THAT YOU RECEIVE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS?

When it comes to social media, people can put out their unfiltered opinions for all to see; when they dislike something, they’ll make it known. There is bound to be negative feedback in everything you do, the important thing is how you handle the feedback. Take Fly FM, Hot FM, and One FM for example, when people say that they are not happy with certain things that we did, we run a proper investigation.

It could be due to a certain artist, song, error, or other issues, but as long as we have found that it was our mistake, we will own up to it and apologize publicly. And when we do that, we gain the respect of the public, because they can see that we are sincere and honest about it.

IN TERMS OF YOUR REACH, TO WHAT EXTENT ARE YOU TARGETING THE FOREIGN OR INTERNATIONAL MARKET?

We’re not looking into that at the moment, because our priority is still the Malaysian audience for now. However, our online presence and the use of apps are not just for the local fans, but also for the Malaysians who are studying or living overseas, and who miss the flavour from home.

OUT OF ALL YOUR STATIONS, IS THERE ONE THAT GETS PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT IN TERMS OF FOCUS?

No. All three stations (Fly FM, Hot FM, and One FM) are equally emphasized. There is no lead station because every station caters to a different demographic, and each station’s approach reflects the specific mind-set that defines its target audience.

THE RADIO STATIONS ARE GENERALLY KNOWN FOR THEIR ANNOUNCERS AND IMAGE BRANDING, BUT I’M SURE THAT THERE ARE UNSUNG HEROES THAT HAVE PLAYED A MAJOR PART IN CONTRIBUTING TO THE SUCCESS OF THE STATIONS. WHO MAY THEY BE?

I would say that everybody in the company played an important role. In our team, we always emphasize on team work and not just on the personalities. Overall success comes from the traffic team, sales team, branding and promotional team, engineering, and even reception. The success of a radio station does not come from the efforts of the announcer alone; everyone needs to do their part, believe in the brand, and showcase the brand and its value to each other and the world.

SOUNDS LIKE A NICE PLACE TO WORK AT. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE FUNNIEST AND MOST INTERESTING MOMENTS THAT YOU’VE EXPERIENCED AT YOUR CURRENT POSITION?

Let’s see, I got pranked by my own guys! It was quite funny actually, because they called my wife’s mobile phone very early in the morning so that they could catch me off guard. And it worked!

I think that there were a lot of great moments in the seven years that I have worked here. I have been very lucky to have had a great, young team. As much as I believe that they have learned a lot from us, the management, I have also found myself learning a lot from them. The Gen Y folks are very vocal, so it’s always a challenge for me to make sure that I create the right environment for them to reach their full potential.

DID YOU HAVE ANY PRIOR MANAGEMENT EXPERIENCE BEFORE YOU BECAME THE CEO OF MEDIA PRIMA RADIO NETWORKS?

I only had some background in programming when I started out in Media Prima, but I was immediately thrown into the deep end to start running a business. I was basically forced to adapt, learn, and think on my feet very quickly. I am very lucky in that sense, because I have very good mentors to guide and advise me, like Ahmad Izham Omar. George Buschman from Australia was also one of my mentors – he basically set a lot of my business principles that I use to guide my approaches in business.

WHAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT WISDOM THAT YOU HAVE GAINED THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER IN BROADCASTING?

I have learned that the only way for you to remain relevant, especially in this fast-moving industry, is to make sure that you never stop learning. So learn from your colleagues, partners, and other mediums; learn from other people.

I once went for a training session where the trainer said that you will get a lot more ideas when you speak to strangers, so that will be my aim for 2013. I will just strike up a chat with random strangers, because they might just inspire me.

ARE THERE ANY MAJOR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH OUR READERS?

I can’t share much, but there will be something somewhere in Q3 or Q4 this year that we’re currently working on very closely with ‘Tonton’, which is our sister company under Media Prima Digital.

Apart from that, we are replicating and improving the winning convergence of radio, TV, and online content that have proved to be highly successful – ‘Kaki Bola’, for example, was the number one football show in the country last year. We also did ‘Versus’, which was phenomenal with half a billion impressions on Twitter. This year, we’re making similar content for the Chinese market with 8TV called the ‘Ultimate Song’. These are some of the exciting programs that you can look forward to in 2013.

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