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Arab Relations

Nine Languages, One Network

Caitlin McMullen

In an office overlooking Dubai’s ‘Media City’, a small media organisation is undergoing a dramatic expansion in order to cater for the Emirates’ diverse communities.

The Arabian Radio Network (ARN) is a United Arab Emirates government broadcaster that began in the early 2000s.

After struggling for a long period, the national broadcaster found it difficult to attract an audience and to create sufficient revenue from advertising.

For a decade, ARN survived with three stations, relying heavily on the Arabic community to boost ratings.

In 2008, Australian Steve Smith was appointed the Chief Operating Officer for the national network, in the hope that he could grow listenership.

                                                Steve Smith. Photograph by Caitlin McMullen

                                                Steve Smith. Photograph by Caitlin McMullen

As Smith says, there is a lot of segregation because most of the population does not speak Arabic. “There was a continuing rise in expatriates coming to the UAE, with a language other than Arabic.

“In terms of a national language, I would argue that the UAE has become so diverse, we don’t have one. But the radio broadcasts did not reflect this.”

With the expatriate population dramatically rising, Smith decided that change must occur.

Smith, an expatriate himself, saw a “huge gap in the market in regards to foreign language radio stations.

“The goal was to create community radio stations for people to speak in their native language.”

With investment from the UAE Government, ARN managed to expand with six new stations offering Malayalam, Hindi, Farsi, and Tagalogue programming, as well as additional Arabic and English stations.

This increased the listenership to more than double the daily rate of 2008.  ARN currently estimates that 3.2 million people daily tune into one of their stations.

ARN chose the different language groups based on the amount of expatriates within the UAE at the time and the expected number for the future.

At the time the Farsi program was launched in 2009, there were only 100,000 Iranians. They number around 500,000, or five percent of the UAE’s total population.

Smith says “Fifty percent of UAE’s population is from the Asia Pacific.” He notes that it is “an interesting fact that Indian gets spoken more than Arabic”.

Since the development of the stations, ARN is now known for its “localised news and the communities revolving around the station”.

Smith says a government broadcaster should always reflect society.

“There are 200 nationalities in the UAE. It’s not possible to have a radio program for every single one. There should always be a correlation between the population and language groups within the media.”

There are no immediate plans to create more foreign language stations, although Smith is sure that ARN will continue to find ways to include expatriates within their broadcasting.