BFM takes segmented approach

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There is more to the monochrome BFM 89.9 taxi ads than quirky catchphrases, says BFM founder and CEO Malek Ali.“If you look at the taxi in front of you, the taxi ads are visually 10cm away from your radio dial — which is the closest way to getting people to switch that button to preset BFM,” he explains. What Malek means is the BFM ad on the cab in front of you appears to be only 10cm above your car radio’s dial, and this would hopefully prompt listeners to pre-set their radio to BFM.

The careful thought given to BFM’s taxi ads is reflected in the station’s segmented approach towards its content programming, business strategy and branding.

Content was the main reason he started BFM, Malek says, as local radio content lacked substance and was mostly “pure entertainment” with deejays talking down to listeners. “As a listener, I want to talk to someone as an equal and the kind of topics I’m interested in is beyond romance and dating,” he said in an interview last month.

Malek is not new to the Malaysian entrepreneurial scene, having founded KL Classifieds in 1997, the country’s first free classified ads newspaper, and co-founding together with Mark Chang.

Introduced to the concept of online radio in 2004 while pursuing his MBA at Harvard, Malek started BFM in July 2007 with a total of RM5 million. He contributed RM800,000; the other investors are the venture capital company that funded, Malek’s family, Harvard Business School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni, including Chang.

Malek says BFM was modelled after several radio stations overseas such as Capital Radio 95.8, LBC 97.3 (London’s Biggest Conversation) and Laser 558 in the UK. France’s BFM Radio and CNBC were the inspiration for its business radio format while LBC provided the “substance”.

“If you’re a Londoner, you listen to Capital Radio because of the localisation, which highlights the need to create a local community pride in your station,” says Malek, who read law at Bristol University in the 1980s and worked as a corporate lawyer in London soon after. Broadcast from a ship in the North Sea, the now-defunct Laser 558 exemplified the audacity to do wacky, unconventional things, which Malek says inspired the “whimsical” BFM one-liners on its ads.

Business was chosen as the station’s core content because of its pervasiveness. “Developing and emerging markets tend to be mercantile. ‘How’s business?’ is our secondary ‘Sudah makan?’, especially among the urban professionals we’re targeting. Business encapsulates the largest portion of our talk radio listenership,” he says.

BFM’s target audience comprises working professionals aged 28 to 60. No listenership figures are available to date. A just-concluded survey of BFM’s audience shows the median household income of its listeners is between RM7,500 and RM10,000  per month. More than half (56%) of the 365 respondents have influence on corporate purchases with  a median of RM75,000 to RM100,000 available for investment. Malek says BFM aims to have listeners with the highest aggregate buying power among radio stations in Malaysia.

“The survey shows that we have a few BFM listeners who have control of around RM500 million to RM1 billion in purchasing power,” he says.

BFM’s programming is decided based on “who’s on the road at that time of the day and what their moods are”, says Malek. For example, the “Enterprise” programme caters to “folks who don’t have to be at the office by 9am — freelancers, consultants, business owners and media who are more entrepreneurial-oriented”. The afternoon “Discovery” segment covers lighter issues for parents and businessmen returning from lunch hour, he says.

With specially targeted programmes, BFM offers strategic advertising propositions to companies, says Malek. Traditional advertisements or “creative buys” contribute 30% of the company’s ad revenue while 70% comes from programme sponsorships. “Malaysia Airlines, for example, has opted for live announcements while companies like Volvo and BMW have taken normal commercial spots,” he said. Malek adds that there are two major sponsors for the station’s most popular programme, “The Breakfast Grille”, which would go on-air end-May.

“Our angle is not about 30-second spots that tell you to buy a product but an educated positioning, where you sponsor a programme or educational capsules of one-minute slots to educate companies about solutions and create brand associations,” he says. Ricoh is one such company, buying minute-long time capsules to talk about how to save printing costs and going green at the workplace.

Since BFM officially went on-air in September last year, it has invested some RM300,000 in ad spend to raise brand awareness among listeners. Among the initiatives are taxi advertisements, a trade launch, online advertisements as well as advertising upcoming high-profile interviews in The Edge, with which BFM has a cross-promotional tie-up.

To alert listeners about upcoming interviews, BFM utilises Facebook and email. Interviewees are also given podcasts of their interviews — a symbiotic move, says Malek, as they get podcasts for free and BFM is marketed to a wider audience.

“Currently, we get more than 100 live streams every time there’s a popular interviewee on the show. Those who miss the show can listen to the podcasts online, subscribe to feeds, or buy podcasts at the iTunes store, which you can transfer to your iPod and sync to your car radio,” he says. BFM’s survey indicates that more than 13,000 podcasts have been downloaded or played since it went on air last year.

Malek says in future, BFM’s online website would function like a digital video recorder, where BFM would send recommended podcasts to listeners based on their preferences.

“If you look at the US now, a lot of information is broadcast information. The trend has been time-shifted — we used to wait for a show and if you missed the episode, too bad, but today, you have DVRs. Likewise, we are time-shifting programmes online.”Malek says the company aims to cover its burn rate in 18 months and has covered one-third of the total to date. Its monthly burn rate is around RM200,000.

“Once we cover the running costs of this organisation, we can sleep easy and can start developing new programming. If you’re not worried about day-to-day, you can start to be a bit more creative and invest in the online portion more,” he says.

This article appeared in [email protected], the monthly management pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 752, April 27- May 3, 2009.