Who has not dreamed of owning his own music radio station, to pass his favourite music, the tunes of his childhood when all other public radios only broadcast programmes according to a very institutional grid? Younes Boumehdi has had this dream come true after 13 years of waiting, to get FM license for his «Hit Radio».
Born to a French mother and Moroccan father, he grew up in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. After studying communications and management in Paris, France, he trained for a career in radio in the French group “Start”, which has over 40 stations in France, including the famous “Ado FM” (Teenage Radio). Younes Boumehdi also completed an internship in Radio “France Culture,” that provided him a rich and exciting experience to become a young, popular and driven radio journalist.
Boumehdi, 41, is now part of the new breed of atypical CEOs who are enthusiastic, optimistic and fiercely stubborn and prefer the jeans-sneakers outfit rather than the golden boy suits. His cool attitude reflects the state of mind of a young, cool and accessible personality rather than the nonchalance, and also reflects the smart management of his radio station.
Arabian Gazette’s Rahma Rachdi sat down with Younes Boumehdi and had a candid conversation about dreams, career and astounding success of his radio station.
Rahma Rachdi: Despite the fact that you’ve French roots, why did you decide to live in Morocco and set up your own radio station?
Younes Boumehdi: For me Morocco is the most sensational country of the world. And please don’t think I’m saying this out of chauvinism! (laughter). I think that Morocco, through its multi-ethnic history, is composed of multiple cultures coming from the Phoenicians, Berbers, and Africans. Pan-Arabism happened much later, but this is not what we are told in textbooks at school. Morocco has never faced up its history.
You mean the history of Morocco is more diverse than we think?
Yes, Morocco is a pluralistic nation and that is why I created an association named “Pluriel” (Plural) in 2009. We organise conferences on identity in a “café-politique” inviting young people to debate.
How did you get the idea to start a radio station?
I was young like everyone else and I lived in Rabat at the time, and my free time was very boring and entertainment-less. The only places at that time where one could listen to good music were the very few clubs in the city. I was absolutely frustrated. At that point was born the idea of a 100% music radio, hence the name «Hit Radio». I didn’t know yet how to get there, but I had the idea of finding a tool to spread music for the youth.
Why? Weren’t existing radio stations streaming music?
The radio stations stopped transmitting from 10pm in northern Morocco (Radio Mediterranean). There was no programming for the youth. Apart from a pirate radio station “The Fair” which was based in Casablanca, there was nothing mainstream. But if we wanted to listen to pop music, rock, and rap on other stations, there was no place for these music genres. They used to air mainly the “Chaabi” Classic “Charki” Arabic music.
But why exactly this idea of a radio station?
I wanted something that was free and accessible to young people, and there was nothing better than a radio station. And then when I went to study in Paris, I discovered free radio stations like Sky and Rock NRJ that were started in garages.
And that’s how you got the click?
Yes, somehow. I returned to Morocco in 1993 and from there I set up my project of 100% music radio station and I started to write to the Moroccan Ministry of Communications, Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Information and Posts and Telecommunications for obtaining license and frequency.
So you followed the procedure and you got your frequency?
Uh, not really! (laughter). The mail exchanges lasted for 13 years! Meanwhile, I understood the need to make a business plan, raising funds etc. Then I started knocking on the doors of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
So tell us more about the institutional process to finally reach your licence goal.
In 2003, HACA was born (High Authority of Audiovisual Communication) and I sent them a letter immediately. In 2005, they wrote back to me and I answered their queries after which they contacted me again and from there the process began: sending files, and then response to a call for tenders in 2006. Out of 105 candidates, 31 got licenses, including my «Hit Radio». I was pleasantly surprised because I was selected on a criteria that was never revealed to me. All I knew was that my project was part of the 8 “press pools” which was the only one that got selected. It was like a “group of death” situation for me.
And then finally it was time for happiness as you finally achieved your goal?
Not really because the press had announced my defeat! And deliberations lasted from 1st April to 14th May, 2006. Something that made me languish a little bit more…
Why is it that obtaining a license lasted so long in your opinion?
For both political and bureaucratic reasons. It is also due to the timing and evolution of institutions because until 2003, information and communications were under the Ministry of Interior.
How did you proceed further after obtaining the authorisation to operate?
It was very difficult to start with because we had trouble finding human resources like animators, journalists, DJs etc. We began broadcasting on 1st July in the summer 2006, so we made a summer music programme. Then, Mr. Jean Pierre Casalta, CEO of Medi1Channel, supported me by giving the materials and helped set up in Marrakech and Casablanca. Besides, there was some external criticism from people who were saying “It will never work!”
What was the biggest challenge to start with?
The hardest task was the choice of music programming. At that time, the first Moroccan rap groups like “Achkain” and “Fnair” (the most famous one right now) were born. We were the first to stream them despite all the criticism and distrust. We feel very proud now. And it is not so easy to find sponsors and advertising which generates cash flow.
According to “Médiamétrie”, your radio station is now ranked 7th out of 18 with a pool audience of 28 million listeners. Is it working pretty good?
Yes indeed. «Hit Radio» broadcasts on 74 frequencies across Morocco. When I started in 2006, we only had 10 frequencies. And since the Arab Spring, politicians are increasingly willing to come to our radio station and connect with young people.
Can «Hit Radio» become a tool of political communication by targeting the 15-35 age group and passing on messages?
Our radio is always neutral and avoids politics, especially in a young democracy as Morocco.
You launched the first and only free radio station in Morocco. How is it going so far?
We launched this free station in 2006, with broadcasts from 8pm to midnight. It is a moment for radio where everything is allowed, nothing is forbidden. Listeners call in and talk openly about everything. But we have had two ‘slippages’, which led to problems. We talked about a subject that has been deemed as “molestation”. The HACA punished us and we had to pay a fine of 100,000 Moroccan dirhams with the obligation to spread the message of sanction.
Did this lesson calmed you down?
Yes. We understood the message, but we were supported by our listeners. Some parents even offered to give one month’s salary in the name of freedom of press.
Don’t you think that these repeated penalties slapped by the HACA will make you look like the ugly duckling of radio?
We have reached the third penalty, which has created a big buzz. We were even accused of doing it purposely for advertising. The free radio station continues today but we are more careful than ever.
What are the future projects «Hit Radio» is working on at the moment that will allow diversification of your business model?
We were issued licences in France (Arras) in 2008 and Monte Carlo, Belgium. Since 2012, we have applied for licences in Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria. We have partnership with Centrafrique in Togo and Senegal. We are also currently applying for licences in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi and Niger. We plan to create a TV channel called «Hit Radio TV», which will also be a web radio and musical events will be entirely sponsored by «Hit Radio».
But why are you targeting African countries?
Because I feel more African than ever. Especially when I discovered my grand mother was an African! And Morocco is actually an African country.
What about other Arab countries, those in the Middle East for example?
Why not? Future will tell!
To know more about Hit Radio, visit www.hitradio.ma