Analysis: BBC's Asian Network gets youthful makeover

The BBC’s Asian Network has been given a youthful makeover. Hannah Marriott asks how PROs should target the former local radio station that is now appealing to a new breed of listeners across the country.

An overhaul of programming at the BBC’s Asian Network is aiming to make the radio station fresher, funkier and more inclusive.

A new weekend schedule will be unveiled later this month, while a football programme launches in August. The weekday schedule has already been revamped – with the addition of young presenters, all-language programming moving from afternoon to evening slots, and a generally more youth-oriented, broader agenda.

The Asian Network started life in the 1970s, as a series of programmes aimed at the Asian community in Leicester. Since the 1990s it has been available on medium-wave in the Midlands, and in October 2002 went national, accessible via DAB radios, digital TV set-top boxes and online. The name ‘Network’ refers to the number of communities it serves.

Youth market
In the first quarter of 2006, 427,000 people were listening, 75 per cent of whom were aged under 35.

Weber Shandwick’s newly installed head of multi-cultural comms, Rakhee Vithlani, believes the changes are logical: ‘The majority of the UK’s Asians are under 25, so it makes sense for the network to target the young with the addition of presenters such as Bobby Friction, who also has a show on Radio One.’

She adds: ‘From a PR perspective you need to look carefully at who you’re trying to reach before contacting the Asian Network. If PROs are trying to reach a 40-year-old Indian man, for example, they might be better off contacting, say, Sunrise Radio.’

F-NIK managing director Pedro Carvalho specialises in targeting Asian media for clients, including musicians Rishi Rich and Jay Sean and the FA Premier League, and worked on the national relaunch of the Asian Network in 2002.

He says the station is targeting a new breed of British Asian: ‘They’re under 40, they have spending power, and media-wise they are reading The Times as well as Asian media: they have a foot in each camp.’

One way in which the station is hoping to attract new listeners and keep existing ones is with its music programming. Music assistant editor Khaliq Meer says the programming increasingly ‘champions British Asian artists’, and brings non-Asian music to listeners: ‘Shows such as Friction’s in the evening showcase many genres of music – we are interested in hearing about credible mainstream artists, such as Madonna, and mainstream events such as Glastonbury and the Mercury Music Prize.’

Similarly, the team behind Nikki Bedi’s afternoon cultural programme want PROs to keep them up-to-date with film, music, theatre and entertainment as a whole – not just the Asian arts scene: ‘We cover everything, because Asian people don’t live in a vacuum,’ says assistant editor Kuljinder Singh.

The Asian Network’s remit means 50 per cent of its output must be speech, but even its more newsy programmes are increasingly catering for a younger audience.

While Adil Ray’s drive-time show addresses serious issues facing Asian communities, assistant editor Ishfaq Ahmed says he aims to ‘get young voices talking about issues’ – so PROs could boost their chances of inclusion by providing young spokespeople for stories (11am is the best time to call – and showbiz gossip is also of interest).

News has also changed a great deal as part of the network’s revamp. The station’s news team is now, for the first time, part of the BBC News network, giving it better access to top journalists and commentators.

Community angle
A daily half-hour news programme, The Wrap, plus hourly bulletins from 6am to 10pm, provide plenty of opportunities for stories. Head of news Husain Husani says his priority is to find stories about British Asians ‘doing amazing things and being successful’, as well as general news to interest the young, mostly Asian audience – from celebrity gossip to stories about Iraq.

Husani reminds PROs that stories ‘have to be genuinely newsy – on the BBC we can’t talk about nice new restaurants or products, unless there really is a some community angle’.

For charities and public sector organisations in particular, targeting the Asian Network’s daily soap, Silver Street, could be a smart move. The show launched in May 2004, and features a mostly Asian cast dealing with issues from mental health and bulimia to romance. Editor James Peries says: ‘We don’t have lots of people lobbying to get their causes discussed on the show - but we do work with experts on storylines and are always interested in discussing ideas, ideally at least six months ahead.’

Carvalho advises consumer brands to think long-term in order to get onto the Asian Network: ‘When some brands decide they want to target the Asian community, they seem like they just want to get a quick buck. But they should never attempt to inflict their commerciality – they have to remember that the BBC will not just advertise their products.’

He adds: ‘You need to do more than send a press release just because you think there’s some kind of “Asian” angle to the story. There needs to be some benefit for the community.

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