Words and Interviews by Salima Yacoubi Soussane.
“I was a terrible piano and guitar player so I thought I’d better open [up] a radio [station] to promote those [artists] who are good,” jokes Younes Boumehdi.
While he may not be a great guitar player, he certainly is an inspiring entrepreneur. When the 42-year old Rabat resident, and marketing and communication major made the crazy bet to launch the first privately owned Moroccan radio dedicated to music and pop culture, there was no role model or success story he could emulate. Young Moroccan’s barely even listened to radio, choosing instead to partake in the one-size-fits-all programming available on television.
The creation of Hit Radio is one of those stories we love; one that starts with a dream, numerous obstacles in the middle, and ends on a happy note. Based in Rabat, the long-awaited radio station is dedicated to the youth—15-35 years old— an important and underserved audience in the region. Its slogan is “100% hit 100% young,” and the goal is to broadcast Rihanna, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and also to support young local talent. Most importantly, in a time when young Arabs aspire to freedom of expression, Hit Radio is one of the first media platforms for youth in the Arab world, and a potential template for similar ventures to be erected across Africa and the Middle-east.
Two decades ago, the Moroccan radio landscape was dominated by state-owned stations broadcasting government-sanctioned programs. Boumehdi was well aware that the “youth and musicians didn’t have any platform, even virtual.” So after filing his musical scores away in a drawer and hanging his French marketing degree on the wall, he submitted in 1993 an application for the accreditation of his private radio, thereby starting an unexpected adventure. Boumehdi spent more than thirteen years shuttling between ministers’ offices, pleading with administrators and waiting in assistants’ offices as rejection letters piled up on his desk. Even more doors were slammed in his face than he cares to remember. Dealing with rejection was definitely one challenge, but there was also the practical matter of making ends meet while Morocco’s bureaucracy pondered his case.
What did our young entrepreneur do during this time? “A little of everything. I sold antenna dishes, chocolate, you name it.. One has to survive somehow.” Fortunately, Boumehdi did not give up. He knew the potential impact his radio station would have on his peers in the country, and every rejection only nurtured his determination.
Finally, on May 17, 2006, the Moroccan state liberalized the waves and granted the right to broadcast private radio to 11 private stations, including Hit Radio. Younes Boumehdi immediately set to work and surrounded himself with a team as passionate and determined as himself—a team of resolute young professionals carrying the flag of freedom and creativity.
Hit Radio is now part of Moroccan daily life. On average, urban Moroccans listen to two hours of radio a day and Hit Radio fans have access to more than 70 terrestrial frequencies across the country, as well as live streams on the Internet. Boumehdi’s project has proven to be visionary. In Morocco, 75% of the population is under 35 years of age, and craves freedom and self-expression. Hit Radio perfectly identified this need and the station amplified the aspirations of Arab youth long before the Arab spring swept through the rest of the Arab world in early 2011. While young people in Tunisia and Egypt vented their frustrations in the streets, according to Boumehdi, “a majority of Moroccans (do not think) their country deserves the extreme incidents observed in the rest of the region.” In fact, because of the relative freedoms and openness they have, young Moroccans are confident in their future. They have a “sense of hope,” and a desire for peaceful and positive dialogue rather than agitated demonstrations.
Supporting artists is also part of Hit Radio’s DNA: 40% of the musical programming broadcasts Moroccan artists. For Maria, a 26-year old banker from Casablanca, “Hit Radio has been throughout the years a unique way to discover amazing Moroccan rap bands like Bizz2Risk and their “Casa M’dinti” (the song “Casa, my city” references Casablanca’s rapid modernization), or more recently Si Simo’s “Kili Mini” (which articulates social inequalities with openness and humor). I’m glad I can listen to them in my car. After all, it’s the only place I have access to their music.”
And she is right. In Morocco, artists have very few opportunities to perform on stage. Apart from a few festivals and YouTube, Hit Radio remains the only credible way to reach a large audience. In the absence of record labels and professional management such as in Europe or the US, aspiring musicians have to fend for themselves. The only high quality promotional channel remains Hit Radio. “We try to support young artists from creation to production to distribution, by promoting them on air and organizing concerts and shows,” says Xavier Laissus, the Director of Programs. Hit Radio has launched numerous Moroccan artists and has been a catalyst for their success. Among them are Don Big, Fnayr and Si Simo, to name a few. “Don Big is still a pillar to our programming. Our objective is to help new groups becoming the new Bigs,” Laissus adds.
Momo, a charistmatic and beloved host
Support and promotion of homegrown pop singers are core values at Hit Radio. Yet the radio is not all about music; it has also developed other formats that young listeners love: interactive shows, phone-in programs, and forums on the Internet and on Facebook where it has over 415 000 fans.
Momo, the star host of the morning show The Morning of Momo, is on the frontlines of popular culture and has a finger on the pulse of a new generation that is loaded with energy and aspirations. According to him, listeners are “eager to participate in the public debate.” The show fields thousands of calls for the daily four-hour phone-in program. He’s noted for interacting with his audience in a charismatic, street-slang of Moroccan and French, which has endeared him to his audience. Momo is passionate about his role as a sounding board for the country’s least heard constituency, but makes light of it: “I love to waking people up in the morning; the show can affect their whole day. But you know, what I like the most is finishing my day at 10am [Laughs].”
He does come from the school of thought where he believes that “it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” That may explain why he shares an affectionate relationship with his audience, who happen to know a lot about his private life. In a popular episode of the show, he proposed to his wife on-air. Once he advised a listener to quit smoking and she was quick to respond: “It’s unfair to ask people to stop when you smoke yourself.”
Momo chuckles at the memory. “She was completely right, and the very next day I quit smoking on-air again!”
A catalyst for change
Hit Radio has had a lot of magic moments. “I remember this woman who called because she wanted to help her disabled parent. A listener in Germany, who happened to work in a wheel-chair factory, offered to help her,” Momo recalls with a smile. “And this young girl from a remote city, who had been the victim of rape, called one of our host doctors about her trauma. She obviously couldn’t talk about it with her family or anyone within a 200-mile perimeter.”
As is the case with many ventures driven by a hunger for change rather than just profit, Hit Radio is socially and politically engaged. When Moroccans went to vote for their new Constitution, the station encouraged the youth to exercise their right at the polls. There are shows that offer students advice about how to find jobs and the station is ever present at the leading job fairs. Their commitment to support the fight against Aids is another pillar of Hit Radio’s pro-social strategy, for which they strongly advocate the use of condoms in a society that often lacks basic sexual health education. Moreover, in a region that is often chastised for its treatment of women, Hit Radio’s programming with UNESCO around gender equality has won the station a lot of support and admiration by both men and women alike.
Younes Boumehdi has come a long way since the years he faced rejection. Hit Radio is now a part of the daily lives of millions of young Moroccans and is a mirror and beacon of hope for them. The accolades have not gone to Bouhmehdi’s head though. Instead it has inspired him to replicate this success in other African countries that are in need of credible independent media outlets. “Never give up on your dream,” he says, “even if you have to be taken for the stubborn one.” His voice brims with excitement as he talks about his new project, a television channel for youth, which will feature music, talk shows and reality programming. A Moroccan MTV, so to speak, dreamed-up by a guy who couldn’t play guitar but ended up changing his country.
Want to see and read more? Check out MTV Iggy’s special report on Morocco’s music scene, here.