Meet Malaysia’s radio star

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As the founder of BFM, Malaysia’s only independent radio station focused on business news and current affairs, Malek Ali is living his dream of changing the way we engage with this medium.As the founder of BFM, Malaysia’s only independent radio station focused on business news and current affairs, Malek Ali is living his dream of changing the way we engage with this medium.

By T.K. Tamby

Malek Ali has always had an unwavering love for radio, yet his journey to having his own station took him on a rather long and winding road, encompassing numerous disciplines – from corporate law and management consultancy, to business and content development.

For Malek, these career detours not only equipped him with skills and knowledge that were crucial to starting the country’s first business radio station, but they also provided valuable diversions while bidding time until the industry was ripe for change.

“When I graduated in the ‘90s, air time was controlled by national stations and the industry was rather stagnant,” he said in a recent interview with Business Circle.  Though it was a great medium, due to the lack of private stations, the industry looked like it wasn’t going anywhere, he added.

BFM has changed that. In the space of five years, it has not only created a new genre, moving away from what Malek calls a predominant focus on trivial matters and “battle of the sexes”, to a station that pushes the boundaries in its quest to create a more liberal platform to discuss current issues.

“While working for Maxis [he had a stint at the telco as head of mobile content], I had to face a two- hour jam each day. Stuck in the car with only the radio for company, I found that the radio programmes were in no way engaging the mind. There was more to life than the battle of the sexes,” said Malek.

It was also during this time that he realised no station highlighted business matters, and that this was a niche waiting to be filled. And fill it he did, with BFM 89.9.

Businessman and entrepreneur

Malek grew up with a keen interest in business that was nurtured by his father, a civil servant turned businessman who exposed his son to the various facets of business.

But when the time came for Malek to further his studies, he at first took a degree in law, which was his father’s first love. (Malek’s father, who had dreams of being a judge, lost his chance at a scholarship when, during the final interview process, he told the interviewers that he wanted to take up law in order to help the country gain independence.)

But after a three-year stint as a corporate lawyer in the London office of an international law firm, Malek realised that it wasn’t quite his cup of tea. He then went on to fulfil his own interest in business and economics via an MBA from Harvard, which allowed him to put into perspective everything he had learnt from his father.

Despite the inherited interest, Malek realised that he and his father have different business personalities. “My dad was more transactional whereas I see myself as a builder who believes in focusing on a specific business.”

Malek returned to Malaysia after 12 years abroad and joined the Boston Consulting Group. While the job allowed him to keep an eye open for opportunities in the media space, it also made him realise that he was not cut out for the confining environment common in large organisations. This made him take a bold move into entrepreneurship.

With the help of an investor, he started KL Classifieds, wanting to be the first few to build an Internet presence as he knew that classifieds would eventually move on-line. However, his timing was bad – just months after its launch, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis changed the economic landscape of the region and the venture collapsed, leaving him RM300,000 in the hole.

Help then came in the form of online recruitment company Jobstreet.com, then a start-up. Jobstreet not only pulled him through but also allowed him to build crucial skills as well as put into practice all that he had learnt from business school. Malek helped the company build capital and businesses in Singapore, the Philippines and India.

After leaving Jobstreet when the dot.com bubble burst in 2000, he moved first to Maxis and then Yahoo as head of mobile for South East Asia.

Through all these moves into various corporate organisations, two things remained constant with Malek: his intolerance for the rigid cultures in large organisations and his dream to start a radio station, especially one that would engage listeners, like the ones he was used to listening in England.

Substance over form

BFM 89.9 was set up in 2008 with a start up capital of RM5 million. There were some obstacles in Malek’s way. Though they were receptive, the licensing team at the Malaysian Multimedia and Communication Commission (MCMC) informed him that there were no available frequencies. This was despite the availability of dormant frequencies, occupied by others. “I had to make a presentation to the then Minister in charge, Tan Sri Lim Keng Yaik to persuade MCMC to dislodge and reassign a dormant frequency to BFM.”

Five million ringgit may be a modest sum for starting up a radio station but Malek, having learnt how to be cost effective at Jobstreet, managed to stretch the value of this initial investment. “We did not buy top-of-the-line equipment and the station went into operation with mere 12 people.”

The station, which has a listenership of 300,000, has grown somewhat, and now operates with a staff strength of 50 people, including a production team of 30.

Among the challenges were to find good business presenters and BFM initially started training presenters who could handle current affairs to internalise business. “After a year of trying, we decided to go the other way round and trained business journalist to do radio presentations. We found it easier and presenters, too, sounded credible.

“Substance always trumps over form and our listeners agree,” said Malek.

According to him, BFM kept close tabs on the patterns and moods of their listeners when formulating radio programmes. Programmes are tailored to meet the types and personalities of listeners throughout the day.

“We were having business shows in the evenings too, until listeners told us that their minds were not tuned to business at that time of the day as they were already winding down.”

In an earlier interview Malik had reportedly said BFM is partial towards start-ups, new technologies and ethical practices, all in an effort to provide values and solutions to listeners and businesses in Malaysia.

Over the years, the topics highlighted have also evolved to include current political and social issues, including the much discussed about interview with American religious scholar Dr Reza Aslan, which was made available on podcast.

He said that these changes are organic and they are part of the imprint cast by the diverse personalities and interest who make up the BFM team.

BFM 89.9 is also an online radio converging the analogue and digital world where listeners are able to visit its website for news or to listen to guest speakers.

Malek had earlier planned to expand BFM’s coverage to Penang and Johor but the difficulty in obtaining frequencies has put a stop to this idea. This setback, however, hasn’t put a damper on BFM’s expansion plans as it has now set its sights on Indonesia.

The station has found a partner, he said and is looking at mid this year to get things going.

BFM, much like its founder, is going places and its website can be found here.

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