BEIRUT: Creator of the Virgin Group empire Sir Richard Branson joined more than 1,700 revelers this week in Beirut’s White nightclub to launch 89.5 FM Virgin Radio.
Flanked by rows of high-heeled models, Branson toasted the opening of the top 40 radio station with a massive bottle of champagne.
But beyond the fanfare, the official launch Wednesday of Virgin Radio promised a major win for the country’s pop music lovers, who can look forward to concerts and potential music festivals promoted by the station.
Virgin Radio Lebanon will be the only Virgin station in the Levant and the second in an Arabic-speaking country after Dubai. Businesswise, the opening is seen as an encouraging show of faith in the country, despite Lebanon’s embattled economic and political situation.
“When countries are having difficulties, that’s the time for other countries to support them and invest in them and of course visit them,” Branson said at a preparty roundtable discussion at Beit Misk. “That’s the time when countries need to be helped to get on their feet.”
Branson’s visit to Lebanon lasted less than 24 hours, as the charismatic billionaire had a garden party to host back at his England estate Thursday, he told The Daily Star. Aside from a morning stroll around Beirut, the trip was mostly business – if you count a massive rooftop party as work.
Virgin Radio officially started broadcasting on its 89.5 FM frequency on May 1. The station occupies freshly painted studios on the first floor of a new project by Zardman real estate company, which will finish construction by the end of the summer, on Jal al-Dib highway.
At the studio, which is decked out in Virgin’s signature red, white and black colors, artworks of music legends line the halls, where the station will soon invite listeners to come view the show live.
The local station branch is testing the waters in the first month or so with the American top 40 format, said Ian Grace, chief executive of Virgin Radio worldwide, who was also in Lebanon for the opening.
Over the next two months, researchers for the Lebanese station will work to tailor its format, including music and live talk shows, to the local audience, Grace told The Daily Star.
One thing that won’t change: Virgin promotes a worldwide mantra of 10 hits in a row at the top of each hour.
“As we move forward, we see is there room for specialist shows?” Grace said.
“We’re very open-minded.”
The power of the Virgin brand may also have a hand in bringing bigger artists to the country. Both Branson and Grace said the local station is looking into promoting future shows.
“I think it’s very likely that there will be festivals and concert promotions,” Branson said, though neither he nor station executives revealed anything specific.
Talks about opening a station in Lebanon started around two years ago, after the immense success of the station in Dubai, which has helped promote major artists there like Justin Beiber. “The station in Dubai has been a dominant station since it started,” Grace said.
What started as friendly chatter got underway in earnest about a year ago, when the Lebanese government granted the station its frequency, and research about the market competitors and building the radio’s infrastructure began.
The past six months have been dedicated to finding the talent, which Virgin has drawn from all over the world to give the station what Grace described as an international flavor. Most of the hosts are of Arab descent, including a Lebanese Australian standup comedian and several radio hosts who previously worked in Dubai.
As he launched the station in Lebanon, Branson encouraged similar business in the country, calling on young entrepreneurs to brave the bleak economic situation.
“They have to have an idea that they think can improve other people’s lives,” he said. “Give it a go, see whether you actually have any traction. This is actually quite a good time.”
Virgin’s fearlessness in opening in Lebanon is clearly due in part to Branson’s overwhelming optimism. He said he thought the country could avoid getting sucked back into conflict; and speaking in general, said foolish political leaders shouldn’t dictate the fate of an entire population.
“People should invest in this country. ... It’s a wonderful country with wonderful people, and it’s taken 20 years to rebuild,” Branson said. “I think the people who are old enough and remember what happened in Lebanon won’t be foolish enough to let it happen again.”
Branson had already had some experience with Lebanon’s arbitrary political bureaucracy back when he opened the Virgin megastores here. Though Virgin Group has since turned the entertainment outlets over to different management, he recalled the censorship they underwent.
“It was painful to have everything, the books and the music, vetted,” he said. “People should be able to read the books that they want to read.”
Yet, always the optimist, Branson saw a bright future for Virgin Radio, which is also planning possible expansions into Oman and Qatar.
“It just feels good, everything feels right about it,” Branson said. “My instinct is that it will do enormously well. Lebanon deserves Virgin and Virgin deserves Lebanon.”