UAE residents, many of whom face a long commute each day, turn to a tried and tested wake-up option to supplement their morning coffee.
It features a solid base of upbeat tunes, a dash of local news, a spoonful of friendly banter and a sprinkling of competitions – which together make up the potent concoction we call breakfast radio.
For many listeners, it is what makes the rush-hour traffic bearable.
Radio is experiencing something of a new golden age, this time propelled by a surge of digital listeners.
According to Statista, online-radio revenue grew at a steady rate of 28 per cent per year from 2006 to 2013. Audience figures have risen in the Middle East, India and the United States. In the United Kingdom, for example, 75 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds listen to radio online, according to data compiled by Unesco.
A media-monitoring report by Northwestern University in Qatar last year suggested the UAE has one of the most sophisticated radio markets in the region.
The country has the most radio stations, covering a variety of languages, which reach about 80 per cent of the population.
About 62 per cent of those listeners tune into a morning show, many of them listening on car radios during their morning commute, according to the media-measurement company Ipsos Connect.
At Arabian Radio Network (ARN), the early-morning presenters arrive at the station before the sun comes up, some still in their nightwear, sleepy-eyed and groggy.
They gather in the studios for a content meeting at 5am, shortly before the show starts.
As soon as the “On Air” sign lights up in the soundproof booths, any lingering lethargy dissipates and the airwaves are filled with energetic voices.
“I don’t think it ever gets easy waking up at 4am,” says Kris Fade, host of The Kris Fade Show on Virgin Radio Dubai. “But once we are here and we start talking about the show, we are revved up.
“And once that light goes on, you have to forget your day, your issues and be energetic for the audience. They don’t want to hear someone depressed and grumpy on the radio.”
Fade, who presents the show with Priti Malik and producer Big Rossi, says the morning show helps to set the mood for a day. “The morning show is where the focus is,” he says. “If you have a strong morning show, the whole station grows off it. If you can capture the listeners’ attention in the morning, they will be tuned in the entire day.”
Fade’s show features the latest chart-topping English-language pop music, lots of discussion about events and concerts in the UAE, plus celebrity gossip and interviews.
“The basic outline of what we want on the show is planned a week in advance,” says Rossi. “But the daily conversations on the radio are totally unscripted.”
Fade says key elements to a successful morning show are honesty and authenticity.
“You’ve got to be real, so we talk about everything that is happening in our lives, because we know someone out there listening to us is going through the same thing,” says the host, who started presenting the show six years ago.
“So we’ve spoken about my divorce, and Priti’s husband proposed to her live on radio. We also have had callers reveal the most absurd things to us.”
The Business Breakfast crew in the Dubai Eye studio next door at ARN are prepping for a different kind of morning show. It keeps the corporate crowd abreast of happenings in the worlds of business and finance.
Malcolm Taylor, who hosts the show with Brandy Scott and Richard Dean, says they target listeners over the age of 25.
“We have a lot of people tell us that when they are driving their kids to school they listen to Virgin or Dubai 92, and the minute they drop them off, they tune in to our station,” he says.
Vasti Kahn, the show’s producer, steers the content of the three-hour show.
“It is a fairly set format, with local and international news, banking hour and up to four interviews,” she says.
Content is king on morning shows, but the chemistry of the presenters is what creates a loyal audience for the channels.
Dance FM, which launched in November, revived an old morning favourite, Danny Cee’s Rude Awakening. The show went off the air last summer after a change of management at Radio 1, where it had built up a following.
Daniel Creighton, who conceived and hosts the show, is now joined by Katie Overy to present dance hits and stories from Dubai and around the world.
“It is always difficult to find someone with chemistry on a breakfast show,” says Creighton.
“I knew Katie from before and we brought her in to test her voice and it worked. We were looking for someone who has a similar sense of humour, and someone who gets the idea of the station and where the show is going.”
Overy says the show resonates with listeners because they invite people on air to share their stories and experiences.
“That is important for us,” she says. “We have a lot of people travel long distances with us. And it is important that we include people from all emirates,” she says.
“We recently had a caller who lives in Abu Dhabi and travels to Al Ain every day, and we accompany him every single day.”
Creighton believes morning shows are popular because the presenters become companions to commuters.
“People in the UAE work really hard and long hours,” he says.
“And when in transit, in their cars or on the Metro, they are alone. Whether they are listening to the radio or on a digital platform, they want to know what is happening in the country and the world. That is what breakfast radio does well.”
Donna Al Busaidy, a 36-year-old trade marketing manager from Dubai, listens to Radio 2 each morning on her 30-minute drive to work.
“I mainly listen to Radio 1 because of the old-school tunes,” she says of the channel, which plays music from the 1980s and 1990s. “It definitely makes my drive more bearable, but I also tune in for the news and traffic updates.
“I like variety in the morning shows: music, games and chat. I also think I can relate to English presenters more because they know more about what is going on back in the UK and I understand their sense of humour.”
Mark Wigget, programming director of the morning show on Radio 1, says for a show to be a hot it should put listeners in a positive mood.
“We want to make Radio 1 a vibrant channel by playing the latest hits, and make the content relevant to people,” he says.
“At the same time, we want them to start their day right by making a fun show.”
Fans of Radio Mirchi tune in to hear R J Mohit’s Bollywood “gupshup” (small talk) and funny polls.
“He always has something funny up his sleeve and we can call and pitch in, too,” says Radhika Mehta, an Abu Dhabi resident who works in Dubai.
“I think his show has a good balance of music and talk about Bollywood, which I love.”
The host of the show, Mohit Dantre, says getting the balance right is tricky.
“People are just waking up, so you don’t want to be super-loud, but can’t be low either,” he says. “There has to be entertainment, but it also has to be informative.”
Dantre and his producers comb social media and the newspapers to find trends and local issues to discuss with listeners. He believes radio will always be a popular because of its accessibility.
“I love how it is a passive medium, so it is on all the time – in your car during your drive, on your phone or laptop in the office while you are working, or at home in the background while you complete chores,” he says.