In an industrial looking part of Puchong, I managed to locate the back entrance of what used to be the former Rakan Muda complex. A nondescript, tired looking building, it is currently being used as the headquarters of iM4U FM.
Brightly decorated vehicles are parked out the front while upcycled wooden pallets are spread across the lobby area. The headquarters are bustling. A relatively new radio station which officially launched in September 2014, iM4U Fm is part of the Barisan National government’s iM4U initiative.
iM4U radio (107.9, Klang Valley) was started up for youths to spearhead social causes. Stripping it down, iM4U’s mission is to “help and nurture volunteerism plus social activism amongst Malaysian Youth”. But although the radio station brands itself with this cause, it has been making waves for a very different reason: Malaysian music.
“We’ll have local acts, we have independent, we even have Justin Bieber”
Of course, there are international musicians on the playlist too. The radio station caters to urban youth. “We’ll have local acts, we have independent, we even have Justin Bieber,” says Hairul Ekzan, the radio manager.
Ekzan, also known as Loy, has a particular interest in local music. From 2006 until 2012, he was one of the instrumental figures for XFM (formerly known as Xfresh Fm), managing their street team and executing events for the station and its clients.
Back in its heyday, XFM was known as one of the few radio stations to actively champion local music. You were more likely to hear music by Bunkface, Hujan and Love Me Butch than One Direction or Lady Gaga.
But the radio station was short-lived. In 2012, the frequencies for XFM were taken over by Melody FM, another station managed by Astro Radio. XFM now exists only as an online radio where you can still listen to tracks from its playlist.
Setting the frequency
It shouldn’t be unusual for a Malaysian radio station to play Malaysian music. Yet, when it comes to local English language radio, the playlists are undoubtedly dominated by international music. To find out why, I spoke to Shahreena Hamirin, the music director of Fly FM.
Fly Fm (95.8, Klang Valley) is one of the country’s most popular English language radio stations. Operating under the Media Prima Radio Networks (MPRN) banner alongside Hot Fm and one Fm, their target audience is also urban youth.
Shahreena says the playlist features “young and energetic and music by artists that are relevant to 15 to 29 year olds”. She cites Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Magic!, Meghan Trainor, Ariana Grande and Paramore as some prime examples of music being played over Fly Fm’s airwaves.
Admitting that the bulk of their playlist is mainly international music, Shahreena says they do occasionally play local music. “Artistes such as Liyana Fizi, Kyoto Protocol, and Sona One have done well and seem to be popular with the station’s listeners. Yuna as well but she’s considered an international artiste now.”
“It’s important to support local music but sometimes it can become a challenge for them to cut through and keep up with the competition”
To test the reception of local music, local music is usually previewed on the night show along with other new international music. If the songs test well with the listeners, they are more likely to go into regular rotation. “Usually new songs and artistes in general take a while to warm up.”
While the night slot does give an opportunity to local musicians to be broadcast, it still segregates the Malaysian music into a section outside of prime listening hours. This appears to be a pattern among many of the more mainstream radio stations.
For example, on Astro’s Hitz FM, local music is featured on the MET-10 chart, where people can vote for their favourite songs by Malaysian artists. However, the show is broadcast at 4pm on Sundays – again, outside of peak listening hours.
Shahreena reflects on the dilemma of Malaysian radio stations. “It’s important to support local music but sometimes it can become a challenge for them to cut through and keep up with the competition coming out of the top international billboard artistes,” she says. “Although the local music scene is growing more these days, we still have to consider what the listeners want to hear.”
Yet she is hopeful for the future of Malaysian music on radio: “Previously we’ve had local music and guest artistes on the night show, Fly 30 with Ivan”, says Shahreena. “But with the tremendous growth in local talent there is more potential going around with local bands making it on the same playlist as international artistes.”
Finding the wavelength
I checked in with Ali Johan, producer of the Wavelength segment on BFM (89.9, Klang Valley), an independent radio station which focuses on business news and current affairs.
BFM plays about 30 percent local music on average, but mostly in very late night slots from 12am to 6am. Aside from that, Ali’s weekly programme, Wavelength, focuses on local and regional music. During that segment, Ali plays tracks he discovers from the local independent scene.
An estimated 300,000 listeners tune into the station regularly. However, out of these numbers, it is thought that the station reaches less than five percent of their listener base when local content is being played on the airwaves. Wavelength, for example, is broadcast at 4pm on Saturdays.
Ali, who is active in the local music scene himself as the drummer for Killer Calculateur, personally thinks it’s vital that radio stations play more local music. “If [Malaysian] musicians are able to share the stage with international acts at local music and arts festivals, I don’t see why they shouldn’t share the airwaves.”
“It would help local gigs get a better turn out from across all demographics. Whether or not it would compel anybody to start checking out local shows is another matter. But it’s the out of sight out of mind kind of thing I suppose.”
“Malaysian music – whether it’s sung in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil, Mandarin, Kadazandusun, whatever… needs to be played on prime time. No two ways about it.”
But Ali acknowledges that radio stations may be out of the loop. “Today you have to be in the ‘scene’ or of a certain age bracket to know what’s good, and it’s a conversation that you only share with like minded people you might meet at the shows, clubs or spots. If you’re not in the know, it’s tough to know where to start.”
Faiz Fadzil, Audio Director of The Wknd, echoes Ali Johan’s sentiments. The Wknd, one of Poskod.MY’s sister websites, is a platform that showcases the best of alternative and independent music from Malaysia and Southeast Asia.
Faiz is emphatic: “Malaysian music – whether it’s sung in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil, Mandarin, Kadazandusun, whatever… needs to be played on prime time. No two ways about it.”
He presents the following conundrum. “Radio stations play popular songs. But songs become popular when they are played often. If you don’t play Malaysian music, how are they going to be popularized?”
Time to tune in
Malaysia has the highest statistics of radio listenership in the region. Within the industry, a recent study showed that Astro is the dominant player, with its stations pulling in over 12 million listeners a week. Astro’s stations include Era FM, Sinar FM, Mix FM and Hitz FM.
But with this wide radio audience, are Malaysian musicians getting enough exposure? According to industry insiders, the answer is no. The shift of interest towards more localized content seems slow and at times stagnant. While several mainstream English radio stations give some allocation to local musicians, the timing of the broadcasts is key.
There is also currently no quota for local music on radio. Whereas Malaysian movies are guaranteed some basic exposure in cinemas through Skim Wajib Tayang, radio stations are free to select their playlists as they like. It’s a chicken and egg situation: local music needs to be in demand to be played, but it won’t be in demand until it’s played.
It’s in the unlikely form of newcomer iM4U Radio that Malaysian music is getting more exposure on our airwaves. Local musicians and international musicians are being broadcast within the same hours, round the clock. The question now is whether other radio stations will dare to follow suit.
Words and infographic by Lyn Ong