'We are competing for the entertainment share, not radio share' : William Sabatini - Worldspace VP Global Programming

Worldspace VP Global Programming William Sabatini has more then 22 years of major market radio experience working at radio stations in New York (WNBC-AM, WXRK-FM and WCBS-FM) and Los Angeles (KCBS-FM).

Sabatini has worked with the biggest names in the radio business in the US, including Howard Stern, Cousin Bruce Morrow, Dan Ingram and Wolfman Jack. He has been with WorldSpace for more than 8 years now, and started in 1998 before the satellites were even launched!

Sabatini joined WorldSpace as director of Music Programming and was responsible for designing and launching the first original music channels which were created in the fall of 1999. Currently, his responsibilities include development of content strategy, building new content, partnering with third party content partners, implementation of content plans - managing the content on a global scale, encompassing numerous markets such as India, Middle East, Europe, South Africa.


During a recent trip to Bangalore, Sabatini found time to speak to's Taro W. Excepts from the interview:

WorldSpace is about getting music at an affordable cost. How do you propose to face the challenge from the growing FM Radio explosion in India from the programming perspective?

In truly providing different niches of music, whether it's Indian music or Western music like in the case of the States where you have the XN series, we provide things that FM can't provide. That's kind of the starting point.

What are the things that FM can't provide?

Well, we are going to have 65 music channels. An FM station can do one format. So you have a platform that will reach out, that's it.

As far as FM is concerned, it's free, you only need a radio, a standard receiver, but in your case you require a separate receiver and a subscription charge. So what's the differentiator? Suppose I was to subscribe to you, how would you get me to do that?

Our job is to just provide that value, to demonstrate to the consumer why the value for the money. FM is free; we're not, why come to us? That's part of our job.

So how do you go about doing that?

What we've found in the States; Europe is that you have to really experience the product. People have to be explained the value proposition. And once they get it demonstrated to them, whether it's through an audio retail outlet, or through the GM cars, people would get it for two months free. Once people heard it when they got it … Oh My God! Yes you have X number of stations in the market, the format would never be on FM radio, they'd never be able to provide individual stations with these kind of niche products. When you are on FM you are all about providing mass appeal, in all mass appeal, you've to track advertising revenue. It has to be the biggest broadest format. You can't do a jazz channel, you can't do a Carnatic classical music channel, and you can't do a Punjabi music format. You can have a big brand, you know the Bollywood hits format, which is cool, we have one ourselves, but we also offer this variety of music formats that are not heard on traditional FM radio.

The benefit of having a whole platform and the value proposition that we hopefully are, well unlike FM. Yes there is a subscription cost, but this is what you get. You get 40 plus channels of music. So hopefully the consumer understands that.

We recently did an event in the US. It's a big existing kind of yearly concert. We go there while we are on the ground, we get access to all the artists, we interview all the artists on the stage and we do it (a) Live on the channel and (b) we pick that and package it and distribute it to different channels in a format that makes sense for them and again that is an example of unique stuff that people have access to. People can have a CD of an artist, but they are not going to have the interviews and things like that.

And your job is to organize the content basically.

Right, I handle global content, developing the content strategy, trying to figure out what is it that people want. We have X amount of bandwidth on our system, how do we use that to get people what they want. Most in demand music formats for instance, you know, create demand.

We have to think about content all the time. Providing content that is unique and compelling to people obviously. When I think about the content, I think about two things - the breadth of the content, all the different genres and varieties and choices that you have from A to Z. Then also within that channel selection of breadth, the depth of each particular channel, and what does that channel provide that is unique and compelling.

Getting back to your original question, we'd like to articulate that - Yes, we have these variety of choices which are cool and great.

Even for the channel choices, we really try to go deep and offer - like our New Pop (NP). You know NP is our globally focused Pop channel. We play the pop hits from around the world. Who are the big stars in Italy, in France, here, the US and everywhere? What we did last year, actually this year, was we went to Studio2 - the Beatles studio in London where they did everything. We went there for three days, brought in 20 plus bands and we recorded sessions with them which we broadcast.

The event itself was cool; we repackaged that, nowhere else could you get that. A lot of up and coming British acts, some established British acts, and they were just excited to come, because they were in the place that the Beatles did all the great stuff in. Those are the kinds of things we look to do on all the channels, in sync with the channel, of course. A long answer to you question.

Do you do some research to know kind of stuff that people want?

At the end of the day, it's not what I want, it's not what anyone in the content department wants, it's what our subscribers and potential subscribers want. They are the ones who are going to pay the subscription fees, so we've to give them what they want. We constantly do research to. We poll our subscribers, the satisfaction levels that they have with the channel, what do they like that we have, what don't they like that we have, what things do they see missing on the platform, what do they like to see more of. A lot of those kinds of things. We're constantly polling our subscribers and potential subscribers who may not even be aware of WorldSpace, that way we are always informed.

Third party content, how easy, or how difficult is it get in different countries? Do you find different regulations all over the world?

Yeah, it greatly varies. It varies on our partners, on their goal, what they want. Sometimes a partner might just want to be ubiquitous, they may just want distribution, WorldSpace can take this and it'll be easy to get them on. In other cases, not so much. Maybe they already have distribution on some other platform. There's no kind of set answer to that. It depends on the brand or the third party, what their goals are.

What about from the regulations point of view? Do different countries have different rules as far as sharing of content, payments, other things are concerned?

It's not an issue at all.

You have been in the music industry for 22 years.

Yeah, I started in Radio New York City, and then worked with some big high profile people in Europe and then Los Angeles; I have been with WorldSpace when we didn't even have the satellites up yet.

What are the future plans for WorldSpace?

Just generally, in terms of the content which I can best speak about - it's continually staying on top, I talked about the research with our listeners; it changes from time to time. It's about trying to figure out what's the right mix of channels so that we can keep the subscribers happy. I am basically a consumer myself too, so I put myself in position of the consumer here or anywhere else that we do business and I want what I want. I am just trying to keep that consumer mindset in my mind when we program all these channels, and try to communicate that to all the people who run the channels and we really have to be in touch with all the listeners, in this day and age we can really communicate with people through email and message through to text, whatever. Chances are that they are communicating with the head of the channel, they like the channel. This is the core people who listen to your channel. We've to figure it out what they want from this channel.

The RIFF Jazz event that we are going to do is the first of many events. This is the kind of thing that I want to do more of here - taking us to the people. We are just talking about Jazz in this event in particular. You know Jazz isn't kind of high profile format; it's an important format that's got a core base of listeners. One of the reasons is because it doesn't get the kind of exposure, people aren't exposed to jazz, even in the states we have just 30 radio stations nationwide that are dedicated to Jazz. So people don't grow up knowing about Jazz, they are not exposed to it, they are intimidated by this whole thing they don't know about.

So this kind of event will take Jazz to the people. This is the going out and explaining kind of Jazz to the people and demonstrating it and making it more acceptable. That's what we do across all our channels, especially channels like this - Jazz and Classical. There is a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of history behind this kind of format. I want to replicate this kind of setting across multiple formats with different genres and do these kind of events all over India.

India only? What about the other countries?

You know with our satellites we cover 134 countries. If business climates call it, that will roll out as well. That's not for me to talk about. There are future plans for the company, but right now obviously our main market of interest is India. That is quite clear.

'While we are going to have 65 music channels covering various formats, an FM radio station can cater to only one format'

Over the last eight and a half years, what are the different trends you've seen - Most music life is a few months or few days?

Every person that we have hired to run the channel, I consider is a kind of expert in that field. We have also taken people on board who don't have a lot of radio experience, but are a kind of an embodiment the format; they kind of live the format. You can literally teach people the basics of the radio, how to program a radio station, but you can't teach them the lifestyle of the music. We are not in one place, we are in many with a million different expectations of what comes out of the radio, we can't do research of one market like you do in a regular market and hire somebody, I am hiring you because of your instincts, on your gut feeling, we've to rely on you as an expert on this genre of music to program the station.

Coming here to WorldSpace kind of liberates a lot of people, because they can program the station based on their own creativity and ideas and without having this pressure of "OH MY God! I can't play this song because this section doesn't like it. That's why it's really important for all the program directors of all the stations to (a) use their gut instincts (b) also be informed and try and stay in touch with the market with people all the different forms of communications because we have to understand what is going on the ground.

Getting back to your question, people who are embodiments of these formats, people who know the lifestyle of that format, like Pamela Hall in the US. She grew up in a Jazz environment. She lived the life of Jazz.

It's up to the people to control the individual format and brand to constantly be on top of changing trends within their universe. Our people have to stay in touch, especially the current music - Pop. For example Reggae Pop, 3-4 years ago, it didn't exist. We just started a channel called Flavor that is a globally focused hip-hop channel. Hip-hop started as a purely American form and the biggest Hip-hop, western people like that. What it's done over the years is that in addition to people all over the world listening to hip-hop, they've got influenced by that and they've built their own versions. So we've this channel that globally focuses on hip-hop.

That's what we do on all the channels; we try to make them as globally focused as possible. Certainly not all formats can do that. Country format - for example -American country music. Our people are constantly aware of the trends, not just in the US, but everywhere.

Today, internet has made geography history; do you see music becoming common globally? For example an album that is released in the US has a simultaneous release the world over. People globally are aware of it, on television, on the internet. How common is the content across different countries? The content that really gives you a good audience.

One of the benefits of our platform is that we present a lot of different content. We have Indian produced channels that are very specific and focused on some regional languages and some more Indian formats, as well as the western content. Certain amount of that stuff applies globally. I have spent time here going to places such as bars, pubs, etc and just hear what people are listening to, especially some of the bars where the DJs' are playing. It's stuff that we all play on our channels.

You walk into some of the bars here and they are just playing good old Led Zeppelin and the Who. And obviously that is the trend, no matter where. I've heard that kind of stuff everywhere. I think there is a certain commonality with some of the music, maybe on the platform, a lot of it, everywhere, but there are certain things that are specific to this market and maybe wouldn't be trendy outside this region. So there is a kind of combination of both things on the platform. But I certainly agree it's changed the music industry, that ubiquitousness of music has crossed the world; you will certainly see the kind of cultural exchange between people, people are aware of the other artists and, this wouldn't necessarily happen if it weren't for the easy access.

We have a channel, a platform called World Zone to take the world of music and present it in a form that makes sense. I mean, literally, and I am not talking about just pop music, it's more Chip Mammy, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and all these artists from around the world and putting it all into one mix representing it in the way that it is (1) first and foremost is entertaining, (2) but also educational.

You remember when Sting came out with Chip Mammy, every one knew Sting, in the States at least, no one knew what Chip Mammy was, by virtue of being partner with Sting, people started paying attention to that. That's what we are trying to do in World Zone, to bring all that music to people's mind. We try to help in the process of globalization of music.

Very often people may not like some of the music, something that they may not be yet interested in. We expose it to them, and play something they like, they give you the benefit of doubt, let's stay with the channel, they kind of trust your instincts. They know, okay I like this channel they've introduced me to a lot of some cool music, it's a sort of a global channel, that's what we try to do. To kind of present the music to people they may not be familiar with, in the right context of course.

Unlike Television, you don't have methods of tracking listenership.

No we don't. Not yet. We just have the internal research that we do. We hope to have something like the TV ratings in the States for satellite radio. We're pretty obsessed with the research that we do.

What is your biggest competition?

I think the biggest competition is not really the radio stations, it's entertainment. I mean we have to make this a really compelling medium that people want to listen to us. Not just TV or news channels, or FM radio, it's just entertainment. We are competing for the entertainment share, the entertainment ear if you will, so lots of forms. Satellite Radio series in the States are competing with each other, competing with FM, they are also competing now with I-pods. People have got I-pods in their car, it's their music, when they want it. We have to give them a compelling reason with all these channels, give them stuff that they're not going to get, can't get on their I-pod. It's also the serendipity of listening to a radio station, of not knowing what's coming up, of being entertained by the DJ or the RJ.

What about the internet, you have a choice to internet radio with so many channels in hold.

You sure do, and I have thought a lot about that over the years, especially the kind of activities have increased, and with broadband, it's easy to listen to internet radio, and as cities are getting wired, how long is it till internet is in the car. We can't narrowly define our competition as this because there are maybe contrary things come up that attract attention for people. We just have to focus on the basics - content - how do we make our content so compelling, so unique that people just want our content.

So content is the only differentiator?

That's what people are buying, they're not just buying the receiver because it's a cool receiver. It's what they get from the box , and that' why a subscriber probably just comes to us, they get things that I can't get elsewhere, not on my I-pod, not on FM. That's what we are selling on WorldSpace-content. And our music channels are commercial free, that's another compelling reason.

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