Branson takes to SAR airwaves

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2001, 12:00am

Flamboyant British tycoon Richard Branson's Virgin Group is to launch a radio station in Hong Kong, as part of an initiative to create a pan-Asia FM radio network.

The news comes two months after local radio station Metro Broadcast said it would lay off 38 staff, following a shift in programming focus from entertainment and news to finance as part of its efforts to end 10 consecutive years of losses.

A spokesman said Virgin was planning to launch a Chinese and an English channel in Hong Kong, with a substantial part of the content being music-related.

Privately-held Virgin has teamed up with locally-based venture-capital manager ChinaVest to acquire or set up radio stations in the region.

ChinaVest is a 17-year-old venture-capital firm which has raised and invested US$300 million in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland for investors such as United States car giant Ford and computer-maker IBM. Virgin and ChinaVest are hoping to finalise an agreement on setting up Virgin Radio (Asia), in which Virgin will hold 75 per cent, and ChinaVest the remainder.

Andrew Craissati, chairman of Virgin (Asia) Management - Virgin Group's Asia arm - said Virgin Radio was in talks to acquire or set up radio stations, which would be branded Virgin Radio.

The company is hoping to complete the negotiations in the next five months, and will focus initially on Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, Singapore, Thailand and India.

'Virgin's image is associated with the younger crowd, fun, innovation and things that are a bit different,' said Mr Craissati, adding that the radio content would be 'a bit cheeky, racy, but a lot of fun'.

He said deregulation of the tightly-controlled radio industries in some Asian countries - such as Malaysia and India - had given rise to opportunities for foreign investors.

In December last year, the Government scrapped plans to digitalise Hong Kong's radio broadcasting technology, which would have allowed more broadcasters to enter the market. The cancellation was due to the advent of Internet voice broadcasting and the high costs of the required equipment.

Industry sources said room for additional players in Hong Kong was limited as many people travelled on underground transportation and were unable to receive radio signals.