Afghan Media Mogul Saad Mohseni on Taking His Moby Group to New Markets and His Hollywood Connections (Q&A)

Moby Group chairman and CEO Saad Mohseni - H 2016
Courtesy of Moby Group

The mogul, who is getting the International Women's Media Foundation leadership honor for promoting a free press and female journalists, also discusses working with shareholder Fox, the Murdochs and board member Tom Freston.

Saad Mohseni, chairman and CEO of Moby Group, has been called Afghanistan’s first media mogul.

Born in London, Mohseni is one of four children of an Afghan diplomat and spent his early years in the U.K., Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, Islamabad and Tokyo, before emigrating to Melbourne, Australia. Starting his career as a commodities and derivatives trader, Mohseni led the equities and corporate finance division at an Australian investment bank.

After the removal of the Taliban government, he, his brothers and sister returned to Afghanistan and in 2003 launched Arman FM, the country's first privately owned radio station, which played Western and Afghan pop music, which had been banned during Taliban rule.

Since then, the media operation has grown in Afghanistan and beyond. Moby Group’s networks in Afghanistan are Tolo TV, which airs international soap operas and singing competition Afghan Star, among others, news network ToloNews and Pashto-language channel Lemar. International Persian-language satellite channel Farsi1 is another key outlet.

The company has also expanded into India and Africa. In Ethiopia, Moby’s Kana TV has made headlines for its staff that is 50 percent female across production, marketing and sales.

Overall, Moby Group is now active across emerging markets in South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Headquartered in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, the company, now Afghanistan's largest media conglomerate, employs more than 1,000 people across 16 businesses that it says serve over 300 million people.

Mohseni and his team have built Moby with Mohseni family money, start-up funding from the U.S. government and a capital injection from the Murdochs21st Century Fox, then known as News Corp before its split into two companies, became a minority shareholder in the company in 2012, expanding on a previous Moby-News Corp partnership to launch Farsi1.

In its latest annual report, Fox listed its stake in Moby at 47.8 percent. Moby’s board of directors also includes a big name in former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, along with Eleni Lionaki, senior vp, business development, Europe & Asia at Fox; Charlotte Burr, senior vp, corporate development at Fox; and Roku's chief marketing officer, Matthew Anderson. The company doesn't disclose its financials, but a few years ago, Moby's revenue was estimated at $60 million.

Eva Orner (Taxi to the Dark Side) followed Mohseni for her 2013 documentary The Network, which explored how he helped jump-start Afghanistan’s media revolution.

Moby has been recognized for its role in bringing news and entertainment to underserved populations and bringing about social change.

As a champion of a free press and the role of female journalists in it, Mohseni will be in L.A. on Thursday as this year's International Women’s Media Foundation leadership honoree.

He spoke to THR’s international business editor Georg Szalai about Moby’s growth, its future, his relationship with the Murdochs and enabling social change.

When you started the company, what was your plan? Did you imagine back then how successful it would become?

We're a relatively small company in the scheme of things. We have a relatively big reach, but, compared to other media groups, we are small. I wish I could say there was a grand plan. It was sort of an accidental business. When [my brothers and I] went back to Afghanistan, the idea for us was not to move back, but to invest in a few sectors.

And we put some money aside and the opportunity came up to get a radio license. There was no advertising in the country at the time. It was more or less to see how it would develop, and we thought that even if it developed, it would be a fairly small business. What we hadn't fully understood was the impact it would have.

Radio went national, and then we set up TV stations, that went national, and then we went outside Afghanistan. Today we're in half a dozen countries, but our reach goes beyond those countries to about a dozen countries with a total population of 300 to 400 million people.

How did people in Afghanistan react to your first radio station and how did that affect your decision to grow your media business?

It was very controversial, because it was about music, entertainment and we had young men and women in a studio together DJing, interacting in a very normal way. It was very popular immediately, but also very controversial because a lot of people saw that as undermining traditional values. Then it forced me to get on a plane and come back to Afghanistan [to manage the situation and oversee the station]. And then I basically stayed. The idea was initially that we would have a private equity-, venture capital-type approach with investments in a number of sectors and back strong local managers and see those businesses develop from the sidelines. But then we had to get involved and decided to only do media.

What's been your key to success?

One of the key things is to find the right people. We have these discussions often, especially in our neck of the woods, where we have to be so mindful of radicalization of young individuals and what programming can we introduce where we can counter the radicalization and how to change mind-sets in terms of women and minorities and all that. The key thing always is to bring in good people at a local level and allow them in their own way to determine programming. Where we failed it's usually been when the people on the ground have not been that good. We always try to find the best business people on the ground and the right programming, content people.

Your strategy depends on [local market conditions]. In certain countries we operate in, even in Ethiopia, there has been no dubbed content. In some markets you need to localize content. And in certain other markets, you create your own formats. We have grown very quickly, and it's a pretty flat organization, but we now are trying to have human resources policies that reflect the size of our company, which includes reporting lines, each manager not having more than five to six people reporting to them. [But we also want to maintain the culture of a small organization where junior staff has access to top executives.]

What are the core parts of Moby's business?

Today, we have a distribution business, which means channels — we have linear channels, in some markets we are on cable, in some markets satellite or free-to-air. In Afghanistan, we are available on terrestrial television. In places like India, we are available online. With our deal with Vice Media, we will also be digital as well as linear. We have to become almost platform agnostic. For us it's important in the next few years to establish our brands across markets. Different people will consume our content through different means — from mobile devices to conventional television sets. We have to almost be everywhere at any time.

Online, you cut the content to a size that's consumable on Facebook, which will be a bit different from the YouTube version, which will be very different from the over-the-top version, which will be different from the linear version. That's the platforms.

Then we have the second part of our business, the content side. Today, we produce about 7,500 hours of original content across the region in six languages. It's local production of soap operas, sports, reality TV, game shows, political programs. And we do it in [English,] Amharic, Urdu, Hindi, Persian and Pashto. This is an area we continue to invest in. And the idea for us is to continue to build our own IP.

The third aspect of our business is strategic communications. We work with donors and the UN and a lot of others. They do a lot of work in terms of health education — from Sesame Street to the Gates Foundation — coming up with 360-degree solutions to complex problems through programming. But content and platforms are our primary businesses.

Is content or distribution more important?

Of course, if you have strong content, but you don’t have the platforms, you are not going to be able to have people consume your product and vice versa. It’s very important to have both. People say content is king, but platforms are very important, too. Once you establish a brand, people will keep on coming back. That is why it is so important to invest in both.

In some markets, like Ethiopia, for example, which has a population of around 100 million people, but Internet penetration is still very low, there is an opportunity for us to build a brand. In four or five years when people have access on their mobile devices, you have a strong enough brand.

How big a focus is original content for Moby? And could some of that also end up airing in the U.S. or U.K.?

It has to be a big focus. We do everything from the micro to the macro. In India, where we have a platform called 101India [a digital platform targeting millennials with a focus on humor, travel, music, arts, culture and people profiles, particularly alternative content, satire and social commentary], which is one of the most innovative things we have done, we work on everything from web series to digital sports. We are doing hip-hop festivals and competitions and showcasing hip-hop artists from across India. With web series, we are doing episodes of three to four minutes to seven to eight minutes available on a weekly basis.

In the Middle East now, we are working with Howard Gordon who did Homeland and 24 to develop a very interesting series for the Middle East Arabic market.

One of the things we’re working on now may work well in the U.S. We’re at a juncture now that we can look at certain things that could work well here and also over there. The beauty would be to get something that would work in both places. A lot of the content that we are hoping to produce, we can dub into other languages, so we can amortize the cost across a number of markets.

Which U.S. shows do well in your markets?

One of the interesting things is that people are very similar. If you dig deep enough, we’re all the same ultimately. But of course, some things work better than others. The audiences across our markets like to watch the same program at the same time almost every single day. So, we strip shows from the first day of the week to the fifth day of the week, depending on which country it is, because in some countries, the week starts on Sunday, in others it starts on Monday. We tend to have the same shows at the same time, because people want some consistency. They get home, turn the TV on, they like to watch the same sort of program, probably not dissimilar to the U.S., Europe and Australia in the '50s and '60s. The television set sort of is the thing that brings everyone in the family together. And a lot of markets we operate in are single-TV households where television has become a very important part of family life.

What tends to work well are Indian or Turkish or even Korean soap operas that we take and show them, rather than over two years, twice a week almost every day of the week. We edit them so that we get at least five, six months out of them. It’s almost like binge-watching, and that’s the way people prefer it.

Younger female audiences like the Indian and Korean and Turkish soap operas. For the male audiences, action series work really well, like 24 or Homeland. They like those U.S. shows and shows like Narcos. For children, Western shows work very well, such as Sesame Street or other Hollywood-produced programming. The only exception is that in Iran, they seem to like U.S. sitcoms like Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother. It’s probably the only Middle Eastern country that is more European in the way they view programming.

Formats, like Deal or No Deal or Minute to Win It or various other game shows we have had, or MasterChef, as soon as you localize them, they work well.

Shows like Afghan Star, whose 12th season starts in late October, on your Tolo TV channel have been lauded for bringing the country together after the Taliban had outlawed singing. Its latest season drew peak audiences of more than 10 million, plus 18.5 million video views on YouTube. And the 2015 final of the Roshan Afghan Premier League soccer match had a peak audience of 18 million, according to a survey conducted that year. How much do you focus on enabling social change and what values do you focus on?

Our values are very much universal values — human rights, which includes women’s rights, of course. What we encourage amongst our people is critical thinking. I don’t think we have to babysit them on a daily basis. Most of them understand what our values should be.

We look at every situation as it comes up. And in our neck of the woods, different things come up all the time. In India, we have been very strong on LGBT rights, because two years ago they wanted to use two-century-old, colonial-era anti-sodomy laws to target the LGBT community. So we did a lot of programming, which at the time was very controversial.

In Afghanistan, it’s women rights, which is very important. No country can progress without having the probably more important half included in education and the work force and so forth.

Rights of minorities in some of these countries are very much in focus. You can’t exclude a big percentage of the population because they are different.

Within those broader areas, there are issues we address like violence against women, pedophilia, things that weren’t addressed. We talk about facilitating social change. It’s very important to make that distinction. You don’t want to impose social change, because it’s impossible.

You would be amazed how quickly those societies are willing to change, because the countries we operate in are predominantly young, they have very young populations. The median age in Afghanistan is 18, the median age in Ethiopia is 18. They are more inclined to absorb what you are presenting them with and then make the right decision.

You can also highlight issues in news coverage, such as violence against women. If a woman is abducted, then she is eventually freed, it’s usually a top story for us and we pursue it very aggressively. When we launched, there was a pushback, but now everyone else covers it as well. And whereas families previously were embarrassed to talk about these things, now they come to the television stations.

You will be honored by the International Women's Media Foundation in L.A. How important is that to you and how important has it been for Moby to have female news anchors and highlight women's issues?

It’s a great honor to be given this award. Of course, we do these things because they are common sense. In my household, my mother played a very important role with us children in particular. She is a well-educated woman, worked for the UN, was a school teacher and a business entrepreneur. Our role model to a large extent was our mother. So for us, it’s a very natural thing.

In a place like Afghanistan, what we have to do is very gently and subtly highlighting what positive role women can play. The irony is that in a place like Afghanistan, they worship their mothers, but something goes wrong along the way. We just have to gently remind people and use role models, whether it’s a soap opera character or a news reader. If you give people an opportunity, they prove themselves. If a female news reader is good, she is bound to become more popular. The women who have been successful on our channels are able to do the things they do, and their success is a reflection of their own talents and capacity rather than us trying to impose it. But we do have a responsibility to educate people.

A Sesame Street character like a little girl going to school informs young kids, but also educates the parents. In 10 or 20 years’ time, you will see a much different society. It is going to take time, but media can play a very important role.

How risky is it in your markets to put the spotlight on certain social issues? And who tends to be most upset with your news and other content?

For us it’s a daily issue. One of our buses was targeted in January, and seven of our employees [at Moby's Tolo network in Afghanistan] were killed by a Taliban suicide bomber. We have been shot at, people have been arrested. The thing is it’s not that one group is upset. We seem to step on everyone’s toes. They include warlords, they include opposition groups, they include the government itself. The government over the years has taken most offense to the things we do, and, of course, the Taliban. These are things that we have to deal with on a daily basis. They are not easy, but it’s the courage of the people on the ground that manage to pull these things off. They are a very brave group of young men and women who go about their jobs knowing the risks.

What are Moby's other key challenges and opportunities?

Political stability is a key challenge, and in some of the markets we operate in there is conflict. But on the upside, you are going to be seeing some of these countries grow very, very quickly, not just in terms of the population, but in terms of people accessing the Internet and consuming more media. Growth in these markets, even with political uncertainty, is going to be what we see in the West times four or five. For media companies, such as ours, there is going to be more demand for our products, but also we will provide advertisers and others with the opportunity to reach the key demographics, especially 15- to 35-year-olds.

We have to be clever. The problems people are seeing in the West we see as well, such as what are the best ways to spend advertising dollars. So we have to look at everything from conventional advertising on television and radio to sponsored production to events. So in some ways, the markets are beginning to resemble each other. This globalized world have made everything so similar — whether you are in Siberia or India or Afghanistan or Ethiopia or in the U.S. We’ll have the same challenges, but also the same opportunities.

Which new markets are you looking at entering?

There are markets that are developed, but have opportunities, because the media landscape is not what it should be. And then there are markets with sizable populations, but not much media. We are looking at Southeast Asia now, Indochine.

We’re also really looking at Africa. Africa to us is very interesting, because the growth in the continent’s population is going to be significant, but as it becomes more developed, the appetite to consume increases, which we have seen in Ethiopia and also in Kenya and Nigeria. Some people would say that’s not necessarily a good thing, but from an advertiser’s perspective, it is — from soft drinks to fast food and consumer goods.

In Saudi Arabia, on average the young [people] watch six hours of YouTube videos a day. Saudi Arabia is the second-biggest market for YouTube in absolute terms, not per capita. When we are launching Vice [under a deal struck this year to bring Vice to the Middle East and North Africa], it is going to be a very interesting market from a digital perspective, and the Saudi market is a multibillion- dollar advertising market with a big population of 30 million.

In North Africa, you have countries like Algeria, which to a large extent is closed up, with a population of 40 million-plus people with a very high literacy rate and a relatively high GDP per capita because of the large reserves of oil and gas. You got a country like Egypt, which has a population of close to 100 million people. So anywhere you look, you see opportunity.

21st Century Fox was an early investor in Moby and owns a big stake in Moby. How's that relationship been working?

It’s a relationship that goes back a decade. I had lunch with [Fox executive chairman] Rupert Murdoch and [former Viacom CEO] Tom Freston and I told them about some of my ideas. And he said I would like to invest in it. And it was basically me and Rupert sitting down and on the back of a notepad figuring out how we are going to structure the deal. Other people may have different experiences with 21st Century Fox, but for us it’s been a very intimate relationship with Rupert and, of course, [Fox CEO] James [Murdoch] as we got to know James. On a regular basis, James is who we deal with.

They have three members on our board, but we don’t bother them with things on a daily basis. We are in touch regularly. I saw Rupert last week in New York. I had lunch with him. And I see James when I am in New York or London. We have a good relationship, and they have a good understanding of our business and markets. So for us it’s been a very good relationship. Obviously, they have invested in Moby, but they have also given us a lot of credibility. It is a big endorsement to have a major media company invest in your business. The Murdochs, whether it’s James or Rupert or Lachlan, are very curious.

If you look at Fox, they are a lot more international [than other major media and entertainment companies]. The growth is going to come from outside the U.S. If you look at the share of ad spend over the next 30 or 40 years, it is going to come more from outside the U.S., whether it’s Africa or India or China. We have to be cognizant of that, and I think that’s one of the reasons they have invested in us.

How involved is Tom Freston as a Moby board member?

He’s an extraordinary man. People are always very critical of many people in America, because we say they never travel, they don’t have a passport, they are not worldly. But Tom is exactly the opposite. I joke that he is the American who gives them a good name. He lived in India and Afghanistan in the '70s, so he is very engaged. And he is a consummate reader and researcher and has traveled excessively over the years. He has a great deal of interest in Myanmar, he does a lot in Africa because of the One campaign with Bono [to end extreme poverty and preventable disease]. And of course he has historical ties to Afghanistan and India.

For us, his contribution is that he understands media, probably like no one else. He has a very good business sense for how a media business should be run, but he also understands the creative arena very well. He has a lot of wisdom and experience. He knows almost instinctively what would work and what would not work in terms of relationships and programming and people.

Most countries we operate in he has been to and seen the people and has his own direct links and contacts. He is in touch with a creative guy in Ethiopia, he knows the Afghan guys well. And he has a lot of patience and huge appetite and bandwidth in terms of dealing with different types of people and listening to them. He is very important to us. He has been a member of our board since he left Viacom. He is a very good friend. We are very proud he is associated with us.

You must spend a lot of time on planes!?

I do. I don’t see it as a bad thing. I’m just reading this book about early humans and how they were hunters and gatherers. It’s probably human nature to move from one place to another. Psychologically that’s probably good for the soul. One of Tom’s strengths is that he is curious, and I think we should always remain curious. We are all curious as kids, but lot of people get lazy after a certain age. So for us it’s always important to go and look at new markets and opportunities. That keeps us on our toes. I was just in India two days ago. The Indian operation doesn’t report to me directly. But for me, it’s important to see existing team members and keep going to the markets we are in, but also look at new markets. Traveling is a big part of what I do. I probably spend only half of my time in Dubai.

Where does he name Moby come from?

Just before returning to Kabul, I was trying to come up with a name for the group. I did not think much about it and just combined our name, Mohseni, with a mate's name — who was sitting with me, over a cup of coffee. His name was Byrne, so Mohseni and Byrne became MOBY.