Ramadan and Broadcasting – w/ Amir Taki
In this interview, Neil is joined by Amir Taki – director, executive producer and content creator at Haven Films. Amir takes us back to his days running one of the most successful Muslim faith TV channels in the world, Ahlulbayt TV, and what the month of Ramadan means for broadcasters and the communities that rely on them. Hope you enjoy!
Neil: Welcome to the In the Hub podcast Amir, how are you doing today?
Amir: I’m fine. Brilliant.
Neil: Awesome. Thank you very much for coming on and taking the time out today to speak to us. It’s very much appreciated. So just before we get started on the main questions, could you just fill us in on how you got involved in the broadcasting industry?
Amir: So in late 2008, I was involved with a number of like-minded people who were very fascinated with the idea of content creation. At that time, broadcasting was really something that became one, slightly cheaper, and two, a very powerful way of carrying out information to as many people as you would want. I think at that time, YouTube hadn’t even properly established itself, and Facebook was kind of in its infancy. I think previously in my life, I was always involved in either print journalism, when I was very young, of course, but come 2009 in August, we launched a channel on Sky. Now I was only 24 years old at the time, so very young at that time. I think we started the company in February of that year. When we started the channel, there was obviously a huge learning curve. The difficulty of setting up the channel infrastructure, the problems with content creation. One thing we didn’t plan for was the lead time for setting up fibre optic. At that time, with Virgin, it took us up to four months to get that set up, they had to do some digging in the area, and then the council had to give permission. So I think for the first three months, we had to drive down with the tapes. We would print content on tapes, drive down to a playout centre, and just leave the content with them, and then give them a schedule. That’s how we used to run and it was manic 24 hours a day, it was just around the clock. So that’s how I really got started to be honest with you. I remember just sleeping on the sofa. Late nights weren’t even something to talk about, it was a given goal. You need to have a very big team to run a TV station, but we had a very small team at that time. That was how I got started, really. I thought it was brilliant. It was fantastic. And the reason again, it was a powerful way to talk to people.
Neil: Yeah, and it still is! I know at the time, it probably wasn’t very enjoyable for you. But I do love those scrappy stories of starting out and the things that people have to do to make it work in that first instance. I just love hearing those stories. So what is it really about the broadcasting industry and content creation in general that keeps you hooked? If you can even boil it down into that, or whether it’s just a lifestyle for you?
Amir: It’s really down to one thing – the adrenaline buzz. The fact that when you have a live show, you have these impossible deadlines that you set for yourself. I remember, I think in the first year, we said we were going to do 30 documentaries by the month of Ramadan. And it’s like, daily documentaries, and people spend a year or two years on documentaries. It was just us as a small team, with the buzz of being able to deliver at specific times. There were shows going out at 9pm, and at 8:50pm we’re just transferring it to the PlayBox! We were just living on the edge. And you go home and you’re still buzzing, you can’t sleep and you’re back again. You know, it’s the relentless deadlines. You finish one season and you say ‘I’m done now’ and you think, ‘Oh, I’ve got two months left to finish another season!’. It’s just relentless. It doesn’t stop. We weren’t just involved in content creation. We were involved in fundraising. We were involved in public relations. We were involved in compliance and Ofcom and how to deal with that. It’s another massive ballgame, you need to be able to understand the diligent, nuanced messages that you need to put out, and whether there’s anything that is offensive to some people and it has to be omitted. So all of those factors just meant that you were just living very high all the time, buzzing all the time.
Neil: Yeah. So it really sounds like the fast paced lifestyle was something that attracted you. But all that pressure and stuff like that, helps to create great content in the end, doesn’t it?
Amir: Yeah, of course. At that time, most content was found on television. There was no YouTube and there was nobody making content on Instagram. YouTube was just emerging and was just in its infancy. We became a source of content. I remember our first live show, we had 60 callers in an hour. It was just a normal guy talking and it was the first time we were doing this. We had to sublease a studio and run around. And it was just this, manic, ‘camera start swinging in the middle of the show’ type thing. One time, the camera didn’t get locked into the tripod properly. It started to tilt up slightly. And because there was a green screen, the guy started flying. Because it was a green screen, it just started moving up the set. We said, ‘you must have a magic carpet or something, because something has happened there’ (laughs). As I said, there was a lot of experiences and a lot of challenges. But it was the fast life, the fast pace with broadcasting and the satisfaction that you get from every output. I remember I had a TV in my room. Obviously the PlayBox (Channel in a Box) was 20 metres down at the MCR room. Whatever we approve and whatever goes into the PlayBox, I can see it come back down from Sky, and that was something different. Sometimes you can produce something really amazing, and nobody sees it. You try to sell it and you try to pitch it to someone and no one buys it and you start to get disheartened. With broadcasting, it’s there. We had a harmonised team, we made content and we made sure that we made it to the level that would go out. We didn’t hit and miss – you aim for something, and you try to get it done. That gave us some big satisfaction as well.
Neil: So we have been talking about Ahlulbayt TV- that’s the channel that you guys set up. For anyone who might not already know, what was the channel all about? And what was your involvement in that project?
Amir: Ahlulbayt TV is primarily a faith-based channel that promotes the Muslim faith, which is Islam. At that time, in the backdrop of 9/11 and 7/7, you could see all of the negative stories that you find. Some of the tabloids stereotyped all Muslims. It came to a time where we said – Muslims complain at times that we don’t have a fair share of our representation, that we don’t get a chance to speak and air our mind, and the media’s airbrushing us or painting us with the same brush. I don’t propose that the only way that Muslims should articulate their views should be from a niche faith-based channel. It shouldn’t be – Muslims should also get into mainstream channels and other broadcasters. If you’re not on the table, people then assume about you. You have to be on the table to be able to be considered. And so the path that we took was to set up a faith-based channel to be able to one, speak to your community, and two, to be able to dispel misconceptions and misinformation that’s been uttered against you. Being English, a lot of channels that are produced in the UK, sometimes they produce in the native languages. So obviously, you have sometimes Urdu and Swahili and whatnot. And so we wanted to appeal to the younger generation, and whoever comes across a channel by being on Sky compared to other platforms. You know, sometimes you had normal decoders and you have to punch in a frequency code. You don’t really do that unless you know that channel. Whereas on Sky, you know, we had 842 – we were a number that people could flick up and suddenly find us. You had an EPG that would outline your programme schedule, you can see all the synopses have been posted and everything. I think we were towards the tail end of the EPG listing. I think after us was the gambling channels or something. So sometimes someone is gambling, and by accident he goes oh, what’s this Muslim channel? And he might just come and say something. I think one time we had an email from one guy. He says ‘I was gambling and suddenly flicked down and I see you guys’. He says ‘look at this woman, she’s oppressed because she was wearing a veil on the screen. This woman is oppressed’. And the lady, subconsciously, obviously it couldn’t be planned, says ‘people think I’m oppressed’. And he thinks, ‘oh, this woman is talking to me!’. I’m sure he wasn’t hallucinating. She says ‘you think I’m oppressed, but I choose to wear this to protect myself – I want people to judge me for who I am and not how I look’. And he was like ‘wow! This lady is speaking to me’. So he emailed in, he was very happy that he had this experience I think it was a nice story.
Neil: Oh, definitely – that people could stumble across it in that way. And like you said, it helps to dispel some of those misconceptions. It all sounds as if it was really fast paced – was there ever a time that you actually got to sit back and think ‘Wow, we’ve done this’ and see it listed on the programme guide on Sky? Did you ever just look at it and say, ‘this is what we’ve created’?
Amir: I think it was August 13th, 2009 when we launched on Sky. Funnily enough, when we did launch on Sky, you had to pay a three-month deposit. I think it was about £60,000. And at that time, we didn’t even have the money. We had to ask people, and we got the money eventually. I think Sky releases channels every Monday. So even though we signed on Thursday, come Monday, we were live. Ironically enough, when we did go live, we never had a Sky TV to see what was going on (laughs). So we run out of the office like wild crazy men just running around like ‘we need to find a place to watch our channel’. Because how do we know that it is actually working? It’s like this kind of surreal atmosphere. Like they started broadcasting our content and we don’t know, we can’t see it. So we went to this restaurant in Croydon called Mirch Masala. They sell Indian food and curry and whatnot. We said, ‘can we have the menu, please? And before we order, do you have Sky?’. He says yes, but they were showing cricket. You know, like it was at the Oval or something. Everyone was watching the cricket. We said ‘could you please do us a favour, we will order, but only if you can switch it to 842’. We start to see it and we were like wow, finally, something that we could see. We were looking at our computers for months. These programmes that we produced are now in a restaurant in Croydon. After years abroad, after almost 10 years where I travel around the world – obviously I don’t present on television but the presenters were with me – sometimes they see them and say ‘I’ve seen you before on TV’. And when you do that you get to see the far reach the channel had. Sometimes when you’re just producing content and you’re putting it out there, you don’t really get enough time to absorb the feedback. You’re always locked in, you’re working and you’re not really getting involved with people. Whenever you travel and people say ‘I love that programme, I really like that point that you guys made’, you think ‘wow someone’s watching’. Sometimes you forget. Like I told you, if you make a mistake, everyone starts calling you back and saying you made a big mistake in the content. But when things are going well it says a bit quiet. But when we travelled we really got amazing feedback and that really inspired us – the fact that people said ‘you changed my life, you gave me hope, you inspired me’. Even though the channel was a faith-based channel, the messages that it focused on were equality, tolerance, coexistence and living an ethical life. It wasn’t necessarily only for Muslims – anyone could watch it and say that ‘these are good messages I can pick up’.
I remember once, a non-Muslim woman called in during one of our shows. I think her son was on the phone. He said ‘I want to donate all the money I have in this piggy bank that have’. I said ‘thank you very much, we really appreciate that, why?’. The mom comes on the phone and she says ‘I’m really happy that my son’s watching something that does not revolve around unethical content. And you guys are trying to promote something which is very peaceful and very loving’. Things like that always inspire you to continue to keep making content. That was lovely.
Neil: Yeah – it’s nice to have that kind of stuff to hit home isn’t it? Especially, like you said, when you’re being locked in and creating content and stuff like that. It’s actually great to hear what people think sometimes. But that story about being in Croydon and getting the guy to change the channel, that was fantastic.
Amir: I just wanted to add a point here. Funnily enough, after that Mirch Masala scenario, we had a guy with us. He was our accounts manager, but he is not very fond of spicy food. We were ordering a lot of food. So we had these kebab rolls, and they were a bit spicy. This gentleman – he started consuming far too many. He was taken back by the spice, you know. Long story short, he ended up in hospital the next day (laughs).
Neil: Oh no… (laughs). Those rolls should have come with a warning, I think.
Amir: Yeah, I mean, he’s not used to spicy food. Whereas you know, subcontinent people, they love the hot spice. It’s a culture clash thing, if you haven’t had it before, it can leave you…
Neil: It creeps up on you, doesn’t it? (laughs).
Amir: Yeah. More so than you know.
Neil: So when you were working with Ahlulbayt TV, were you always involved in the content creation? I want to link that to why you now take on content creation full time, and how you got into that.
Amir: So my role in Ahlulbayt TV. Primarily, I was the MD or managing director, CEO, director, whether you want to call it. While it was running, I was head down. But by nature, I was a production guy, I loved content. And that’s why I didn’t really like preparing budgets and whatnot. I would leave that to the accounts people and encourage the fundraising team or the businesspeople to do their thing. But I was more into content creation. I’ve been doing it since I was 16, always involved in and making something. As I said before, I was in print journalism, my degree is in television production, and everything that I did was just pure content creation. And my role as executive producer there, I was commissioning. I would commission external producers, the producers we had in the office, I would work with them to develop ideas, develop concepts. Once we visualise it, we say look, go and execute it. Go and find the talent, go and find the people to make it work. And that was what I did, and I loved it.
Being in a faith-based channel, it had a charity feel to it. The money that you would get as a salary wasn’t amazing. It was probably a fraction of what you’d get paid in the industry. But it was just such a young age and I had accumulated so much experience, and so much know-how in that period and I loved every second of it. I love the fast pace, the turnaround. Obviously, you’d love more time to make things a bit more perfect – to finalise projects and get the colour correction in and get that sound levelling done properly. Sometimes we would get it on TV and we just fine touch it before putting it on YouTube. When it’s on YouTube, you can’t really take it down after. I think we have almost 200,000 subscribers on YouTube. Our documentary page on YouTube has got 70,000 subscribers. We did a flagship documentary series on ISIS that we filmed, covering how ISIS are defaming Islam and what they’re doing. And sometimes, you know, people said it was a sectarian war. There were a few misconceptions that people said, like these are Muslims doing it. We did a whole debunk of this – a six-part series. We went to Iraq. We filmed in northern Iraq and filmed in some dangerous areas. We got awards for these documentaries. I think one of the clips that we put on (YouTube) got 5 million views. Sometimes I would lead in and direct some of the films, I would produce some of the films myself. I would even film some of them because sometimes people didn’t want to go and film an area that has just been liberated against ISIS. Sometimes when we have an idea, and you only have one chance to shoot it, you can’t send somebody else in full confidence. You want to make sure that you go yourself. If you leave me with a camera and drop me somewhere, I’ll come back to you within three weeks with a documentary. Find a story, I’ll start building a narrative. And that’s the way I am. That’s why I love doing it.
Neil: That’s some fantastic work and well done to you guys for getting the word out there and doing that. Amir, just moving into Haven Films, which is your current project and your current company that you’ve got going on. What exactly is haven films? And what does your kind of day-to-day life look like when you’re creating content for haven films?
Amir: So I left (Ahlulbayt TV) in March 2019. So it’s been almost two years now that I’ve left the channel. And although I still keep contact with the people there, and I’m very supportive of the work they do, I thought that it’s time for a new challenge. For anybody spending 10 years in a place, it’s difficult for you to leave, but at the same time, it’s also needing to challenge yourself and I felt I needed a challenge. I was 34 or 35 at that time – that was a certain age of my life and I wanted to do something different. When I started Haven Films, it was with the perception of producing more bespoke high-level content to broadcasters. Either to Ahlulbayt TV or other neighbouring channels or even bigger channels if that’s possible. But by the time I started at the beginning, COVID came and started in December. At that time, most broadcasters weren’t interested in commissioning major work at that time. So I started working with a number of organisations to produce content for them, like charities.
I’m doing a few things at the moment. I’m launching a podcast called Icons. So far we’ve interviewed four celebrities. One guest is Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham, he runs the SAS Australia programme, a very famous show. They run other celebrities through an SAS course and they drive them mad. Icons is really about finding out the stories and the challenges behind people’s achievements, and how they got there. What do they do every day? What were the challenges they faced? We interviewed Bill Conti, the music composer behind Rocky. We had Rasheeda Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter – she gave some real insight about Muhammad’s life and what he was doing.
Neil: So already some absolutely fantastic guests then. That’s brilliant.
Amir: I’m working with a number of charities now to produce videos on vaccine misinformation. So this kind of vaccine misinformation. I’ve heard a lot. There’s your 5G and all these nanoparticles and how they’re going to control you. So we interviewed doctors and community leaders and medical professionals, and they dismantle and debunk these videos. So we’ve got a big contract that we’re working on. We’re producing a lot of videos on that. I’m also working on a documentary on home schooling. A lot of parents have taken their kids out from schools, primarily because of COVID, there’s a huge increase. But previously there were issues of bullying and name calling. I want to look at the dangers of home schooling and the advantages of home schooling. And now there’s this emergence of online schools that teach you through virtual classrooms. I’m doing this documentary on this issue. The other project I just finished is on Autism, especially within new communities in the UK, where they don’t understand how if a family has a child that is autistic, how do you deal with that family? How do you welcome them into the community? What are the problems that people face? So we profiled a number of cases. We sat with parents, we interviewed them about the issues, and it was very emotional. For a lot of people it was the first time they were speaking about this. They really articulate and air their concerns, and they feel that lack of empathy sometimes. We try to create a story about that to give people a better insight.
Neil: Some really important work then isn’t it? It’s like with Haven Films, you’ve just thought, ‘we’re going to be targeting hard-hitting topics and we’re going make it count. We’re going to make important documentaries about real issues are going on at the moment’. I think that’s brilliant. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for when those projects release.
I just wanted to quickly ask about the topic of broadcasting during the month of Ramadan. So how important are the channels like Ahlulbayt TV to the Muslim communities during the month of Ramadan? Also, of course, are there any challenges in broadcasting during the month of Ramadan?
Amir: So Ramadan for Muslim channels is probably the biggest season of the year. It’s a 30 day period. Muslims normally would hold their fast – they would abstain from food and drink from dawn to sunset – which last summer or the summer before, we hit 18 hours a day. For them to break their fast they would listen to the call to prayer. Obviously, London doesn’t have any minarets and mosques. So they switch on the channel, they put on the TV channels, and they wait. Imagine that – that’s primetime television, everyone is sitting down for the call to prayer. And this guy is like, he’s got a morsel of food in his hands. He’s just waiting to hear the first cry. And then, he’s biting into it (laughs).
Neil: That’s it. It’s in (laughs). I can imagine actually; I think that would become a household staple during the month. You would get the TV on at that time and wait.
Amir: We would do the build-up, you know, we have the supplications and the Quran recitations, and you get people into the mood, everybody gets really emotional. Then we do the call to prayer. Sometimes people go and pray before they eat. But that call signifies that it’s time for you to break your fast. Sometimes people would be back in their countries, and the atmosphere would be different. But obviously everyone is at home, especially last year and the year before with COVID really. People couldn’t go anywhere, there was no way you could go out and go to a centre or go to a mosque. Channels create an atmosphere for families who can’t go to centres or who are too old or too ill or just feel that they want to stay home and watch TV. So Ramadan is very important. But also, there’s something very important about Ramadan. From my experience at least, I know channels that spend three to four times the amount of budget for content than other months. At Christmas, you can imagine that main broadcasters would spend a lot of money on getting the best content out on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. It’s the same thing for Ramadan. Muslim channels spend a lot of money on producing high-quality content. At the same time, they also invite charities to fundraise on TV. It has become an interesting phenomenon recently – I think that recent stats saw that almost 100 million pounds is given to charity by Muslims in the month of Ramadan. So it’s a huge amount of money.
Neil: It’s just fantastic.
Amir: Yeah. And then, obviously, Islam encourages charity as part of the tenets of the faith, but at the same time, the whole point of fasting and abstaining from food is supposed to remind you of the poor. To remind you of what people are going through that don’t have food. Suddenly you realise that when you see a video of an orphan on TV, and you feel compelled to sponsor him or her for a year because that’s the whole point of really abstaining from food. It’s to remember the people that need it most. So you have one aspect of high-quality content. At the same time, there’s a huge fundraising drive. And channels, they raise – I remember one charity told me that our record was £1.2 million in one programme that we raised. So that’s a lot of money, that’s almost a budget for a year for some channels.
Neil: That’s incredible, yeah.
Amir: Yeah. And of course, it’s fantastic because people that need the most are getting what they need, and Ramadan is a real-time for sharing and giving. Channels really make the most of it. Today, you have 16 hours of brand-new content every day. Obviously, some channels can’t sustain that. They produce four hours a day, three hours a day. There are live shows until dawn, three o’clock in the morning because everyone’s still awake and they’ve just had a big meal. So they’re drinking a lot of water, and then they stay up. Suddenly, everyone’s buzzing on TV, everyone’s excited. If you want to talk fast-paced, then Ramadan is the time. That was the epitome of a real kind of drive to produce and make an impact.
Neil: Yeah. I’ve always been curious about what the motive is during that time and just how hard you guys are working. But of course, there’s that charitable spin on things, isn’t there? And it’s all about that charitable giving. So I can imagine that it’s quite an important time for channels.
So, Amir, this is a question that we ask at the end of every podcast, and it can be quite a hard one, quite a tough one. But in one word, if you could condense it down into that, what do you envision for the future of the broadcasting industry?
Amir: Adaptation. I think broadcasting is adapting, as we speak. With the rise of streaming, on-demand on YouTube and whatnot. I think broadcasting still remains important in sports and live programming and news. You can’t replace that now. Obviously Amazon tried to move on football. But being in front of a TV set and waiting for a game or for the Olympics… we had, today, the death of Prince Philip, for example. People go straight to TV, no one goes to YouTube to look for the latest news, there’s huge demand for it. That’s more than a word, but…
Neil: No, that’s perfect, I think adaptation is a really good way of summing it up.
Amir: Just one thing to add is that, although I produce, I do some commercial work and do some short videos, my passion is documentaries. And that’s what I’m very passionate about. I’ve got a lot of opportunities coming forward. I believe that documentaries are one of the best ways to summarise and consolidate a very complicated topic into one hour or 90 minutes, or whatever – five minutes or half an hour. You can really squeeze in a lot of information. People don’t have the patience now to read a book or to take a course. To create a very visual experience where you have music, B roll, visual impacts, suspense and drama all in one hour is still very powerful. Obviously I can’t compare with Attenborough’s documentaries, but they are rated on IMDB as one of the highest and most popular programmes. And that’s compared to series. Documentaries still have an important footing.
Neil: I completely agree. You only have to look at the popularity of David Attenborough and the occasional ones that get released onto Netflix every other month or so. They’re creating massive buzz.
So Amir, how can people get in touch with you if they want to find out more about anything that you’re up to?
Amir: Although I claim to be active on social media, it’s very time-consuming. My handle on Twitter is @AmirTaki, and it’s similar on Instagram. I’m also available on Facebook. My website is havenfilms.org. My email address on the website is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neil: Awesome. So Amir, thank you very much for coming onto the podcast today and speaking to us. It’s been really appreciated. And it was great to hear some of those stories from the early days as well.
Amir: It’s a pleasure, Neil, thank you for having me. I really loved it and I hope I kind of didn’t drag on too long.
Neil: (laughs) No, it was perfect. Thank you Amir.