Lend them your ears: Podcasts gain fans in Arab world

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Ramsey Tesdell, co-founder of Sowt (Supplied photo)
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Podcast crews from Mstdfr. (Supplied photo)
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Kerning Cultures (Supplied photo)
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Ramsey Tesdell, co-founder of Sowt (Supplied photo)
Updated 10 August 2018
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Lend them your ears: Podcasts gain fans in Arab world

  • One of the biggest names in Arabic-language podcasting is Jordan-based Sowt
  • "The Mstdfr Show", the flagship of Mstdfr network, is one of the most popular podcast in Saudi Arabia

LONDON: Digital media is big business in the Arab world. Per-capita, the region has one of the highest viewing figures in the world for mobile video, and smartphone use is nearly universal. But one format that has found success in other markets appears to be lagging behind in the Middle East: the humble podcast. 

Globally, in recent years, podcasts have emerged from their niche status and found wider audiences. They’re particularly popular with younger listeners and especially well-suited to deep dives into topics that that just don’t get attention in traditional radio formats. But adoption rates vary wildly across the world. A Reuters Institute report this year illustrated this gap, with 58 percent of respondents in South Korea saying they’d listened to a podcast in the last month, compared with 18 percent in the UK.

The popularity of podcasts in the Arab world is hard to gauge, as few formal studies have been commissioned. The landscape appears to still be in its pre-industrial phase, relying on a handful of passionate and driven creators across the region to keep moving forward. 

However, a trend is taking root in the Middle East that echoes one of the ways podcasts elsewhere have been able to thrive: networks. 

One of the biggest names in Arabic-language podcasting is Jordan-based Sowt. “We specialize in narrative-driven audio, rather than interview-based shows. A lot of people in the region do interviews, which are easier to produce.” says co-founder Ramsey Tesdell. “Narrative-driven content is really taking off. It’s more engaging, you can tell different stories in a way that really speaks to people. There’s more of a plot and character. There’s an antagonist. Pinnacle point, climax. It works better for an on-demand audience.” 

Tesdell suggests the reason podcasts aren’t yet getting larger numbers in the region is because the Arabic-language offering isn’t there  — a familiar complaint about all digital media in the Arab world; entrepreneurs in the sector are seemingly more comfortable with focusing on English-language content, despite indications that the appetite for Arabic content is huge. 

It is notoriously hard to specify what constitutes a “successful” podcast. Heralded outliers like “Serial” or “This American Life” (which averages 1 million downloads per episode) may have skewed expectations. On average, the top five percent of podcasts in the US get around 14,000 listens per episode. In that context, “Eib” — Sowt’s flagship show about taboos in the Middle East, which gets 10,000 to 20,000 downloads per episode — is a resounding success. 

For Tesdell, the strategy for the future is clear. “We want to focus on a couple of programs and turn them into bigger name shows across the region. And we want to work with people in the sector to promote each other’s shows and create live events.” 

Live events could provide an important touch point with audiences — and an essential revenue-stream for a medium that is famously difficult to advertise on successfully. All the networks we spoke to said they were keen to start doing them. 

Financing is a major problem. Audio production is costly. For Sowt, the answer has, for some time, been grants, but that reliance appears to be waning. “We get a decent amount of grants,” Tesdell explains. “But this year we’re 40 percent supported by services. And we’re working on bigger contracts. Grants will always be part of our business model but we are moving away from that.” 

“Kerning Cultures” is another successful narrative-driven show from the region, this time in English — although there are plans to release Arabic episodes in the future. Founder Hebah Fisher says, “Our primary audience is the region itself and its diaspora, and then a non-Middle Eastern audience looking to better understand the region.” 

The show, which averages 5,000 listens per episode, has echoes of “This American Life” or “RadioLab.” It feels like a great way into the Middle East for a foreign audience. 

Fisher says the show’s business model is based on ads, branded content, syndication, and memberships. “More and more brands in the region are starting to wake up to podcasts and how effective (they are at reaching) the audiences they care about,” she claims.

The deeper you dive, the more you realize that the Middle Eastern podcast landscape, far from lagging behind peers elsewhere in the world, is actually quite diverse and exciting. 

On the more informal and conversational end of things you’ll find Saudi Arabia’s Mstdfr network. For co-founder Ammar Sabban, getting into podcasts was completely natural. “I always liked them. We just started with the idea of doing one show,” he says. “A few months later Uber came onboard as a sponsor, and we built a studio and the idea of a network came about.” 

“The Mstdfr Show,” the network’s flagship, is coming up on its 100th episode. Close to 70 percent of its audience — which averages 20,000 a month — is in Saudi Arabia. And that audience has been built, according to Sabban, solely on word-of-mouth. 

“Because we’re offering something different to everything out there, people show up,” he says. “We don’t push the show. It’s pure fandom.”

But its success is no accident. It is designed to feel like hanging out with a group of friends, which is why it favors the panel format. Just a couple of people around a mic. 

For Sabban, everything about the show comes down to sincerity. When they sat down to record the first episode, he remembers they were trying hard to speak exclusively in Arabic. They’d even pause recording to go find the right word from time to time. But that felt inorganic, so they decided to embrace their childhoods growing up in the US, and throw in some English when it felt warranted. 

“We just said, ‘Whatever, let’s just speak the way we do. This is who we are.’ Those who speak like us find it great but others hate it. But it’s ok if it isn’t for them. And, actually, over time our Arabic has gotten better, so we have also naturally moved away from English,” Sabban says. 

One thing is clear, the podcast scene in the Middle East, although small, is alive and well. And it is growing. Building on the passion of these pioneers, others feel emboldened to enter the fray. Rhea Chedid is a young entrepreneur in the process of setting up her own podcast network out of Beirut. 

“Podcasts are so intimate. You’re telling a story into someone’s ear,” she says. “I want to tell stories from the region that I don’t feel are being told. There are so many people in the region already doing amazing things and I want to join in on the fun.” 


Journalist murder marks upsurge in N. Ireland unrest

Journalist Lyra McKee poses for a portrait outside the Sunflower Pub on Union Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland May 19, 2017. (REUTERS)
Updated 22 April 2019
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Journalist murder marks upsurge in N. Ireland unrest

  • McKee, 29, was shot in the head late Thursday by, police believe, dissident republicans linked to the New IRA paramilitary group as they clashed with police in Northern Ireland’s second city

DUBLIN: The killing of a journalist in Londonderry marks the latest upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland — where fears are growing that a fragile and hard-won peace is increasingly at risk.
Lyra McKee, 29, was shot dead during a riot as dissident republicans clashed Thursday with police in the province’s second city — a historic flashpoint in the three decades of violence known as “The Troubles.”
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement largely ended the turbulence in Northern Ireland — mandating a withdrawal of British security forces and the disarming of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group.
But dissident republicans — seeking Northern Ireland’s departure from the United Kingdom and integration into the Republic of Ireland through violent means — remain active.
Police believe the New IRA splinter group is behind McKee’s murder.

Among commentators there is a wide-held belief that the perpetrators are youngsters not old enough to remember “The Troubles,” and are being manipulated by a radical older element.
“There’s a dangerous radicalization of young people in Derry by those linked to and on the periphery of the New IRA,” wrote The Irish Times newspaper’s security correspondent Allison Morris.
Police Service of Northern Ireland detective superintendent Jason Murphy, who is leading the probe into McKee’s death, warned: “What we’re seeing is a new breed of terrorist coming through the ranks.”
Two men aged 18 and 19 were arrested Thursday but later released without charges.
Police appealed again to the community for help in finding the killer.
“I know there will be some people who know what happened but are scared to come forward but if you have information, no matter how small, please contact detectives,” said Murphy, stressing that the information would be treated as “100 percent anonymous.”

McKee’s murder follows a car bomb in Londonderry in January and a spate of letter bombs sent to British targets in March — both claimed by the New IRA.
There is speculation that Brexit — which has raised the spectre of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — is acting as an irritant to dissident republicans.
Proposed divorce deals with the EU could see Northern Ireland more closely aligned to the Republic of Ireland or bound tighter in union with mainland Britain — raising competing loyalist and republican visions of the future.
Kieran McConaghy, a lecturer in terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said it was “hard to say” whether Brexit has played a “major role” in recent attacks, as such events have been consistent since the cease-fire.
Since the British government began publishing security assessments in 2010, the threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland has remained at “severe” — denoting that an attack is considered “highly likely.”
However, “Brexit hasn’t been good for stability in Northern Ireland,” McConaghy told CBC.
“It has made people more uncomfortable with the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is seen to be faltering at present.
“Politicians would do well to try and clarify some of the uncertainty... so that organizations like the New IRA and others don’t fill that political vacuum.”
There are particular fears that a no-deal hard Brexit would see checks erected along the 500-kilometer (310-mile) border, which would offer dissident militants a natural target.

Following McKee’s murder, police in the republican area of Londonderry where McKee was killed say they have experienced a “sea change” in previously-strained community attitudes toward officers.
The Free Derry Corner landmark wall has been repainted to reflect the local community’s revulsion.
Underneath the sign “You are now entering free Derry,” marking the start of a republican area, a message now reads: “Not in our name. R. I. P. Lyra.”
In the wake of her murder, Northern Ireland’s six main political parties — including rival unionists and republicans who have been unable to form a devolved government for more than two years — issued a rare joint statement.
“It was a pointless and futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years, which has the overwhelming support of people everywhere,” it read.