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

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.” 


Google says misinformation campaign used YouTube to target Hong Kong protests

Updated 39 min 17 sec ago

Google says misinformation campaign used YouTube to target Hong Kong protests

SAN FRANCISCO, US: Google on Thursday said it disabled a series of YouTube channels that appeared to be part of a coordinated influence campaign against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The announcement by YouTube’s parent company came after Twitter and Facebook accused the Chinese government of backing a social media campaign to discredit Hong Kong’s protest movement and sow political discord in the city.
Google disabled 210 YouTube channels that it found behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the Hong Kong protests, according to Shane Huntley of the company’s security threat analysis group.
“This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” Huntley said in an online post.
Twitter and Facebook announced this week that they suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts linked to a coordinated influence campaign. Twitter said it had shut down about 200,000 more before they could inflict any damage.
“These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter said, referring to the active accounts it shut down.
Facebook said some of the posts from accounts it banned compared the protesters in Hong Kong with Daesh group militants, branded them “cockroaches” and alleged they planned to kill people using slingshots.
China has “taken a page from Russia’s playbook” as it uses social media platforms outside the country to wage a disinformation campaign against the protests, according to the non-profit Soufan Center for research, analysis, and strategic dialogue related to global security issues.
“Beijing has deployed a relentless disinformation campaign on Twitter and Facebook powered by unknown numbers of bots, trolls, and so-called ‘sock puppets,’” the center said on its website, referring to fake online identities created for deception.
“China’s behavior will likely grow more aggressive in both the physical and virtual realms, using on-the-ground actions to complement an intensifying cyber campaign characterized by disinformation, deflection, and obfuscation.”

Misused by autocratic regimes
While social media platforms have been tools for people to advocate for rights, justice or freedom in their countries, the services are being turned on them by oppressive governments, according to the Soufan Center.
“Autocratic governments are now using these same platforms to disparage demonstrators, divide protest movements, and confuse sympathetic onlookers,” the center said.
Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous southern Chinese city and one of the world’s most important financial hubs, is in the grip of an unprecedented political crisis that has seen millions of people take to the streets demanding greater freedoms.
China’s government has publicly largely left the city’s leaders and police force to try and resolve the crisis, but behind the scenes online, Beijing is seeking to sway public opinion about Hong Kong, according to Twitter and Facebook.
“We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change,” Twitter said.
It said it had pulled 936 accounts originating in China that were spreading disinformation.
Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, part of the government’s so-called “Great Firewall” of censorship.
Because of the bans, many of the fake accounts were accessed using “virtual private networks” that give a deceptive picture of the user’s location, Twitter said.
Facebook said it had acted on a tip from Twitter, removing seven pages, three groups and five Facebook accounts that had about 15,500 followers.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” Facebook said.