Lend them your ears: Podcasts gain fans in Arab world

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

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.” 


Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good

Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good
Updated 42 min 48 sec ago

Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good

Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good
  • Pizza2Go, MullenLowe MENA, Emirates Red Crescent join forces to tackle food wastage during holy month

DUBAI: Ramadan is marked by fasting throughout the day and eating at suhoor and iftar. However, takeaway restaurant firm Pizza2Go claims an estimated 25 percent of food goes to waste during the holy month, which goes against the principles of Ramadan.

So, to address the issue, Dubai-based Pizza2Go has launched its three-quarter pizza box, a normal pizza but with 25 percent removed to eliminate wastage.

The reduced-size pizza costs 44 dirhams ($12), with normal ones ranging in price between 33 dirhams and 65 dirhams, and 25 percent from the sale of every three-quarter-sized pizza will be donated to the UAE charity organization Emirates Red Crescent.

The campaign was inspired by creative shop MullenLowe whose regional executive creative director for the Middle East and North Africa, Paul Banham, said: “The three-quarter pizza box is just like any other pizza except for one important difference: We have one slice missing.

“It’s a great idea and opportunity to help solve a huge problem while also tying in with the spiritual side of the holy month of Ramadan.”


Iraqi reporter seriously wounded day after activist’s killing sparks protests

People chant slogans as they march with the body of renowned Iraqi anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni (Ehab al-Ouazni) during a funerary procession in the central holy shrine city of Karbala on May 9, 2021 following his assassination. (AFP)
People chant slogans as they march with the body of renowned Iraqi anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni (Ehab al-Ouazni) during a funerary procession in the central holy shrine city of Karbala on May 9, 2021 following his assassination. (AFP)
Updated 30 min 49 sec ago

Iraqi reporter seriously wounded day after activist’s killing sparks protests

People chant slogans as they march with the body of renowned Iraqi anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni (Ehab al-Ouazni) during a funerary procession in the central holy shrine city of Karbala on May 9, 2021 following his assassination. (AFP)
KARBALA, Iraq: An Iraqi journalist was in intensive care after being shot in the head early Monday, doctors said, only 24 hours after a leading anti-government activist was killed.
Anti-corruption campaigner Ihab Al-Wazni was shot dead early Sunday in Karbala, sending protest movement supporters onto the streets to demand an end to such bloodshed and official impunity.
Wazni had led protests in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, where pro-Tehran armed groups hold major sway.
He was shot overnight outside his home by men on motorbikes using a gun equipped with a silencer, in an ambush caught on surveillance cameras. His death was confirmed by security forces and activists.
Hours after his death, reporter Ahmed Hassan was in intensive care after receiving “two bullets in the head and one in the shoulder,” a doctor told AFP.
“He was targeted as he got out of his car to go home,” in Diwaniya in the south of the country, according to a witness.
Wazni had narrowly escaped death in December 2019, when men on motorbikes used silenced weapons to kill fellow activist Fahem Al-Tai as he was dropping him home in Karbala.
Both were key figures in a national protest movement that erupted against Iraqi government corruption and incompetence in October 2019.
Around 600 activists from the movement have been killed, whether on the streets during rallies or targeted on their doorsteps.
Protests broke out in Karbala, Nassiriya and Diwaniya in southern Iraq in reaction to Wazni’s killing, as people called for an end to the bloodshed and to rampant corruption.
The Iraqi Communist Party and the Al-Beit Al-Watani (National Bloc) party born out of the anti-government protests also said they would boycott Iraq’s October parliamentary elections in protest.
In a video recording in the morgue where Wazni’s body was initially held, a fellow activist blamed pro-Tehran groups for the killing.
“It is the Iranian militias who killed Ihab,” said the activist, who was not named.
“Iran out!” and “The people want the fall the regime!” chanted hundreds of mourners Sunday as they carried Wazni’s body to the Shiite shrines in Karbala, under a sea of Iraqi flags.
Police said they would “spare no effort” to find “the terrorists” behind Wazni’s killing.
Politicians, including Shiite leader Ammar Al-Haki, deplored the death and called for justice.
Around 30 activists have died in targeted killings and dozens of others have been abducted since October 2019.
Such killings are normally carried out in the dead of night by men on motorbikes, and nobody claims responsibility.
Activists and the UN repeatedly blame “militias.”
Authorities have consistently failed to publicly identify or charge the perpetrators of these killings.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi took office a year ago, vowing to rein in rogue factions, fight corruption and roll out long-awaited reforms after years of war and insurgency.
He pledged again Sunday to catch “all the killers,” but the latest victim’s family said it would not accept the traditional visits of condolences until the assailants were unmasked.
Pro-Iran groups view Kadhemi as being too close to Washington while protesters believe he has failed to deliver on his promises.
Wazni had himself had challenged the premier in a Facebook post in February, asking: “Do you know what is going on? You know that they kidnap and kill — or you live in another country?“
Ali Bayati, a member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, tweeted Sunday that crimes against activists in Iraq “raise again the question about the real steps of the government regarding accountability.”

Clubhouse launches Android app as downloads plummet

The long anticipated Android launch is expected to reach more new users globally. (File/AFP)
The long anticipated Android launch is expected to reach more new users globally. (File/AFP)
Updated 10 May 2021

Clubhouse launches Android app as downloads plummet

The long anticipated Android launch is expected to reach more new users globally. (File/AFP)
  • The app spiked in popularity early this year after celebrity billionaire Elon Musk and others appeared in audio chats
  • After peaking in February with 9.6 million downloads, that number fell to 2.7 million in March and then 900,000 downloads in April

SAN FRANCISCO: Live audio app Clubhouse will begin introducing a test version of its app to Google’s Android users in the United States on Sunday, the company said, in a potentially big expansion of its market.
The app, which spiked in popularity early this year after celebrity billionaire Elon Musk and others appeared in audio chats, has sparked copy cats from startups and larger rivals including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.
It has been available only to users of Apple devices and by invitation. In some markets such as China, invitations were so sought after some were auctioned on online marketplaces.
But downloads of the app, one measure of popularity, have significantly fallen.
After peaking in February with 9.6 million downloads, that number fell to 2.7 million in March and then 900,000 downloads in April, according to Sensor Tower.
The drop has sparked questions about its long term viability and whether its success was owed in part to people spending more time at home during the pandemic.
The long anticipated Android launch is expected to reach more new users globally. The Android version will reach other English-speaking markets and then the rest of the globe days and weeks after the US market beta launch.
Clubhouse, which created the category, now faces the likes of Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in April a slew of audio products, including Clubhouse-style live audio rooms and a way for users to find and play podcasts.
In January, Twitter Inc. said that it will introduce a new feature to let users charge admission to their live audio chat rooms in its “Spaces” feature, as the company seeks to court more content creators. It has been available to Android users since March.


Interview: CNN’s Caroline Faraj talks journalism in a digital world

Interview: CNN’s Caroline Faraj talks journalism in a digital world
Updated 10 May 2021

Interview: CNN’s Caroline Faraj talks journalism in a digital world

Interview: CNN’s Caroline Faraj talks journalism in a digital world
  • Caroline Faraj, Vice President for Arabic Services at CNN, shares the news channel’s growth and strategy

DUBAI: With more and more people consuming news online, it has become increasingly important for news outlets — print or TV — to digitize their offerings.

CNN, one of the biggest news outlets in the world, broke all records last year with CNN Digital reaching its largest and most engaged global audience. In the region, CNN Arabic registered its highest year on record for average monthly unique visitors, which was up 34 percent from 2019 largely driven by record-high levels of mobile consumption which grew by 24 percent from 2019.

Arab News spoke to Caroline Faraj, vice president for Arabic Services at CNN, to learn more about the growth story and future strategy of CNN Arabic.

Can you share how much of the traffic is organic, versus from other sources such as social media?

It is a significant strength and differentiator that the vast majority of CNN Digital and CNN Arabic’s traffic comes to us directly. CNN is one of the few remaining destinations on the Internet where people seek out our home page or coverage of a particular story as they associate us with trusted news and information. While it is important for us to have a social presence, we are much less reliant on traffic referral from those platforms than other media due to the strength of our brand, both globally and with CNN Arabic.

What is the strategy to drive growth?

CNN Arabic is the Middle East’s leading independent news platform. What makes us stand out is that independence and our credible, authentic, factful reporting and the huge trust in the CNN brand which has tremendous value for our audience. We offer a global perspective, both on international news and on stories that are more regionally relevant or focused.

Being part of the world’s largest news network, with journalists working on stories from every continent, is an enormous asset in terms of the renowned quality of our journalism, the resources and wealth of talent in our teams and the recognition and confidence that the audience has in us. As we’ve seen with the record audience numbers, CNN is more essential than ever before in providing trusted news.

Our audience is powerful; the caliber of our audience differentiates us from other news media. Political leaders, CEOs, celebrities and people at the top of their industry, actively share, reference and act upon our reporting. We reach these audiences at scale including opinion-formers, change-makers, high-spenders, travelers and business decision-makers.

Having an impact, creating change and being an essential trusted news source is key to maintaining and driving growth among our influential audience and reaching new and younger audiences.

Analysis from a recent brand study that we conducted showed that with the news events of 2020 and the outlook for 2021, 91 percent of consumers from the Middle East and Africa region feel the role of international news media is now more important than ever.

Our strategy is based on constant innovation and responding to the audience and their consumption habits, the formats and the stories that they’re engaging with. The closer we are to our audience the better we are in offering and curating the content they are interested in.

Underpinning everything is a data-led approach that analyzes audience trends and behavior to give insight on where we can grow and serve our audience even better in the future. For example, our analysis shows that our Arabic audience expands well beyond the region and there are growth opportunities with Arabic speakers in the US. Along with breaking news, we know that business, technology, travel, sports and entertainment are key areas of interest for our audiences.

Another area for growth is in our products such as audio and newsletters. Globally downloads of CNN audio content increased by over 75 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and there’s been a huge demand for CNN newsletters as subscriptions grew by 90 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. We’re currently developing concepts for Arabic audiences.

How did CNN Arabic adapt to digital and mobile?

CNN Arabic has been a digital destination from the outset when we launched almost 20 years ago. As a digital-first brand, we have been well ahead of many of the competitors. Mobile has been at the core of our offering ever since the introduction of the smartphone. It will remain a focus, in line with the Middle Eastern audience’s preference, as we’re currently seeing the majority of traffic on mobile, which is at almost 90 percent in some cases.

What are your plans for the future?

We are listening to our audience’s needs and making changes as part of our commitment to them. Plans include expanding into audio and newsletters, which as I mentioned we’re seeing huge growth in globally. The product portfolio will grow, content formats will evolve and become more immersive and we’re exploring a move into events.

An area that I am very passionate about is training the next generation of journalists. For many years we’ve offered internships at CNN Arabic; we’ve had more than 120 interns from around the world and have provided training courses in the region. This has been formalized this year through the CNN Academy Abu Dhabi, which I was proud to be part of. As we look to the future, I am keen for CNN Arabic to bring this level of training for Arabic speakers that want to learn about the skills of our trade.

From a commercial perspective, we are also looking forward to working with more brands. CNN Arabic is the ideal platform if an advertiser wants to reach Arabic audiences at scale in a premium environment. We work closely with our commercial partners to develop innovative solutions and ensure that their messages cut through in sponsorships, digital advertising and audience targeting.

How has news media changed in the past few years – especially during the pandemic – both from a user consumption perspective as well as from a media owner perspective?

People can get news in numerous different ways and are surrounded by so many of sources of information. The pandemic has certainly prompted behavioral changes and accelerated the need and appreciation for factual, trustworthy and accurate reporting. With the growing prevalence of information sources, people are turning to brands they trust for news and information. We’ve seen that with our record-breaking traffic. Even though there are more sources than ever, and more platforms than ever, we had our best year on record.

We’ve also seen changes in consumption habits with round the clock engagement as audiences are regularly checking in on the latest news on their phone and we’re seeing high demand for video content.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between news media and companies such as Facebook and Google and the consequent idea of these companies compensating publishers?

We work with all the major platforms, and last year we partnered with Facebook on a campaign about maintaining community and connection during Ramadan.

When working with any of the platforms, publishers need to have a path to revenue. It’s important for us to have a presence on various platforms, but our focus is on our owned and operated platforms, such as with the move of the Go There show from Facebook onto our own website and mobile apps.


Turkey’s media regulator warns Spotify over critical content

Turkey’s media regulator warns Spotify over critical content
Updated 09 May 2021

Turkey’s media regulator warns Spotify over critical content

Turkey’s media regulator warns Spotify over critical content
  • The digital platform has gained a wide audience recently as one of the last remaining outlets for free speech in Turkey
  • Spotify was granted an operating license by Turkey for 10 years after applying on Oct. 15 

ANKARA: Turkey’s media watchdog has warned online audio streaming giant Spotify to “regulate its content” in line with Turkish legislation or risk critical items being removed or cut. 

In a surprise move late on Friday, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) said that it will consider removing or cutting all content found “inappropriate” — a term that is open to interpretation when applied to high-profile critical podcasts that attract large audiences. 

Spotify was granted an operating license by Turkey for 10 years after applying on Oct. 15. But its digital content is open to monitoring by the country’s media regulator. 

The digital platform has gained a wide audience recently as one of the last remaining outlets for free speech in Turkey, especially with its podcasts providing critical reporting and commentary on Turkish domestic politics. 

Spotify offers a relative free space in a media environment in which almost 90 percent of companies are related to pro-government conglomerates. 

“The RTUK’s move to regulate the content of streaming companies is another example of the Turkish government’s efforts to tighten its grip on online content,” Cathryn Grothe, research associate at Freedom House, told Arab News. 

Grothe said that the move is part of a long decline in internet freedom, characterized by restrictive regulations such as the social media law, blocked websites, and heavy-handed crackdowns on independent media and journalists. 

“Streaming services such as Spotify create a unique space where people can express themselves, relate to loved ones and friends over shared music or podcasts, and engage on a range of important issues, including human rights and politics,” she said. 

Grothe believes the threat from the Turkish government could encourage Spotify to restrict essential information for people in Turkey, effectively shrinking the remaining opportunities for free expression, journalism and artistic freedom.

Utku Cakirozer, a journalist and MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said that restrictions over digital media had been discussed since 2019. 

“Such legislative constraints will only boost the global perception about the extent of censorship in Turkey. If you tend to ban a digital platform just after it is granted a license, it will go away sooner or later. You cannot expect them to accept such restrictions forever,” he told Arab News. 

Experts believe the RTUK’s latest statement signals growing censorship of the podcast sector in Turkey. 

Orhan Sener, a journalist who has been preparing a podcast for a year about technological developments in the country, said that content developers and journalists at Spotify have been self-censoring to avoid drawing government ire. 

“This trend will grow after the media regulator’s move. I don’t expect an absolute and omnipresent censorship on Spotify podcasts in the short run because the company attaches high importance to Turkey’s vast market, but Turkish journalists will have to revise their content to a certain extent to preserve their place in this sector,” he told Arab News. 

Sener said that a potential restriction on podcast content shows that the government is unwilling to tolerate any dissident voice, even if comes from the digital sphere.