Podcasts: The future of media in the Arab world?

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Updated 07 December 2022

Podcasts: The future of media in the Arab world?

  • As the sector evolves and grows, the introduction of video to podcasting might just be just the push the audio industry needs to propel it to ever-greater heights
  • It is not a question of ‘leaving audio behind,’ said one expert; video is ‘unlocking further potential for the content to reach new realms, creatively, and for more people to access the content’

Arabs are among the biggest consumers of media around the world, with many spending hours each day watching and listening to their various devices, from TVs to smartphones.

In the region, Saudis spend the most time watching TV, averaging 5.2 hours a day, followed by Emiratis on 4.2 hours, according to a report by the consultancy Strategy&.

Moreover, it found that Saudis on average spend 14.2 hours a day engaging with various types of media channels. However, long periods spent staring at devices can result in screen fatigue, which is perhaps a reason for growth of alternative media formats, such as podcasts.

“(A podcast) is an easily consumable content (format) and, most importantly, it offers a screen-less alternative to social media and doom scrolling,” Ramsey Tesdell, the CEO of Jordan-based podcast network Sowt Media, told Arab News.

There are estimated to be more than 10 million podcast listeners in the Middle East and North Africa region, who listen to an average of between five and seven hours of podcasts a week, according to Bella Ibrahim, marketing director of regional podcasting company the Kerning Cultures Network. The biggest markets are in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, she added, but other countries in the region are following suit. 

The rise of new creators and development of improved technologies have helped to create a burgeoning podcast ecosystem, with special events such as “Ignite the Sound” in Saudi Arabia, and “Sada” and “Podfest” in the UAE, bringing creators together.

Statistics reveal the growth in popularity of the medium in the region and internationally. According to Strategy&, 18.4 percent of Saudis listen to podcasts more than once a week. Globally, Spotify said that podcast engagement on its platform has grown from less than seven percent in 2018 to 30 percent this year.

Although podcasting is still a relatively new medium, the ideas and traditions it emerged from are not.

“Audio has always been part of our lives,” Rhea Chedid, a senior podcast manager at Spotify MENA, told Arab News. “The Arab world has a long history of oral storytelling, and podcasts are a continuation of that.”

Still, podcast listenership remains relatively low compared with the popularity of social media and video streaming. And so despite the clear benefits offered by audio content, including hands-free, screenless entertainment, video is, perhaps inevitably, increasingly becoming a pervasive part of the podcast scene.

“Video is an important aspect of entertainment and podcasts will adapt to that as well,” Tesdell said.

Spotify, for example, first flirted with the idea of adding video to podcasts in 2020 during limited tests, after which it rolled out video-podcast options to selected creators through Anchor, a podcast creation and distribution platform it acquired in 2019. Last month, it expanded it video-podcasting capabilities to most global markets in which Anchor is available, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Does that mean the days of the audio-only podcast might be numbered already? Experts say that this is not the way to look at it.

“It’s not a question about audio or video, or leaving audio behind,” said Chedid. Instead, video is “unlocking further potential for the content to reach new realms, creatively, and for more people to access the content they want, in the way they want.”

Moreover, people consume a variety of content types throughout the day, which means that they are not necessarily choosing video over audio.

“The more people there are consuming audio, no matter the format, is a good thing,” Tesdell said.

Videos have been around as a source of online entertainment much longer than audio podcasts — from the early days of YouTube to the new breed of short and snappy footage on sites such as TikTok and Instagram. As a result, distribution and monetization tools are well-developed across video platforms and creators are more familiar with the format, Tesdell added.

In fact, though it might appear counterintuitive, some experts suggest that video might very well be the factor that propels the podcast industry to greater heights.

Spotify, for example, said it has already seen strong adoption of video by podcast creators in markets where it is available, said Chedid.

Video can also serve as a marketing and promotional tool for podcasters, Ibrahim said, but she cautioned: “With all the buzz around video, it’s worth noting that not all podcasts should be forced into being video podcasts. It’s a great format for talk shows but less so for narrative or fiction shows.”

So, do podcasts represent the future of media in the Arab world? Ibrahim certainly believes so.

“Absolutely; the medium of audio storytelling creates a very intimate listening experience,” she said.

Tesdell and Chedid are also optimistic about the future of podcasting but view it more as an increasingly significant part of the wider media ecosystem rather than its future.

“Podcasts will play an important and significant role in the development of Arab media,” Tesdell said.

Chedid added: “Podcasts will be part of the future of media in the Arab world, just like they have become globally.”