Are Arabs tuning in to podcasts? [Q&A]

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In 2006, only 22 percent of the adult population in the United States were aware of the term ‘podcast’, but this figure rose to 60 percent by 2017, highlighting the increasing popularity of podcasting in the country.

In 2017, 40 percent of US consumers listened to podcasts. The podcasts' ad revenues are expected to top $220 million in 2017, increasing by 85 percent year-on-year.

Unlike the US, podcasting in the MENA is still at its infancy, and there still is no market research or proper evaluation to extract forecasts from.

However, there seems to be plenty of room for podcast producers, publishers and aggregators to emerge but the receptiveness of the Arab listener and possible funding models are still very vague. The number of podcasts production companies in the region is also on a rise, including Ilm Fm, Kerning Cultures, FeMENA, and Ihky Ya Masr.

In order to answer some of the multiple questions about the future of the podcast industry in the MENA, we interviewed Ramsey Tesdell, the managing partner of Sowt.

When it was first established in 2013 in Jordan, Sowt was a social media platform based on sharing voice recordings. However almost a year ago, it pivoted into an Arabic podcast producer as well as an aggregator.

Apart from Sowt, Tesdell participated in the making of 7iber.com, a digital multimedia outlet in Jordan. He is interested in audio and storytelling and is always recording stories for a future oral history project.

Wamda: While podcasts have become very popular in the west, it seems like the MENA region is lagging behind. Why? What is your evaluation of the market in the region?

RT: I think the market in the MENA is promising for audio content and podcasts. While consumption of podcast is low in the Arab world, we are seeing more audio content being produced for an Arabic audience, and I think we are just at the beginning of that trend especially that  radio still reaches a large percent of the population. The podcast scene reminds me of the blogging scene in 2005.

Ramsey Tesdell: via Ramsey Tesdell 

Wamda: Several podcasts are currently being produced in the region. How would you describe those, what are the general trends and patterns?

RT: Most podcasts being produced now are talkshows that require very little editing or shows where gamers discuss the latest video games. There is a handful of shows that are what we like to call ‘narrative-driven’, where the story is the important component and the editing and the show follow the story in an interesting and logical way. This content is far more engaging than [talk shows], but more difficult and more expensive to make because it requires much more planning in terms of script writing and editing.  

Wamda: How are podcasts distinct from other media channels?

RT: I think podcasts require a bit more attention to consume than other media. But for us, that means the audience is more tuned in and more valuable for advertising or for other forms of revenue generation. The audience, while possibly a smaller niche, is a dedicated and affluent one.

Wamda: Who are the potential podcast publishers in the region?

RT: Publishers who could easily come in are radio stations. Other big players like Al Jazeera are starting to experiment with podcasts. I think it would be a good thing for a big player to jump into the scene. It would give it more energy as well as money and raise the profile of podcasts.  First episode of the Jordanian Eib podcast produced by Sowt. Eib tackles social taboos within the Arab society.

Wamda: Sowt is currently funded by the European Endowment for Democracy, but are you thinking of a more sustainable model?

RT: This is the tricky part with all businesses, but particularly with media businesses in the MENA region. For Sowt, we are hoping to build up our community, develop a hit show and start attracting more audience to our shows and our website. We are working on creating shows with other organizations, including launching the Arabic version of Medicins Sans Frontiere podcast as well as other branded podcasts. We hope to work with other media organizations to help them produce high quality audio. So for example, we could partner with someone like the BBC Arabic or Al Jazeera to build a podcast for them as a production model.

Wamda: What do you think of monetizing through ads?

RT: I personally don’t find advertising is a sustainable model to go forward, especially in the current environment in the MENA region and for smaller organizations. I think focusing on a niche audience, building out high-quality podcasts that a small number of people will pay for, and then innovating as you move forward, is a more sustainable revenue-generating approach.

Wamda: What are some of the challenges that you are facing?

RT: Podcasts are new, so there is an uphill battle getting people to listen, but honestly, we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the engagement. The other obstacle is finding the right journalists who are interested in trying out something new.

Disclaimer: The author of this article is a podcast producer at Sowt

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