The voice of the Mid­dle East

Re­gional pod­cast­ers may be turn­ing up the vol­ume, but are they be­ing heard? And could the pan­demic be a turn­ing point?

Campaign Middle East - - FRONT PAGE - Sofia Ser­rano Sofia Ser­rano is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Dubai. sofis­er­

Pod­casts have proved to be a reli­able medium to reach dif­fer­ent au­di­ences, and their lis­ten­er­ship con­tin­ues to grow. The tran­si­tion to mo­bile tech­nolo­gies and peo­ple’s need to mul­ti­task make the self-con­tained shows the per­fect com­pan­ion while com­mut­ing, ex­er­cis­ing or cook­ing. In the MENA re­gion more peo­ple are lis­ten­ing, and mar­keters and in­vestors alike are start­ing to take no­tice.

World­wide there are more than a mil­lion shows, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates from the web­site Pod­cast In­sights. More than 1,000 are pro­duced in the Mid­dle East and that num­ber is grow­ing. In 2018 pod­cast ad rev­enue was worth $480m in the US, ac­cord­ing to Statista, which ex­pected this to rise to more than $1bn by next year. Stream­ing plat­form Spotify is bank­ing on the trend and re­cently spent $600m to ac­quire the pod­cast net­works Gim­let Me­dia, Par­cast, An­chor, Ringer and The Joe Ro­gan Ex­pe­ri­ence. The US trend is echoed in the Mid­dle East, as pod­casts num­bers are ris­ing and com­pa­nies are turn­ing to the medium to con­nect with their au­di­ences. As pod­casts have been grow­ing for the past few years, so it seems that even dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic the trend con­tin­ues its thriv­ing pat­tern.

He­bah Fisher, the co-founder and CEO of the Kern­ing Cul­tures pod­cast, sees “pod­casts as a digital re­vival of our long-time oral tra­di­tion in the Arab world”. That tra­di­tion is one of the rea­sons UAE ra­dio reaches a wider au­di­ence than tele­vi­sion, and as digital progress moves fast in the coun­try, pod­casts have lots of po­ten­tial.

A study from North­west­ern Univer­sity in­di­cated that the two coun­tries from the MENA re­gion with the high­est per­cent­age of lis­ten­ers tun­ing in to a pod­cast were Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates in 2018. A re­port on pod­casts re­leased last year by Mar­ket­tiers MENA, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with 4DC, found that al­ready 16 per cent of peo­ple in the UAE and 15 per cent in Saudi Ara­bia tune in to a pod­cast reg­u­larly. Fur­ther­more, 92 per cent of those lis­ten­ers trust this form of me­dia more than tra­di­tional forms. And the re­ten­tion rate is high. An es­ti­mated 90 per cent of lis­ten­ers who be­gin a pod­cast will lis­ten un­til the end.

While pod­casts are grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in the Mid­dle East, there is a short­age of Ara­bic-lan­guage con­tent and lo­cal sto­ries. The po­ten­tial to fill this void and di­ver­sify the con­tent for this au­di­ence is still largely un­ex­ploited, but there have been ma­jor ad­vances. For in­stance, Omar Tom, co-host of The Dukkan Show, says his was one of the only pod­casts in the re­gion back in 2015. There has been ex­po­nen­tial growth since then and there were more than 500 pod­casts in the GCC by 2019.

Fisher also con­firms this growth but ac­knowl­edges the long path to travel when com­pared with mar­kets like the US where there are 150 mil­lion ac­tive lis­ten­ers and more than 350 thou­sand pod­casts. Still, the fact that MENA tops global us­age in plat­forms like Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, and also has one of the high­est smart­phone pen­e­tra­tions world­wide, gives a good pic­ture of how the re­gion has the po­ten­tial to be­come one of the most ac­tive pod­cast mar­kets within the next few years.

Some pod­casts have made in­ter­est­ing moves for the growth of the com­mu­nity, such as the start-up Kern­ing Cul­tures, which raised $460,000 from San Fran­cisco-based ven­ture cap­i­tal firm 500 Start-Ups in 2019 to serve its Ara­bic au­di­ences. The Saudi Ara­bian net­work MSTDFR has been cater­ing to an Ara­bic mar­ket for years, and now pro­duces about 14 shows. Finyal Me­dia launched an au­dio ver­sion of the clas­sic tale of A Thou­sand and One Nights. Sowt is pro­duc­ing shows with con­tent about sex­u­al­ity, re­li­gion, pol­i­tics and mu­sic. The Dukkan Show has be­come known for of­fer­ing a space for ex­plo­ration of Arab cul­ture. Th­manyah (Ara­bic for ‘Eight’) has a pop­u­lar show called Fn­jan (‘Cof­fee Cup’). Other me­dia com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Al Jazeera and The Na­tional are adding pod­casts to their con­tent. Even though num­bers are grow­ing, pod­casts still have un­tapped po­ten­tial in the Mid­dle East.

In the UAE, pod­cast­ers have used the free­dom of the for­mat to cre­ate orig­i­nal con­tent that res­onates with dif­fer­ent au­di­ences. Some of these pod­casts in­clude Ham­burger Gen­er­a­tion (cul­tural top­ics


from Western­ised Arab youth); DXBa­bies (women’s is­sues and life in Dubai from the per­spec­tive of co-hosts Maram El Hendy and Lana Makhzoumi); Digital Hoos (tech­nol­ogy mixed with me­dia and mar­ket­ing); The Han­gout with Rushdi (co­me­dian Rushdi Rafeek in­ter­views all kinds of per­son­al­i­ties from the UAE); and Hello Mam Sir Show (a Ta­ga­log show about the Filipino ex­pat com­mu­nity in the UAE).

Pod­cast au­di­ences have some unique traits. Stud­ies in the UK, US and UAE have shown that the pod­cast au­di­ence usu­ally pos­sesses more dis­pos­able in­come. The re­port by Mar­ket­tiers con­firms this trend in the UAE, where reg­u­lar pod­cast lis­ten­ers spend about 26 per cent more each month than non-reg­u­lar lis­ten­ers. This in­cludes out­lays on FMCG, life­style and in-home, in­sur­ance and subscripti­ons. It is an au­di­ence that can be ap­peal­ing for brands.

How­ever, Cheryl King, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at Mar­ket­tiers MENA, recog­nises the need to fo­cus on mea­sur­ing pod­cast en­gage­ment as brands want to know their ROI. At the mo­ment, pod­casts are frag­mented across dif­fer­ent plat­forms and ap­pli­ca­tions. One of the rea­sons is the smart­phone di­vide of iOS vs An­droid. This frag­men­ta­tion can cause trou­ble for pub­lish­ers want­ing to un­der­stand the pop­u­lar­ity of a par­tic­u­lar pod­cast. At the mo­ment, Google is en­ter­ing the pod­cast en­vi­ron­ment and re­cently im­ple­mented an in­browser pod­cast player that is de­vice-neu­tral. This move could pro­vide stronger lis­tener data and in­clude pod­casts in its search in­ven­tory, pro­vid­ing bet­ter al­go­rithms and tar­get­ing. The con­sol­i­da­tion of this plat­form can give brands solid ground to plan for in­formed bud­gets and spon­sor­ship buys.

The Covid-19 pan­demic has had dif­fer­ent ef­fects on dif­fer­ent pod­casts in the re­gion. Ram­sey Tes­dell, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Sowt, says that the cri­sis has sped up pod­cast growth as more peo­ple are en­gag­ing with on-de­mand con­tent. Sim­i­larly, Kern­ing Cul­tures has ex­pe­ri­enced a surge in its lis­ten­er­ship with its au­di­ence more than dou­bling since Covid-19 be­gan af­fect­ing the re­gion. This boost can be ex­plained by peo­ple’s chang­ing habits; be­fore, peo­ple were lis­ten­ing mostly while com­mut­ing, but now the time slots have changed to lis­ten­ing at home while un­der­tak­ing ac­tiv­i­ties such as cook­ing, do­ing puz­zles or ex­er­cis­ing.

For the peo­ple at the Dukkan Show, the num­ber of non-sub­scribers that lis­ten to the show in­creased from 20 per cent to 35 per cent of to­tal lis­ten­ers. The Dukkan Show’s Reem Hameed says this growth can be re­lated to peo­ple’s search for deep, au­then­tic and real sto­ries in the re­de­fined “com­mu­nity” post­pan­demic, where com­pul­sory phys­i­cal iso­la­tion has led to a de­sire for a vir­tual con­nec­tion. Hameed adds that record­ing from home has, in a way, made the con­ver­sa­tions more hon­est and au­then­tic as in­ter­vie­wees feel more com­fort­able at home.

King’s ex­pla­na­tion for the lis­ten­er­ship growth re­lates to peo­ple keep­ing in­formed about the pan­demic with pod­casts such as CNN’s Coro­n­avirus, or, at the other end of the spec­trum, as a form of es­capism by lis­ten­ing to men­tal health or mind­ful­ness pod­casts.

In terms of what’s to come for pod­casts, from the tech­no­log­i­cal side the dis­sem­i­na­tion of smart speak­ers may shape the land­scape for the near fu­ture, ac­cord­ing to Mar­ket­tiers’ pre­dic­tions. Hav­ing most smart speak­ers placed in com­mu­nal ar­eas (more than three quar­ters are in liv­ing rooms and kitchens in the US) can de­fine new dy­nam­ics for pod­casts. In these cir­cum­stances, the for­mat may ex­pand from one to mul­ti­ple users. These for­mats may lead to pod­cast in­no­va­tion to­wards com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ences such as med­i­ta­tions or cook­ing shows.

An­other op­por­tu­nity is the learn­ing-based pod­cast; in China and South Korea, pod­casts are mostly used for this pur­pose. In the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, with peo­ple study­ing at home, this is a trend that could boom in the re­gion. On the more cre­ative side, the Dukkan Show cre­ators pre­dict that nar­ra­tive will con­tinue evolv­ing as there is lots of free­dom for cre­at­ing a pod­cast. It is as sim­ple as hav­ing a mic, which en­cour­ages cre­ativ­ity that can re­sult in sonic ex­pe­ri­ences with lay­ered sto­ries. They also see bin­au­ral record­ing (which uses two mi­cro­phones) be­com­ing more ac­ces­si­ble shortly, to cre­ate more im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences. The team at Kern­ing Cul­tures are also opt­ing for more ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with nar­ra­tive and are cur­rently work­ing on their first fic­tion show.

De­spite all the ex­cit­ing in­no­va­tions and move­ment around pod­casts, there is still much room for this plat­form to grow in the re­gion. Sowt’s Tes­dell says main­stream pub­lish­ers are mak­ing pod­casts, but there is still the need for a pod­cast to go truly main­stream so that all other shows can ben­e­fit from the game-changer mo­ment. The Dukkan Show’s Hameed be­lieves an ac­qui­si­tion, echo­ing that of Gim­let, would be a ma­jor turn­ing point in the re­gion. Con­tent would have to be at a level to make its pur­chase ap­peal­ing, and Hameed says the next chal­lenge for the Dukkan Show is not to com­pro­mise its nar­ra­tive, while still be­ing ap­peal­ing for such an ac­qui­si­tion. Hameed’s col­league Tom says more at­ten­tion needs to be fo­cused on pod­cast cul­ture. This can hap­pen as gov­ern­ments and busi­nesses move into the pod­cast space and in­de­pen­dent shows con­tinue to flour­ish.

As the “new nor­mal” takes the stage and makes its mark on peo­ple’s daily rou­tines, there can be a lot of un­cer­tainty and anx­i­ety. In this sce­nario, hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to im­merse your­self in a pod­cast story and ac­tively use your imag­i­na­tion – au­dio in many ways can be ex­tremely vis­ual – can re­lease stress and brighten gloomy moods. And, con­sid­er­ing pod­casts’ po­ten­tial, start­ing a pod­cast can even be an ex­cit­ing new project to start work­ing on.

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