During Ramadan, the number one podcast on iTunes in the MENA region was an Arabic dramatisation of the series of traditional folk tales 1001 Nights.
It was produced by Finyal Media, a podcast production company based
Finyal was established in November 2018 by Mshairy Alonaizy and Majid Al Qasimi, two young entrepreneurs who wanted to tell “stories about the region for the region”.
1001 Nights is Finyal’s third podcast. The first two from its stable were Millennial Mirrors and Yalla.
Millennial Mirrors was what started it. Alonaizy had been producing it himself, as a personal project on the side of his day job as a strategic performance consultant. It looks at the personal needs and aspirations of millennials living in the Arab world. “I just wanted to do 10 episodes because I really just wanted to have 10 or 15 interesting conversations, and I wanted to record them and share them because I felt they would be important for people to hear,” says Alonaizy.
One of the guests on that show was Al Qasimi. The two of them used the final episode of season one to discuss the other guests that had been on so far, and to provide a retrospective of the show. That episode was the first show Alonaizy had recorded with video.
The video experiment didn’t work. (“I hired a camera crew and brought them to the studio because I really wanted to just test out how I felt about video and how I felt about doing an episode on video,” says Alonaizy. “I didn’t like it. I felt it didn’t really add anything to the mix, for me at least, in terms of what we were trying to achieve out of Millennial Mirrors.”) But the two men enjoyed working together and decided to start a podcast company.
“I decided I wanted to do this; I wanted to do more of this,” says Alonaizy. “But I also realised it was all fun and games when you are doing it as a passion project and you can just pay a whole bunch of money out of pocket. But if you really want to keep it sustainable you need to create a structure around it, to create a business model around it that keeps it sustainable. And that’s where the idea of creating a podcast media production company came to me.”
Alonazy quit his consultancy job to start Finyal. Al Qasimi, who is qualified as a veterinary doctor, still works for the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. The co-founders (Alonaizy’s title is chief creative officer, Al Qasimi is chief people officer) have also hired a CEO.
Leila Alanani, who has worked as a management consultant and strategist in media and telecoms for the past 14 years, joined Finyal in February.
By that stage, the two founders already had their next project under way. Yalla is something of a meta-project, in that it is a podcast about setting up a podcast company, Finyal. It is not without precedent, though. It was inspired by and echoes 2014’s Start Up, where former This American Life producer Alex Blumburg podcasts about setting up his own podcast company, Gimlet Media. (Gimlet was founded in 2014 in New York, and was acquired by Swedish audio streaming firm Spotify for more than $200m in 2016.)
Finyal (the name comes from the traditional small Arab coffee cup) sees itself as a trail blazer in the region.
“There’s basically only a handful, if that, of companies in the region that are actually building networks of podcasts,” says Alanani. There are hundreds of podcasts in the region, even if there are fewer than in other markets, she adds. Then she says: “It’s just that the vast majority are done by hobbyists, or people who are basically just creating single shows. In terms of the companies that are actually trying to build networks of multiple podcast series, there’s just a handful, and to our knowledge nobody’s actually monetising them yet.”
Finyal worked on two more podcasts over the summer, which launched last week. Watr (which is Arabic for a guitar string, is a 10-episode music series showcasing up-and-coming local talent
in the UAE. It is produced in partnership with Dubai Opera. The Pitch is a sports show that provides light-hearted coverage and discussion of the week’s football.
Alanani says: “In general, we are really differentiating ourselves from other podcast networks in the region by exploring genres that we know will have broad appeal for younger Arabs across the region and which are underrepresented in audio, like sports and fiction.”
In five years’ time the company wants to be producing 24 shows a year. It currently sells advertising on all its shows and has started producing branded podcasts, including one for Carrefour, on children’s health and nutrition.
There is a growing number of regional podcasts being produced. And that in turn is leading to more awareness of the medium. This encourages more people to produce podcasts, and the feedback loop builds the market.
Internationally, podcasts have been around since the early 2000s but their latest resurgence was sparked, or at least signalled, by the runaway success of This American Life’s Serial, whose first season in 2014 investigated the 1999 killing of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed of her murder.
That series has been downloaded more than 100 million times. And was followed by two more seasons.
The success of Serial led to other true crime podcasts following in its wake, and a general growth in the podcast market. This was facilitated by affordable mobile data and the shift in podcast listening from MP3 players to always-online mobile phones that can download or stream content on the go, rather than having to be updated from a personal computer.
Major western English-speaking markets such as the US and the UK have now accepted podcasts as mainstream media, but the Middle East still has some way to go.
“Whereas, for example, when you look to the west, because of things like Serial and stuff like that, they’ve been educated and trained in long-form content, here the tendency tends to be towards shorter-form content,” says Alonaizy. “You’re aiming for 20 minutes versus, for example, 40 minutes in the US.”
But this doesn’t mean MENA has to constantly bring up the rear.
US podcast penetration growth has been fairly steady since 2008, says Alanani, although it has accelerated in the last year: “In 2019, 20 million more people in the US had listened to a podcast than the year before, probably thanks to the efforts of the music streaming platforms like Spotify, as well as a significant increase in supply.”
She says: “I think the interesting thing is that when those trends come here, you kind of leapfrog that entire revolution because all the hard work has already been done.”
Statistics website Numbeo estimates the average commute time in Dubai to be 39 minutes, and 34 minutes in Abu Dhabi. Compare this with 42 minutes in New York and 47 minutes in London. There is some debate as to whether the UAE has a ‘commuter culture’, but there’s little denying that with more than 80 per cent of the population getting to work or school by car, there is time to listen to podcasts.
And that’s not the only time they come in handy.
“I would say that commute factors in a big way to the idea of the consumption of podcasts,” says Al Qasimi. “But there are many other situations when you can be dealing with podcasts. For example,
I make my morning coffee with The Economist’s daily brief, The Intelligence. Or, for example, you will have a podcast on when you are doing some gardening. There are many places where your eyes and your hands are busy where watching something and the radio are not options. And that’s where podcasts come in and fill that space up.”
He adds: “There are a lot of people I know who work with their hands either in the garage or in doing something and like to have a podcast in the background as a way to keep up with current affairs or learn what’s happening, and consume audio because their eyes are busy.”
Finyal has also established a licensing deal with Emirates to make its podcasts available across the airline’s in-flight entertainment.
Because podcasts can be niche, listeners have more choice about what they listen to, and can pick that content more specifically than is possible with radio, which tends to be produced for a broader, mass-market appeal.
The cost of producing a podcast depends on what is required – from two people sitting in a room and chatting, through a full sound-stage production to sending a journalist into the field to conduct months of research and interviews. Finyal doesn’t seem to be pigeonholing itself into one format or another, but its founders say it will be going for quality. High standards of content and production will allow the budding network to stand out from the small but swelling crowd of local competitors, and will help raise the standard of regional podcasting.