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Turn up the volume – Sofia Serrano examines the regional podcasting scene

Podcasts are starting to take off in the Middle East, with outside investors and marketers showing increased interest. Could Covid-19 be a turning point for the medium? By Sofia Serrano

By Sofia Serrano

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 in-browser 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” post-pandemic, 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.

Sofia Serrano is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.

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