Listen up: the rise of podcasts in the Middle East

Podcasts are evolving fast in the Middle East and further afield, as pioneering broadcasters find new ways to monetise and engage listeners

Earlier this year, the journalist Razan Alzayani flew from her home in Dubai to Dunkirk, in northern France. There, she met Bash, a young musician who had fled from Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe with his brothers and parents. During the journey, his mother had become separated from the rest of the family, and with no means of contacting her or tracking her down, he and his brothers crisscrossed countries, visiting more than 70 refugee camps in an attempt to find her.

It’s an extraordinary story, and it’s told in a gripping episode of Kerning Cultures, the podcast that Alzayani founded with fellow Dubai resident Hebah Fisher a little over a year ago. The podcast combines interviews with clips of news footage, analysis and field recordings, and has covered everything from the Lebanese start-up scene, to Americans of Middle Eastern descent who supported Donald Trump.

“We didn’t really feel like our experiences in the region were reflected in the media surrounding us,” Fisher says, explaining why she made the jump from working for the start-up incubator Impact Hub Dubai to launching a podcast, inspired in part by the US radio show Radiolab.

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The Kerning Cultures team. The monthly show has around 2,000 listeners

“We've often relied on people from the outside to depict our struggles, our wars and our successes,” says Alzayani, who was previously working as a freelance photo and video journalist, “but no one knows this region better than ourselves. Our stories are so intricately weaved into the fabric of our histories, societies, cultures, religions, personal experiences and beliefs; we want to give justice to all these factors that determine our narratives.”

Only 11 years have passed since Apple enabled podcast distribution through iTunes, bringing the medium into the mainstream, and 64 per cent of US citizens have still never listened to a podcast episode, according to an Edison Research study conducted in 2016. But Kerning Cultures is a sign that the podcasting is growing up fast – not only in the US, where shows like investigative true-crime show Serial can attract millions of listeners per episode, but across the world.

“We’re at the start of this journey,” says Adam Martin, Chief Content Officer of a Stockholm-based platform called Acast, launched in 2014, which hosts podcasts, sells ad space and paywalls ad-free content. It was preceded in the US by Midroll Media, a podcast production, advertising and distribution platform that was created the previous year.

A blog post announcing the launch pointed out that iTunes podcast subscriptions have reached a billion, and growth will continue as cars become equipped with 3G and the capacity to automatically download audio. In 2015, former US President Barack Obama gave podcasting a seal of approval by traveling to a garage in East Los Angeles to be interviewed by the host of the comedy podcast WTF, and in October 2016 a three-day podcast festival called Now Hear This kicked off in Anaheim, California, demonstrating the fervour of the medium’s fans.

We’re trying to create a listening experience that transports you to a different world

Hebah Fisher, Cofounder of Kerning Cultures

It’s not only broadcasters, print publications and independent amateurs are starting to take advantage of the opportunities the form offers. “In the last six months I’ve seen a tenfold increase in queries from brands wanting to make shows,” says Martin. “It’s significantly cheaper than maintaining an always-on video strategy and also provides a much richer, more intimate medium through which to engage the consumer.”

Alzayani says that it is this intimacy that she finds so magical. “It’s so honest,” she says. “It’s very easy to tell if someone sounds disingenuous.” Her cofounder, Hebah Fisher, explains that the team makes the most of the listening experience by paying careful attention to the shows’ sound design, and bringing each episode to life in a visually evocative way. “We’re trying to create this listening experience that transports you to a different world,” so that listeners feel that they’re “walking in the shoes of the characters.” She adds: “that’s so important to build empathy.”

Nicholla Henderson Hall, the Dubai-based founder and presenter of a podcast on women entrepreneurs in the Middle East called The Learning Curve agrees that there’s something special about the format. “When you write, it’s one-dimensional,” she says. “You can’t hear the passion. When you put voice to it, you can hear the energy, the silent question marks, the tone, the way [the speakers] stretch words and slow them down. It takes the story to another level.”

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Ira Glass, host of weekly podcast This American Life

Commuting is a popular time to listen to podcasts, according to Adam Martin, with an average of 21 minutes spent on each listening session - and podcasters are able to capture their listeners’ full attention in a way that’s unique to audio. This level of intimacy and engagement, Martin says, is why “a single listen to a podcast is significantly more valuable to a media owner versus an eyeball on a website or video view.”

There are challenges to be overcome, though, before podcasting truly becomes a mass-media format. The biggest of these is discovery, Adam Martin says: “squinting at a thumbnail of a show you’ve never heard of and seeing that it’s 45 minutes long is a big ask.” The press rarely covers podcasts, unless they are breakout successes like Serial, and it’s hard to share podcast clips online the way people share GIFs and movie trailers.

This is something that the long-running radio show and podcast This American Life is trying to change. In October 2016, its producers created an app called Shortcut, which allows you to look up the text transcription of an episode, select a clip that’s up to 30 seconds long, convert it into an audio clip, and share it on social media.

This type of social-media sharing will increasingly help people discover new shows, Martin says, as will the growth of “smart, personalised playlists” – generated both by expert curators and by algorithms. Networks like Howl, Midroll Media’s premium subscription platform, which specialises in comedy, will also proliferate and promote shows through other channels.

In the Middle East, Alzayani says, “the podcast wave hasn’t quite hit just yet as it has in the US and in the UK, so I think we're going to see many podcasts coming from the region in the next couple of years.”

Other podcasts that are growing in popularity include MSTDFR: the “Arabish” Geek Podcast, which covers an eclectic mix of subjects, which include how to stay healthy during Ramadan, which super powers would be adversely affected by the laws of physics and the challenges facing the new Arab generation – all broadcast in “Arablish”, a mix of Arabic and English. Fisher reckons they have mapped about 50 to 60 podcasts that relate to the Middle East, but haven’t found any that rival Kerning Culture’s commitment to ambitious field reporting.

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Serial creators Sarah Koening and Dana Chivvis. The whodunnit podcast became a smash hit in the US

Kerning Cultures is currently released in monthly instalments, with about 2,000 listeners per episode and partnerships with several regional media organisations, publishers and broadcasters who redistribute the stories.

In October 2016, the team threw two “listening parties”, in New York and Dubai, which involved playing an episode to an assembled audience and discussing its themes. They are currently testing monetisation models, have just started selling ads, and hope to begin creating podcasts and audio stories for other brands, as a way of sustaining their own show.

It’s been a whirlwind year, but what keeps her going, Alzayani says, “is when listeners tell us they felt we were telling their story… or when people tell us that we're talking about issues that society pushes under the surface, or thank us for dispelling the common narrative. This makes all the hard work worthwhile.”