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Evolving The Arab Podcast Culture

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Evolving The Arab Podcast Culture

By Hanisha Lalwani

With only a handful of companies within the region experimenting with podcasts, this on-demand audio medium remains largely untapped.

“Since we first launched the forum, our ecosystem has evolved,” said Hebah Fisher, co-founder and CEO of Kerning Culture, the organizer of the forum. She added that an increasing number of people are turning their podcasts from hobbies into full-time jobs which is a sign that brands are starting to take notice of. 

Fischer’s comments were made at the second edition of the Middle East Podcast Forum that  took place last Friday with a huge turnout from established podcast creators, aspiring podcasters, avid listeners and marketers.

Jameel Arts Centre Dubai played host to an audience size of over 200 podcast enthusiasts, almost double the turnout at the debut forum. Apart from the UAE, the creative community (mostly people between the age group of 16 – 38 years) came in from all across the Arab world, namely, Saudi Arabia, Beirut, Oman, Jordan and Lebanon.

While the industry locally still lacks a comparable jolt like the show Serial rendered in the West in 2014, podcasts are undeniably burgeoning into the platform for storytelling, and one monitored closely by brands in the region. 

Challenges in Podcast

Podcasts are on the advertisers’ radar but as Guido Mercati, Publicis Groupe’s Regional Director – Digital & Social Media shared, “The reality is that our clients currently spend close to zero on audio content. We have a strategic role in (co)thinking and (co)producing relevant narrative content for audio, contributing to a virtuous ecosystem. I reckon this is indeed the keyword to bring to the region: ecosystem, made up of brands, agencies, distributors, podcast networks and podcasters.

Abdulrahman Al Omran, Founder of Podcastarabic.com,  added that with global brands still demonstrating a low risk appetite for including podcasts into their overall marketing strategy, local brands and startups may also be shying away.  In addition, Rami Zeidan, Anghami’s VP Partnerships, and panel speaker at the forum shared that with a lack of varied local content, the industry risks veering listeners towards international shows. “The technology exists but we need more stories for the region from the region.”

An attempt to address a familiar complaint, that of the podcast data vacuum, came from the Markettiers, the broadcast specialist,  when they released results of a survey in August exploring how podcasts are gaining popularity in the UAE. With 1.3 million listeners in the UAE and 91 percent of regular listeners trusting podcasts versus other traditional forms of media, podcasts present an opportunity for forward-thinking brands to adopt.

With MEPRA successfully launching the The Brief and Marketing Society currently developing a show, industry leaders are paving the way. Cheryl King of Markettiers spoke of how a brand’s podcast can also be used as a powerful internal communications tool, especially with remote and flex-work options becoming popular in many organizations.

But with over 700,000 podcasts globally, discovery of a podcast show by a listener remains the creator’s dilemma. Rana Nawas of the podcast series When Women Win shared that her listenership numbers spiked when Apple featured her English language series as the most listened to podcast in the Middle East. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s hip-hop guru Hassane Dennaoui a.k.a. Big Hass said that by offering his show Buckle Up in both audio and video formats, he managed to expand his audience base, leaving them to choose the consumption format they prefer. 

Hussam ElHage of Let’s Take this Online professed going intensive on social media, testing his content even on alternate platforms like Quora and TikTok. 

Monetizing Podcast

Talking about monetizing the podcast platform, Ramsey G. Tesdell of Sowt, an Arabic language podcast receiving between 10,000 and 20,000 downloads per episode, said that he avoids going the advertising route. Rather, he spoke of his success working with partners like UNDP on developing branded content, with a per episode pricing strategy.

Founder of podcast aggregator Podio, the Beirut based Stefano Fallaha said that he was piloting the membership and subscription model, while looking at innovative podcast distribution and revenue-generating models such as partnering with telecom companies and radio stations.

Meanwhile, MSTDF’s founder Rami Taibah said he adopts a more flexible approach, by reassessing podcast advertising costs based on the goal the sponsor aims to achieve. Co-founder & CCO at Finyal Media, Mshari Al-Onaizy advised show producers to bring on board only advertisers that align with the audience. Live events also open up an additional revenue stream, they shared. 

With a view to further strengthen the ecosystem, the Middle East Podcast Forum will be hosted soon in Saudi Arabia, a country whose youth are heavily investing into the podcast culture.

Hanisha Lalwani is an award-winning communications professional. She is the current marketing manager for the Middle East and Africa at PageGroup. You can follow her on Twitter @hanishalalwani 

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