Podcasts in the Middle East: A missed opportunity?

June 22, 2017

Founded in 2012, Sowt—Arabic for ‘voice’—is a podcast platform that provides high quality, on-demand audio content for Arabic speakers around the world. We spoke with Ramsey Tesdell, Sowt’s Managing Partner, about how podcasting can help NGOs extend their reach and the growth of audio storytelling across the Arab world. 
 
1. Tell us a little more about SOWT and why you founded it? 
Sowt was founded in 2012 as a social network through voice. In some ways, it was ahead of its time as people weren’t used to sending voice notes to each other. Now, voice notes have become very popular through WhatsApp and other messaging platforms. In 2016, I joined Sowt in order to change directions towards podcasts and audio storytelling.
 
For me, audio storytelling is an exciting world that has remained unexplored in Arabic and in the digital sphere. Podcasts have become extremely popular in the US and Europe, but many of the radio stations in the Arab world haven’t innovated alongside changing user consumption habits. 
 
We think there are two problems that we are trying to solve: One, that there is a lack of high-quality content Arabic podcasts; Two, that of the few things that exist out there, it is really difficult to find the shows and the people.it relies on word of mouth, which doesn’t really get to reach a mass audience. We are developing our own shows - three this year - and a website that curates the best content out there into one place so that users can find good content
 
2. Why do you think there aren't many high-quality Arabic podcasts in the Middle East? 
Podcasts now remind me of blogging back in 2006. Many blogs were coming out and most of the bloggers were technical people who were able to blog because they had the background required to set everything up. And just as with blogging or any other form of storytelling, quality production takes times and talent. 
 
So we’re seeing a few podcast networks. Once a famous person or organisation moves into the playing field, we’ll see a bigger and faster movement towards podcasts. And when radios realise how easy it is to create on-demand content people’s  mindset towards podcasts will change as well.
 
3. Why should advocates/NGO’s consider starting a podcast? Is it a niche market that can be tapped into?
I think that anyone who is interested in storytelling - from NGOs to media organizations - should consider making audio a part of their production. Specifically for NGOs, the podcasting scene is quite small, so there is a big opportunity to reach a lot of people and be recognized quickly. You won’t be competing with a lot of other people and shows. 
 
Also, NGOs are a great place to find really great stories and provide the opportunity for those people to create really good stories.
 
Whether we like it or not, radio still reaches a lot of people, more than the internet right now in a lot of places around the world, especially the Arab world. Illiteracy and poverty play a role in how people receive information and radio are still an important player in the field. As such, podcast content can easily be re-developed into radio shows for local radio stations to play. This provides cheap content for radio stations but also helps the podcast reach more people. 
 
4. What should people consider when choosing topics to discuss in their podcasts? 
 
We are working on ideas around narrative-driven podcasts, where the story is the main feature. A lot of podcasts right now are based on interviews, which are fine but are not the most engaging form of content. Interviews are an obviously incredibly important tool, but we are focusing our efforts on creating narrative-driven shows. 
 
So in our opinion, the focus should be on the story and the art of telling that story. 

5. What metrics are used to measure the success of your podcasts? 
 Mostly, the industry still isn’t clear on what metrics are used. But generally speaking, we are seeing a coalescing around listens, downloads and the amount of time people listen. For the most part, listeners are really dedicated audiences to podcasts, so producers can charge higher advertising rates. The big podcasts are listened to and downloaded millions of times per episode, but I’d guess most shows of the more popular shows are in a couple of thousands per episode. 
 
6. How can someone start their own podcast and how should they promote it? 
Generally, all you need is a microphone and an idea. You can record directly to places like SoundCloud or a host of other places that host content. Promoting through social networks and Facebook. Also, getting in with other podcasts and hosts is a great way to get more people to learn about your show. Like any other content, quality really matters. 
 
To learn more about Sowt, sign up for their bi-monthly newsletter And check out Sowt.com to listen to the best podcasts from the region.