Podcasts, digital audio series that can be downloaded and listened to through a smartphone, are becoming increasingly common in the Arab region.
While they still only have a niche audience, podcasts produced in the region are offering a largely youthful audience the chance to listen in on open debates, to hear about sensitive topics, and to learn from experts who are passionate about their careers or research.
Podcasts often act as “an inclusive, safe space for people to find out things,” said Khayra Bundakji, who hosts a show from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
The Sowt (“Voice”) network in Jordan, established in 2016, is producing half a dozen shows this year. Its flagship show, Eib (“Shame”), is a polished series on social issues and phenomena surrounded by stigma. It has tackled topics such as online dating, bullying, religious conversion, homosexuality and harassment.
Eib gets between 10,000 and 50,000 listeners per episode. Other current Sowt shows include ones on the relationship between religion and the state; on the disappearance of the Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh; on statelessness in the region; and on the parliament in Jordan.
“People are starved for really good Arabic content,” the Sowt founder, Ramsey Tesdell, told me.
There is also “a large opportunity for podcasts as a learning tool,” noted Tesdell. He said Sowt has received many requests for the transcripts of its shows, to be used for teaching Arabic as a second language, and that the network has had talks about adapting its podcasts to be audio materials for Arabic language learning.
Although most of Sowt’s shows are story-driven, often “academics and experts inform the angle and the idea of the story,” said Tesdell. The network is currently developing a podcast along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, which revisits overlooked or misunderstood moments in history, that would rely heavily on research and academic sources.
The Mstdfr podcast network in Saudi Arabia draws its name from the Arabic word mustadfir, the closest term to “nerd” or “geek.” The team behind the show is “embracing the term,” founder Rami Taibah told me in a phone call from Jeddah.
The Mstdfr Show, the network’s main program, which Taibah co-hosts with performer Ammar Sabban, gets over 35,000 monthly listeners. Originally dedicated to “geek culture,” the show has evolved into something more freewheeling.
“We let the conversation take us wherever it takes us,” said Taibah. “The trick is finding the interesting people to get on the show. It’s unscripted.”
The show often features guests from creative fields or young entrepreneurs. It is delivered in a signature fluid mix of Arabic and English (or “Arablish”). This annoys some listeners, who accuse the hosts and guests of showing off. But the truth, says Taibah, is that this is just the way he and many others speak.
While the show is often heavy on pop-culture references—mostly to TV shows, movies and video games—one recent episode was devoted to the question of how to learn to love to read.
Another of the network’s shows, Ilm FM (“Science FM”), is hosted by Taibah and by Sari Sabban, an assistant professor of biology at King Abdulaziz University. It has 25,000 to 30,000 monthly listeners.
The goal of the show is to discuss science news in a way that is accessible to a general audience and to encourage Arabs to enter the field of science. The hosts respond to questions from listeners and counter scientifically unsound rumors that circulate online.
“I think most of our audience are students or people who are interested in science,” said Taibah. “We get a lot of comments like, ‘I never thought of science this way,’” or from people saying that we encouraged them to get into science.
The Mstdfr Network also puts out shows on gaming and business. And Khayra Bundakji hosts Azzbda (“The Gist”), a show about how to live “an authentic life.” What that means, Bundakji told me, is that the show asks: “Who would you be if you weren’t restricted by who you think you should be?”
Bundakji’s program is also a platform for women. In the beginning, the idea was simply to invite people who were knowledgeable or successful in particular fields. What Bundakji noticed was that the women she asked often demurred, arguing they weren’t really “experts.” She persisted and her guests have included women talking about their work in physics, psychology, acting, entrepreneurship, and much more.
She said the theme of the show, which emerged over time, has become “how to be true to yourself, especially in this region where there is so much pressure to be representative of your family and you forget who you are, what you are passionate about.”
In recent years, Bundakji noted, it has quite suddenly become a possibility for young Saudis to pursue new careers as artists, filmmakers or athletes. This is encouraged as part of a much-touted plan to modernize society and diversify the economy. (See a related article, “Crown Prince Pushes Change in Saudi Higher Education.”)
“Now Saudis can do it too, and they’ll actually congratulate you on it,” said Bundakji. But young people are still unsure how to get into these fields, or what careers in them are like.
Podcasting itself hasn’t quite developed into a career in the region. For the moment, podcasts are still “a bit of an experiment,” said Tesdell, and its practitioners are “flying under the radar.”
The economic infrastructure to advertise on podcasts doesn’t exist yet. The Sowt network partly finances itself through grants to produce particular series. Mstdfr is self-funded, but an early sponsorship by Uber allowed it to acquire high-end recording equipment.
Yet many of those involved in the field say the audience for podcasting has the potential to grow quickly. The first Middle East Podcast Forum will be held on September 29 in Dubai, and announcements of new regional podcast platforms and shows are expected.