The rise of Arabic podcasts: 'a digital revival of a long-term tradition'

A new generation of young and forward-thinking producers are providing an alternative view on the Arabic world

Dana Ballout, left, is one of four podcast producers working at Kerning Cultures, a platform that attracts a diverse audience by producing content from across the world. Courtesy Miriam Berger
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Creative young people across the region are ushering in a new age of ­Arabic-language podcasts, where new kinds of reporting, conversations and commentaries flourish.

The forward-thinking producers leading the way want to tell stories that reflect the lives of their peers, Arabs of the digital generation, whose experiences and opinions often don't make it into the mainstream news cycles, or are only covered in ­English-language media. 

In an ever-changing media landscape, podcasts are still a relatively unhindered medium to host critical discussions, although securing independent and sustainable funding and identifying a successful business model remains a challenge.

"Podcasts in Arabic are a new thing that came about in the past three or four years," says Sabreen Taha, head of podcasts with Sowt, one of the region's pioneering podcast platforms and a company that operates in Amman. "It kind of exploded. It's everywhere in the Arab world.

We are always facing this challenge of how Arabic content on the internet isn't that big, so having Arabic podcasts helps us enrich the Arabic content on the internet."

'A place for people to tell their stories'

Hebah Fisher, 29, the co-­founder and chief executive of Kerning Cultures, a platform in the UAE producing shows in both English and Arabic, says part of the appeal of podcasts is the culture of oral storytelling in the Middle East. "It's a digital revival of a long-term tradition," she says. "People have realised that there is a thing called podcasts that can fill the most mundane part of your day and make it magical."

Listeners also crave something different from the standard diet of political, or politicised, news. Fisher says they want something "a lot more focused on personal narratives, as opposed to affiliation with this belief or this government".

It's a digital revival of a long-term tradition. People have realised that there is a thing called podcasts that can fill the most mundane part of your day and make it magical.

The Gulf, in particular, has become an Arabic podcast hotspot, with platforms such as Mstdfr Network in Jeddah. Beirut also remains a traditional media and culture centre in the Middle East.
Sowt was launched in 2013 as a social network, but it began making audio waves about four years later with a series of ground-breaking, narrative-driven podcasts. Among Sowt's most popular shows is Eib (Arabic for shame), which explores all kinds of social, cultural and religious taboos, from parenting practices to divorce, rape, and gender and sexuality issues. "It's a place for people to tell their stories," says Taha.

Other podcasts have focused on the stories of people who are stateless or have emigrated from the Middle East; another profiled the rise and fall of one female Syrian activist, and subjects such as religion have also been explored.

Sowt develops its own ideas for stories, which are then produced by a handful of staff members and a network of freelancers, while its shows are sponsored by international agencies and both local and international NGOs.

Ramsey Tesdell, 36, one of Sowt's co-founders, says about 50 per cent of their listeners come from Saudi Arabia. He declines to give the overall number of downloads, but says some episodes have been downloaded about 60,000 times.

He says Sowt has so far remained in a "weird no-man's land" free from government pressure because traditional licensing regulations and other rules that govern media don't yet extend to podcasts. Authorities have yet to take notice of podcasts, says Fisher. "That's going to change as it becomes more mainstream."

Popularity spreading around the region

For now, the podcast scene continues to grow. There are news­letters and online forums such as Podcast Arabic, where listeners can find podcasts and would-be podcasters can seek out advice about how to get started. The first formal gathering of Middle East podcasters was held in Dubai last September.

There are a growing number of Arabic-language podcasts covering a variety of social and political issues. Courtesy Miriam Berger

"We are starting to congregate as an ecosystem, sharing best practices and ideas," says Fisher. "What that means is that you'll see the quality of production going up and up and up out of the region."

Kerning Cultures, which started in 2015, follows a different model, with its four staff members – Fisher, Dana Ballout, Bella Ibrahim and Alex Atack – working from different continents and time zones. This is reflected in the diversity of their listeners.

Others, such as SouriaLi, an online radio network, have a sharper focus, honing in on issues relevant to Syria and the Syrian diaspora community through short and long-form stories. Its 27 producers operate from 14 different countries.

For now, because podcasting is not very common in Syria, the authorities are not very scared of us.But at the same time, once they are comfortable enough … they will come for us at some point.

Co-founder Iyad Kallas, who lives in France, says many of the network's listeners tune in for the cultural series such as Fatoush, which looked at the history of Syrian foods. His team are also working to promote a podcasting culture in their communities using initiatives such as workshops in refugee camps.

Kallas, who started out as a blogger, draws similarities between the Arab blogging sphere of the 2000s and the world of podcasting. He relishes the relative freedom that podcasts offer, but is acutely aware that Syrian authorities are monitoring the shows they produce. He does not expect to be left alone forever.

"For now, because podcasting is not very common in Syria, the authorities are not very scared of us," says Kallas. "But at the same time, once they are comfortable enough … they will come for us at some point."

SouriaLi relies on international funding, donations and partnerships to pay for production, although Kallas says funding is diminishing as global interest in what is going on in Syria begins to wane.

Fisher says the podcasts produced by Kerning Cultures offer a good alternative to the portrayals of Arabic life in western media, which she says can often be inaccurate. 

"We're Arab. We are telling our own stories," she says.