The Arab world is fond of big dramas on screen and page, but how will it react to them presented in audio?
It is a response Dubai company Finyal Media is looking forward to as it launches The Basement, a production it touts as the region’s first original fiction podcast series.
Available across main streaming platforms, the locally produced drama is set in Egypt and follows narrator and faded social media star Younan, as he starts his own podcast programme based on mysterious tapes found in his attic.
At an average of 25 minutes per episode, the 13-part weekly series is slick and atmospheric. The cast is made up of professional voice actors who have recorded their scenes in the studio as well as on location across Dubai.
If successful, The Basement will mark the Arab world’s first major inroads into the fiction podcast genre, one that has grown globally, thanks to the success of acclaimed US dramas Homecoming and Passenger List.
A key reason for the regional lag, explains The Basement’s Egyptian writer and director Omar Adam, 28, is a lack of infrastructure to produce such content.
“The hunger is absolutely there in that we have a great appreciation for storytelling. We can see that in television and film and all other aspects of the industry,” he says.
“Why that is not translated to podcasts is because there is higher entry barrier that comes with audio storytelling. It is very resource-intensive and it requires a specific skill set.”
An audio film
It also needs adventurous production houses such as Finyal Media to take a chance on an untested format. While the Business Bay company has produced shows focusing on literature (1,001 Nights), the regional music industry (Watr) and international football (Al Saha), the move to a scripted series was a deliberative process.
“It was something I always wanted to do. I have been thinking about it for some time because I was trying to tell a story that is tailor-made for audio and not a visual story stripped of imagery,” Adam says.
“About a year ago, I presented the idea of a podcast around someone listening to tapes and it all went from there.”
Then Covid-19 hit and like most sectors of the media industry, Adam and his cast and crew had to be creative and work hard to complete the project.
With the nationwide disinfection programme causing the closure of their studio for nearly two months, Adam says production resumed at a frenzied pace with certain scenes shot away from the studio to maintain social distancing. The end result is a more authentic product.
“We almost did the series like a real film with scenes taking place in actual settings and where the talent acted out the entire scene,” he says. “While doing that way is more difficult, it does sound more real than taking a clean sound to the studio and trying to make it more gritty.”
“We almost did the series like a real film with scenes taking place in actual settings and where the talent acted out the entire scene,” he says. “While doing it that way is more difficult, it does sound more real than taking a clean sound to the studio and trying to make it more gritty.”
How podcasts can preserve the Arabic language
With businesses in Dubai back in full swing, Adam and the team are on schedule to complete the rest of the series on time.
It is a pressure he is more than accustomed to. Before joining Finyal Media last year as an in-house writer and director, he cut his production and storytelling teeth on the set of Iftah Ya Simsim, the Arabic version of Sesame Street.
While writing the foreboding characters of The Basement is a far cry from crafting the sunny jokes of Elmo the muppet, what links both experiences, Adam says, is the ability to appeal to a young audience using the Arabic language.
With the Abu Dhabi government announcing in August a five-year strategy to promote Arabic, Adam says podcasts can also play a major role in preserving language for future generations.
“It can help strengthen the connections not only between the listener and Arabic culture, but to also the language itself. This is particularly what is needed when it comes to millennials and generation Z [born between 1996 and 2015] who grew up with western content and are disenchanted with the way Arabic content had been presented over the past 30 years,” he says.
“What podcasts can do is present material in a modern way yet still maintain and showcase the beauty of this language.
“But for that to happen, we in the media industry need to take more risks with our content creation. This is what the younger generation is craving. They want stories that are more representative about what their life is like right now.”
With the regional podcast landscape still a work in progress, Adam says success for The Basement is relative. While the audience figures may have not yet reached the heights of its western counterparts, he knows that each supporter of the show will be genuine.
“The beauty of podcasts is they they have a pure kind of fandom. People have to really seek out the content and give it a chance to listen until it resonates with them,” he says. “When that happens, you will get the best kind of fan you can get because it comes from a real place.”