In 2014, water-cooler conversations in workplaces around the world shifted from "are you watching that serial?" to "are you listening to Serial?"
A spin-off from the popular US radio programme This American Life, Serial became the fastest podcast in iTunes history to reach 5 million downloads.
Hosted by Sarah Koenig, over the course of 15 episodes it investigated the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee in Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, was convicted of killing her and jailed for life. He maintains he is innocent and Serial rexamined the evidence in an attempt to discover whether there had been a miscarriage of justice. The second season, currently being released, looks at the case of former US soldier and Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl, who now faces a military court-martial.
Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver are among the better-known stars who had been making niche podcasts for years, but Serial not only revived a decade-old audio broadcasting format that had been overshadowed by visual counterparts such as YouTube, it propelled it to never-seen heights of popularity and audience engagement.
It presented a novel style of investigative journalism and has arguably triggered podcasting’s golden age.
Podcasts are audio recordings produced regularly and made available for download on the creator’s own website or platforms such as iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud. Apple’s iTunes alone hosted more than 250,000 podcasts in 2013. Analysts say that figure has grown by 7 per cent each year, with subscriptions climbing into the billions.
Even US President Barack Obama could not resist getting involved, and popped in to stand-up comedian and podcaster Marc Maron's garage last year for an interview on his podcast WTF with Marc Maron.
There are no official US listening figures for podcasts, but anecdotal evidence suggests that residents are increasingly downloading shows from around the world to enjoy while commuting on the metro or during the morning drive to work.
As easy-download, on-demand audio gains traction in the region, people in the Emirates have started experimenting with this alternative outlet to reach wider target audiences.
A story at your convenience
In January 2015, Hebah Fisher quit her job as an operations and community manager in Dubai and started developing her podcast, Kerning Cultures.
The show, which launched in September, features a team of producers in the region who unearth compelling stories of entrepreneurship, science, philosophy, technology, history and culture from across the Middle East. Each 30-minute episode has an average of a thousand listeners. Fisher is working on the seventh episode, which will explore Egypt’s brain-drain.
“It came about because I am obsessed with podcasts,” she says. “I’m listening to these stories on podcasts, predominately from the US, and thinking we have nothing like that coming from our region, and we can tell just as good stories and give a full picture than the narrative you are currently hearing in the media.”
Fisher feels that despite the rich tradition of oral history in the region, the uptake to podcasting has been slow.
“There aren’t many podcasters in the region, but I know that is changing,” she says.
Other regional podcasts with a growing following include, MSTDFR, an "Arablish Geek Podcast" from Saudi Arabia about technology, culture and current affairs; a start-up talk show by Egyptian podcaster Mahmoud Abdel Fattah; and Abu Dhabi entrepreneur Alona Ballad's Honey in the Desertp odcast, which focuses on relationships and culture.
Fisher says the convenience factor has boosted the popularity of podcasting.
“I think it’s just a natural transition in the region,” she says. “In the UAE, for instance, where about 80 per cent of the population listens to at least eight hours of radio each week, we know there is a listening culture. It’s just a matter of time before people come around to seeing the convenience of a podcast on- demand on their phones.”
From niche to the masses
Abu Dhabi resident Nicholla Henderson Hall plans to convert her podcasting hobby into a full-time venture. A year ago, she launched the The Learning Curve, a chat show about female entrepreneurs in the Middle East, which has grown steadily to 30,000 downloads last year.
She says her fondness for talk radio made podcasting the obvious choice to get her ideas across.
“The great thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them on the go,” she says.
“Unlike video, where you need to be watching, with a podcast you can be listening to it while doing something else – at the gym, driving or cooking. For me, I don’t generally listen to a lot of music, it’s more about listening to people and their stories.”
She says podcasts are gradually moving from a niche audience to more of a mass appeal thanks to advances in technology, which has raised the production quality.
“Everything is on hand-held devices now, and the speed of downloads is better,” she says. “There was a time around the 1950s when people were only listening to the radio, then TV came along and now podcasts are just another way for us to absorb information.
“With podcasts you can hear the passion in people’s voices, which helps create a connection that you might not get in other mediums.”
A local perspective
The Omars Show has shone a spotlight on the comedy scene in the Emirates since it launched in November.
Emirati comedian Omar Ismail, who co-hosts with Omar Shams, says podcasts offer them the most freedom to create a programme that suits their needs and preferences.
“It’s our own intimate product and the talk-radio format works for the audience we want to see coming back,” says the 28-year-old. “One of the problems we’ve had for so long is that local comedy groups haven’t been getting the attention they should and podcasts can be a good delivery medium.”
White Cube Studios in Abu Dhabi has been exploring the concept of audio shows on demand with its smartphone app. Diversifying from music-related shows such as Shout Out, a podcast for up-and-coming musicians in the UAE that is available on SoundCloud, it has also launched a weekly talk show, Keep it Real With Azza, with Emirati host Azza Almughairy, from Abu Dhabi.
“There aren’t too many UAE stations that are focused on local artists and voices,” says Alina Zygowska, the marketing manager at White Cube.
“We wanted people to be that go-to for resident artists, giving them the exposure without having to pay big bucks to major labels or organisations to be noticed.”