The exciting world of audio storytelling remains relatively unexplored in the Middle East today, despite the region’s reputation for masterful storytellers. While podcasting as a medium is rapidly growing in the US and Europe, many radio stations in Lebanon and across the Arab world have yet to join this trend and produce innovative content.
Two problems exist: Firstly, there is a dearth of high-quality podcasts produced in Lebanon, and secondly, for those that do exist, it is hard for the podcast and the audience to find each other. Reaching a critical mass is incredibly difficult.
The podcasting industry as we know it began in the mid-2000s, but it was not until Serial—a US long-form investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig—struck gold in 2015 that podcasts became prominent in the media landscape. In 2017, the US podcast market was valued at around $313.9 million, a rise of 86 percent from $169 million in 2016 according to a study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau. In the Middle East, storytellers who began their careers on the blogosphere in the mid-2000s have begun to trade the written for the spoken word. There have been signs that podcasting is starting to pick up in MENA, but, as with any form of storytelling, production matters. Creating a successful podcast requires dedication, passion, time, talent, and resources.
Podcasting in MENA
In a recent article in Arab News, British-Lebanese journalist Nasri Atallah wrote about notable podcasts in the region, including Jordan-based Sowt, one of the biggest Arabic-language podcasts at 10,000-20,000 downloads per episode, as well as Dubai-based Kerning Cultures, another narrative-driven podcast, in English, which averages 5,000 downloads per episode, and Saudi Arabia’s Mstdfr network, which has around 20,000 listeners per month. Executive spoke to Atallah in Beirut, where he explained that Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have more established markets, due to the use of brand partnerships to monetise podcast production. The Lebanese market is too small to be sustainable, he says, advising aspiring Lebanese podcasters to get a bigger audience by targeting the wider Levant and the English-speaking Arab world.
“Podcasting is a powerful medium, but you have to work on changing consumers’ habits from radio consumption to podcast consumption,” Atallah says. Even if you can find the audience, keeping them requires high production value. “Audio is notoriously difficult to produce, as you need to have a good, clean sound, proper tech equipment and efficient distribution,” he says, adding that podcast enthusiasts in Lebanon may have high expectations after consuming European and US podcasts. “The key to success is to start small, be regular, iterate and look outward in distribution and promotion, as audience data is what matters most.”
Despite the small market size, there are Lebanese podcasts out there. Leyla Nahas has been presenting the podcast Beirut Bright Side Stories (BSS Stories), an offshoot of a blog of the same name, since February 2017. She tells Executive that the podcast—which has produced six episodes so far and is composed of narratives and interviews—was a natural evolution of her and Rami Obeid’s blog, which aims to share positive stories from Beirut. “It is challenging to produce exciting content with this format because sound design and production are expensive,” Nahas says, explaining that the podcast is a self-funded passion project, for now. Nahas and Obeid are also considering producing audio documentaries about Beirut, funded through sponsorships and subscriptions.
Queer Narratives Beirut, a podcast launched in June 2018, with 16 episodes in its first series, explored gender and sexual diversity, including transgender identities and the social and legal limitations on gender and sexuality in Lebanon. The podcast was initiated by UK PhD researcher Joy Stacey, who hopes to find funding for a further series in the future.
There are also several Lebanese podcasts scheduled to launch in the next few months, including: Who Run the World, a talk show with female entrepreneurs; The Huddle, a sports talk show; Movie Court, a film review show; The Pitch, a talking shop with entrepreneurs; and A Better Beirut, a talk show on positive stories from the capital that will be launched early November.
Despite these offerings, too few Lebanese are listening to podcasts produced in the local market. BBS Stories averages 360 listens per episode without any promotion, while Queer Narratives Beirut, which received a lot of press attention, averages 2000 listens per episodes. Mobile data in the country is notoriously expensive—perhaps a reason why podcasts are not taking off in Lebanon, where consumers will likely wait for a stable WiFi connection to stream or download a podcast.
Podcasts that have proved popular in the region are those that cover topics with enough regional or global appeal for their producers to be able to gain audiences large enough to sustain themselves via podcasting. At the moment, it simply does not make sense to produce a podcast purely for the Lebanese market, as the audience numbers are just not there.
Boudy Boustany, host of a popular show on Virgin Radio Lebanon that regularly draws in 30,000 listeners, believes that Lebanese consumers are not used to podcasts, with only a specific demographic listening to podcasts or watching vlog media on a regular basis. In the US and Europe, even a niche topic will appeal to a large enough audience and make it easier to sustain with ad money, which is not the case in the case in the smaller Lebanese market, he says, arguing it is too small to sustain podcasters. Like Atallah, Boustany believes that only through targeting a larger Arab consumer base could local podcasters make enough money to sustain a living.
Boustany has toyed with the idea of going into podcasting or video blogging himself, but believes that these could only be passion projects, with radio remaining the dominant medium. “You get more value from every dollar spent on the radio than almost any form of media in Lebanon because radio is a fairly targeted form of mass media,” he says.
Show me the money
So how do podcasts make money? Revenue streams for podcasts typically include advertising or another form of investments such as corporate social responsibility initiatives or grants. However, given there is little data on the popularity of podcasts in the Arab world, it is hard for aspiring podcasters to cold pitch their idea to investors—they would first have to build up an audience through word-of-mouth in order to demonstrate that listeners exist for their content.
While the ROI for podcasts in the Arab world is not clear, podcasts typically can open up various licensing and monetisation avenues. Podcasts can be adapted into TV series, books, live-recording events—there are many possibles, and each is a whole new potential revenue stream. Each successful adaptation allows for audience development and creates a marketing vessel for the original podcast as a standalone product. Being able to offer the same level of content on various platforms allows podcasts to be more engaging and impactful. It is a low-cost introduction strategy to a higher value production of the same content down the line.
Podcasts offer exciting opportunities to more than just their producers. Stefano Fallaha, just 20 years old, is the founder of Fallound, which began in 2016 as a social network and is now a mobile app and a piece of software for cars. The latter connects to car navigation systems and finds its user a perfectly timed audio podcast based on their commute length and interests. Currently in Beta stage, Fallound, which has secured the necessary seed funding, is going to be made publicly available this year.
“We want to fill people’s time with exciting and educational content when they are on the go,” Fallaha says. “People complain they don’t have time to read or watch a video, so their only getaway would be audio,” he says. “We’re disrupting the radio industry, and broadcasting networks are now stepping up their game and getting into personalisation to stay relevant. The mindset shift will come to Lebanon eventually, but it needs a lot more time.”
Rami Zeidan, VP of Partnerships at Anghami, a Lebanon-based music platform for the Arab world, says that while there is an existing regional audience for podcasting, it is hard to find regional offerings. To help rectify this, Anghami has launched a dedicated Middle East Forum for podcasting and hosted the first ever Middle East Podcast Forum Conference, held in September in Dubai. Anghami plans to curate content and evaluate audience readiness before creating original content. They aim to expand according to demand and to use this initial period to learn more about consumer profiles in order to inform a future monetisation strategy.
Globally, the podcast scene is becoming more fluid. Apple is starting to be challenged by Spotify and Google Play Music, as the latter two start producing original content, and by Audible and Stitcher, who have both released some podcasts from their paywalls. These developments make the ecosystem less exclusive and more accessible. The podcast industry is thriving and growing more complex, opening up more opportunities for potential producers, even if it is still in its infancy, compared to other traditional and digital media.
Storytellers in the Levent should not shy away from producing audio. The podcasting scene may be small, but it is also not oversaturated. Those who break into the industry now have a significant opportunity to develop an audience and gain quick recognition with little competition and few barriers to entry. In the Arab world, radio remains one of the most powerful media of communication, particularly given the levels of poverty and illiteracy. Podcasts and radio can have a symbiotic relationship: It is easy to develop podcast content into radio shows for local stations to replay.
The content we want to consume is already out there, and while the local market may be small, Lebanese still have the potential to be a part of this podcast boom. We have the stories, and we have the passion, we just need content producers in this country to grab a mic and go for it—and we need people to listen.