Why podcasts are winning in the Arab world
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Why podcasts are winning in the Arab world

Why podcasts are winning in the Arab world

Finyal Media has been creating fictional storytelling and original content targeted at Arab youth, explains Leila Hamadeh, co-founder and CEO at Finyal Media

Finyal Media

Very soon the Middle East could lead the world when it comes to podcasting. You only have to look at the latest news to see the buzz around podcasts in the Arab world. Podcasts are fast becoming one of the most trusted mediums for people to consume content within the region.

Ironically, the pandemic has been a catalyst for the growth of podcasts, at a time when the majority of other industries have suffered. They’ve become trendy – most people know someone who has started a podcast during the pandemic. But whilst there has inevitably been a huge variance when it comes to quality, the momentum has also pushed the podcasting scene further up the priority agenda for consumer content. Podcasts are now popularised; they have become part of a culture that trades off the trust of a medium that has connected people during a time of disconnection. They are now part of our vocabulary, and the phrase ‘What podcast are you currently listening to?’ is part of our everyday conversation.

The coming of age of podcasts
The overall global usage of podcasts was up 42 per cent during the lockdowns last year. In the US, the pandemic has further accelerated the natural rise of podcast consumption. According to Forbes, US podcast consumption rose by 18 per cent just one month into the pandemic. This is compounded by the fact that in many ways, podcasts are the Netflix of the audio world, and just as consumption of streaming on-demand services rocketed during the lockdown, so too did listenership. People have more time, they are looking to connect with people at a time when physical social distancing is in play, and the ease of listening whenever and wherever they want, naturally provides opportunities to incorporate podcasts into the daily routine.

Podcasts are very much here to stay. And the growth trajectory in the region is marked, spelling huge opportunities – not least from an Arabic perspective. As podcasts gain more traction across the region, and pockets of content creators emerge everywhere from Lebanon to Saudi, the UAE to Jordan, there is a coming of age of podcasts that is driving their growth and in turn their sophistication.

The ecosystem
To understand the opportunity, we must first look at the ecosystem in which we’re operating. Like any industry receiving interest, the podcast scene is growing fast. Music streaming service Deezer, for example, has a fast-growing library of originals in Arabic for the region, while Anghami has become the first Arabic technology firm to list on NASDAQ at a valuation of $220m. And this is on the back of an overall background of rising listenership both in the Middle East and globally.

Indeed, our own growth at Finyal Media is evidence of the growing popularity of podcasts in the region and our ability to capitalise on a gap in the market. Launching in 2019, we have come a long way in the past two years, establishing ourselves as an award-winning podcast network providing immersive audio experiences for Arab listeners.

Funding to date, to the tune of close to $1m, has helped us create a raft of new series, including everything from modern adaptations of classic stories 1001 Nights, Sinbad and Juha, to more contemporary drama series like The Basement, amassing over five million downloads in our first two years and growing 25 per cent month-on-month last year alone. Fast forward to today, and we now have 15 active titles in our network, many of which have multiple seasons.

Much of our content focuses on fantasy and fiction and this supports the rise in podcasts as a means of escapism which we have seen during the pandemic. And with the phrase ‘WFH’ now becoming the norm rather than the exception and workforces literally transitioning their homes into makeshift offices overnight, what we have seen is a market that is ripe for the rise of the podcasts in the region; and how this is paving the way for more localised content.

So while the Spotifys and the Apples of the world are grappling for the international slice of the podcast pie, there’s a very interesting and unique community bubbling away closer to home, which we are grateful to help drive. For one, there has been a move towards ‘made in the region’ content.

There has been a dramatic shift towards localised content, underpinned perhaps by a notion that Arabic speakers are looking for content that speaks to them; and not purely from a language front, but more so from a perspective where there is an understanding of the issues, viewpoints and culture of a region that in itself has a long history steeped in storytelling.

That’s not to say there has been a rejection of mainstream, more Westernised content. But from an Arabic perspective, content here has been sparse, outdated and often found itself not resonating with the Arabic audience it was looking to attract. Today, Arabic content creators are coming into their own, fuelled by their creativity and unique ability to communicate in a way that resonates with their peers. After all, forging a connection between audience and podcast is key to building an engaged community.

But one audience for whom podcasts are really capturing their hearts and imaginations, is Arab youth. Previously, the media landscape did not champion local culture in a modern way that was relatable to the younger generation, and there was a sense that many young people felt lost and disconnected from the Arab world. Podcasts can bridge that gap.

And this was the ultimate mission for Finyal Media – to connect with the hearts and minds of young Arabs. It has seen us evolve, and now we partner with some of the region’s most well-known brands to produce audio drama series. In fact, our recent partnership with GMC saw the brand loan us a Yukon vehicle so that we could produce a fictional podcast series called Asilah which featured the car for the Saudi market.

What’s more, we also recently collaborated with Unilever to produce A Breath, A Step, A Mirror, a new mini-series featuring the stories of real women from Saudi Arabia. The opportunities are exciting and the fact that brands are waking up to the power of podcasts demonstrates the value they have to reach a very targeted, digitally-savvy audience, in a new, unobtrusive and innovative way.

Where to next?
Although the community is still being built, the potential is huge. Our focus on fictional storytelling and original content is catering to the previously unaddressed; it’s fulfilling a gap in the market that was otherwise empty, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

The appetite for this is ripe; the trust factor is high, the engagement metrics are powerful and there’s the opportunity to speak to Arabic audiences in a way that truly resonates with them. And when it comes to engaging with audiences post the pandemic, that’s got to be worth truly listening out for.

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