Podcasts in the Middle East: How can an unripe market become monetizable?

We’re at the beginning of a wave that we believe is going to take off very spectacularly

Podcasts are witnessing a rise in the United States, with statistics proving that they are gulping good shares and rates from the media market in the country. Some 64 percent of Americans are aware of what podcasts are and the rates of listeners are growing steadily every year, according to Statista website.

In the Middle East, however, statistics on podcast consumption are almost absent and the number of podcasts that are up and running remains scarce. Nevertheless, there is an ongoing exploration of podcasts within the region and people – to an extent – are interacting with them.

Podcasts are usually audio files – they can be music, news or stories – that are available for downloading. They cover a wide array of topics and consist of episodes that share one main theme with different topics. There are different types of podcasts that include fiction story-telling, non-fiction, news, solo and co-hosted podcasts.

Podcasts penetrating the Middle East media market
Managing partner at Jordan-based Arabic podcast “Sowt” Ramsey Tesdell tells Business Forward that it is the perfect time for podcasts to be disruptive; it is a highly regulated, but very flat industry at the moment.

“We need somebody to come in and blow it all up and change it. We need that surreal moment in the Middle East. And then when we have that, I think we’ll have a lot more movement,” Tesdell says, adding that some of the bigger players are already getting into podcasting.

Cofounder of UAE-based podcast Kerning Cultures Hebah Fisher believes that podcasts are definitely disrupting radio.

“They are a lot more focused on stories rather than chasing the headlines or analyzing current events,” Fisher adds.

She goes on to say that the industry is growing. “We’re at the beginning of a wave that we believe is going to take off very spectacularly. [Kerning Cultures] has 10,000 downloads a month. So, these are the numbers that we’re looking at right now,” Fisher states.

Tesdell adds that sooner or later, radio stakeholders are going to realize that they are not going to have a stronghold on the market anymore.

It is the perfect time for podcasts to be disruptive

What are the challenges that face podcasts?
In the Middle East, the problems that face podcasts primarily exist due to unfamiliarity. To the audience and producers alike, podcasts are uncharted waters.

Associate professor of practice in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and producer of award-winning narrative podcast “Ehky ya Masr” Kim Fox tells Business Forward that people are still curious about the field. Some are still challenged with picking up on what a podcast is and also confused about the different types.

To the audience and producers alike, podcasts are uncharted waters.

Fox goes on to say that one more challenge is that people do not know how to produce a podcast and are not familiar with the technicalities.

“People do not have the technical skills to edit audio and write scripts,” Fox emphasizes.

Anecdotally, a lot of Arabs listen to podcasts from America because they don’t think there’s any local content,” Fisher explains, adding that this is what Sowt and Kerning cultures are trying to do – namely, to really show that there are local stories which are more relevant to the local listener.

From his experience with Sowt, Tesdell believes that people seem to be loving podcasts. They want more content. One of the biggest problems is that potential listeners cannot find what they want, which is why Sowt offers a podcast discovery platform.

Growth and monetization
Tesdell says that podcasts are ripe and ready to grow in the market. Once producers create good content, the number of listeners will increase and a snowball effect will get triggered.

“Statistically, if you look at the ad sales, podcasts grow 80 percent year-over-year. It is one of the fastest-moving industries, especially for media,” according to Fisher, who states that only 12 percent of podcasts make it past six episodes.

There are different types of podcast monetization, including crowdfunding, sponsorships, patreon and live ad reads, according to Fox.

Regarding the ideal way to monetize a podcast, Tesdell says that monetizing anything in the Middle East is tricky.

“I don’t think ads are an effective way to [monetize]. I don’t know of any example in the Middle East that was able to do that,” Tesdell says.

Fisher believes that monetization through ads and sponsorships becomes easier when producers have a scalable audience, but alternatively, grants to fund certain topics are definitely attainable.

Fox seconds this approach – if the podcast is still an idea, this idea may be perfect for a particular sponsor.

“You should approach [sponsors] with the idea and perhaps share a pilot with them,” Fox concludes.

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