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Curation in the Middle East

“We have a long history of the oral tradition in the region, and maybe more so than other cultures. Of course, storytelling is commonplace across communities, but here in the Middle East there’s always been this tradition of gathering around oral storytellers in the streets,” Hebah Fisher was telling me. “You would sit for hours and hear these longform stories in Beirut and in Cairo.”

Fisher is the co-founder and CEO of Kerning Culture, a podcast company that focuses its curatorial eye on the Middle East. I first became aware of Kerning Cultures earlier this year, when their story “Where The Heart Is,” about how displaced people in the Middle East are refashioning the concept of “home,” crossed my feed. Since then, I’ve been curious about the Middle East-focused podcast company and how podcasting has been developing over there. Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time talking to Fisher, who is based between Dubai and Seattle, and Alex Atack, the company’s managing producer. He’s based in Beirut. Together with a broader team of producers, they make narrative documentaries about the Middle East, which are released on their podcast feed as well as syndicated on radio stations around the world.

The key thing to understand about podcasting in the Middle East, they told me, was that the form has really only started to gain traction in the past couple of years. Although there have been podcasts from the region, both in Arabic and English, since about 2008, she stressed that radio is still by far the dominant audio form. “Radio continues to reach more households in the Middle East and north Africa than television,” Fisher said. “That’s both an accessibility issue and the fact that it’s cheaper and easier.”

While there isn’t yet any official research into podcast consumption in the Middle East, both Kerning Cultures’ own data gathering efforts and more general figures about internet usage in the region suggest that younger people in particular are increasingly using smartphones to discover and consume their chosen news and entertainment sources. “We’ve been trying to map out what a directory of Middle East podcasts looks like,” Fisher said. “[There are] maybe 200 to 300 active shows that have anything to do with the region either in English or in Arabic.” The industry is growing fast now, she added — their list was steady at around 100 shows for about 18 months until the post-Serial boom reached the area in around 2016.

Of course, that’s a rather small supply of podcasts compared with the US and the UK, but Fisher and Atack feel that the growth is nonetheless significant. Radio stations in the region do put out the kind of “copy and paste” catch up podcasts familiar from elsewhere in the world, but both amateur and professional broadcasters are increasingly experimenting with more narrative, podcast-first content. Download numbers remain tiny compared to the US, UK or Australia, but they are rising. Sowt, an Arabic language podcast outfit in Jordan, reported earlier this year that they average 2,000 downloads per episode. Kerning Cultures is currently pulling in about 10,000 downloads per month, and has ambitions to grow their audience to seven million listeners over the next five years. “That kind of growth won’t come from English language content, though,” Fisher said. “That’s going to be Arabic stories.”

The actual industry layer of the podcast community continues to be very early-stage, though Kerning Cultures claims that they beginning to see some interesting advertising activity. “We’ve sold over a dozen ads to Dubai-based brands for $135 per CPM, which you’ll know is a more premium rate in the industry, the average is typically $18-35 per CPM,” Fisher submits. “We’re able to do that because it’s a new space and we get to define the value and our advertisers recognise the value of our audience. . . [which is] young, educated and affluent.” She also pointed out that demographically, their proposition works perfectly for the Middle East. “Sixty-five per cent of the region’s population is under the age of 35. . . That translates to 140 million individuals between the ages of 15 and 35.”

In the last year, there’s been a clear increase, Fisher said, in the basic level of knowledge about podcasts in the meetings she goes to. That could partly be down to greater institutional involvement in the space — universities and NGOs are now far more active, with the latter even running programmes for resettled Syrian refugees to learn to tell stories through audio “as a healing mechanism.” Kerning Cultures and a few other podcast companies from Saudi Arabia and Dubai recently organised the first Middle East Podcast Forum, which took place at the end of September. Over 200 people from the region came together for the event, flying in from all over, for what Fisher said was really “the first formal gathering of podcasters in the Middle East.”

The emotive power of audio to communicate the pressing issues affecting the region comes up a lot in conversations around podcasting in this area of the world. The primary audience for Kerning Cultures, she said, is the team itself, who are all “kids who are identified as being from the region, whether it’s because they grew up here or they’re Arab or Middle Eastern and so on.” It’s that personal perspective, I suspect, that will help to forge relationships with the young, engaged audience they are seeking to reach.