The Arabic podcast network Sowt has tapped into the region’s rich oral tradition of storytelling with one caveat: There are no taboos.
Programs have touched on divorce, homosexuality, rape and gender equality, all topics commonly off-limits in Arab society. The Jordan-based program continues to gain in popularity, especially among the region’s younger audiences.
The podcast network has more than 130,000 followers on Facebook and a weekly engagement of 300,000 - 400,000 on social media platforms in general, according to Ramsey Tesdell, Sowt’s executive director. Most of the listeners come from Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, as well as other places across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Sowt, Arabic for “voice,” receives high praise from other media.
A Nieman Lab article called it “one of the most prominent names in the Arab podcasting landscape” and “a rarity in the Middle East.” Arab Weekly hailed it as a “platform for democracy and human rights” in the region, and Arab News dubbed it “the biggest name in Arabic-language podcasting.”
What accounts for Sowt’s growing appeal to Arab audiences?
Sowt’s creators lean heavily on human voices to relate accounts of survival, overcoming obstacles and finding the extraordinary in everyday life. Narratives often connect to a larger social context and to cultural/religious taboos in Arab communities.
Instead of relying on a Q & A format or talk-show style, Sowt’s narrative-driven audio places listeners on the scene, develops characters and provides memorable story lines with emotional appeal.
“[Sowt] understood early the potential of an audience hungry for better audio storytelling in a region where the podcasting market is still in its infancy,” wrote Stefania D’Ignoti for Nieman Lab in January 2018.
This brand of programming is more difficult and expensive to produce, “But, audiences love it.” said Tesdell. “We focus on narrative mostly because it is a better method of telling stories and there wasn’t anybody else producing that type of content.”
The most popular program, “Eib” (shame), tackles gender and sexuality issues in the region. Tesdell describes the topics as“matters rarely discussed in Jordanian society.” Some episodes have reached up to 70,000 downloads.
Another show, “Blank Maps”, examines the effect of statelessness in the Arab region. One segment featured a Sudanese woman who was raped in a prison camp in Sudan and arrived in Jordan as a refugee without realizing she was pregnant.
“She was such a powerful voice, an amazing storyteller, emphasizing certain aspects of her narration by making noises, clapping her hands. You could let her tell the story with a very little intervention from the journalist. And people loved it. To this day it is one of our most listened to episodes,” Tesdell wrote in an article for the European Endowment for Democracy, one of Sowt’s funders.
Other podcast programs include “Religion and the State,” examining the relationship between religious and government power in the Arab world; “The Parliament,” on which Jordanians talk about how legislative actions affect their lives; and “The Journey,” which focuses on Médicins Sans Frontieres bearing witness to war, displacement and asylum around the globe.
“Podcasts are revolutionizing the Arab world. There are several new organizations and companies producing them,” says Tesdell. ”It wasn’t that people didn’t want to listen. There just wasn’t great content or enough of it out there.”
There are other factors that are making podcasts more popular in the Arab world. Mobile phones connected to the internet have become commonplace in Arab society, making it easier to access podcasts. People are also spending more time in traffic and traveling, a likely scenario for the growth of on-demand audio content.
However, even though podcast support is growing, Sowt is still facing a challenge that many other media startups are contending with — expanding their audience and revenue streams.
About 60 percent of the podcast production studio’s budget is generated by contracts with private clients, such as the United Nations Development Program and Médicins Sans Frontieres. The rest comes from grants and collaborative projects with other media in the region.
Sowt’s staff is exploring licensing options, memberships and sponsorships. Feedback on new models has been “positive,” says Tesdell, and an announcement is likely to come later in 2019. He serves on the Google Podcasts creator program advisory committee and participated in a podcast bootcamp in Boston earlier this year.
So far, response to Sowt has been “quite positive,” according to Tesdell. However, there has been some religious feedback, especially on Eib, the show dealing with sexuality. “We don’t attack positions or ideas,” he adds. “We try to encourage our listeners to engage critically with the world around them through listening to a story.”
When IJNet asked for tips on podcasting, he provided a link to two courses that he created, and have since been posted on Advocacy Assembly, a free online training platform for journalists and human rights activists in English.
In the courses, “Making your own podcast” and “Podcasts and Storytelling,” Tesdell walks users through topics such as how to research and tell a story, how to define podcast style, promoting your podcast, and more. Another useful resource is Sowt’s monthly newsletter called Microphone, which provides insight into the expanding number of podcasts in and about the Arab-speaking world.