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Mena’s podcast gap: Music to investors’ ears or a bum note?

The region has potential but advertisers will keep a close eye on the data

mena podcasting Wam
The Middle East has a tradition of oral storytelling, making podcasts a good cultural fit

This month podcasting will be 20 years old. That is, if you accept that Open Source, a politics and culture show hosted by US journalist Christopher Lydon, was the originator. It made its debut in 2003, and the term “podcasting” – publishing digital audio on the internet for others to listen to at their leisure – was coined the following year.

Podcasts began to take off and have become ever more popular both worldwide and in the Mena region. Now global players are looking to invest here.

Last month a major Swedish podcast marketplace partnered with two regional podcast networks. Acast, which connects 100,000 podcasts with 2,300 advertisers, announced its first Arabic language partnerships – with Jordan’s Sowt and Dubai-based Kerning Cultures.

Acast is already working with major podcast advertisers like Aramco and The Public Investment Fund who are active in the region.

However, there is still a vast untapped potential for the Mena podcast industry, as Arabic is spoken by over 350 million people worldwide, according to Acast.

Heba Fisher, the co-founder and CEO of Kerning Cultures, says the market for podcasts in the region could be worth $6 billion. This is an ambitious estimate, unlikely to be realised in the immediate future.

According to research published in May by the Internet Advertising Bureau and PwC, podcast revenue in the US (the largest global market) is worth about $1.8 billion. It grew by 26 percent last year and is predicted to more than double to $4 billion by 2025.

Yet there are signs of financial strain among the biggest podcast companies.

Spotify, the Stockholm-based streaming service, announced this month that it was cutting two percent of its workforce, about 200 people.

It will merge two of its podcast studios, Gimlet and Parcast, which it bought for more than $150 million in 2019, into its own Spotify Studios.

Its new podcast strategy will focus less on production and more on creating partnerships and maximising consumption.

mena podcast industry
Dubai Podfest, held at the Dubai Press Club in May, brought together prominent podcasters, audio content creators and leading organisations in the industry

There is certainly a market for podcast consumption in the Middle East.

In a 2020 survey, UK and UAE podcast consultancy Markettiers 4DC found that 23 percent of the adult population in Saudi Arabia listens to podcasts, with 15 percent doing so at least once a week. In a 2019 UAE poll, 16 percent of adults said they listened weekly. 

The Middle East has a tradition of oral storytelling, making podcasts a good cultural fit. This might also explain why podcasts are listened to more often in company in the region.

A 2022 study by UK radio measurement body Rajar found 93 percent of podcast listeners in Britain enjoy their shows alone. But the Markettiers report found that 56 percent in Saudi Arabia listen socially, with their families. 

The pandemic saw an increase in the number of podcasts, but the jury is still out on its effect on listenership.

Saudi podcast production and incubation company Samawah Media published research in October last year that estimated the number of podcasters in Saudi Arabia at 573.

The rate of podcast launches tells a story. In 2017, 19 podcasts launched in the kingdom. In 2018 and 2019, 39 and 70 launched, respectively.

There was an explosion of podcasting in the pandemic year of 2020, as 182 launched in Saudi Arabia, but that number dropped to 127 in 2021. In 2022, there were 102 new ones by the end of Q3.

If podcasters were using lockdown and increased time at home to create content, were more people listening?

A survey conducted in December 2020 and January 2021 by Mena podcast network Amaeya found that 30 percent of people listen to shows from the region, which is encouraging for local productions. 

Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of Amaeya’s respondents said they preferred shows to be shorter than 30 minutes. This could be partly due to changed habits during Covid, with more time at home, shorter commutes and fraught attention spans.

But even before the pandemic, local podcasters reported that regional audiences prefer shorter shows.

In a 2019 interview with Campaign Middle East, where I used to work as an editor, Mshairy Alonaizy, who co-founded UAE network Finyal, said western listeners have been “educated and trained” to listen to long-form content.

“You’re aiming for 20 minutes [for podcasts in the region] versus, for example, 40 minutes in the US,” he added.

But Markettiers says Mena podcasts here run close to the 2018 US average of 43 minutes, 24 seconds.

Podcast advocates say there has never been a better time to invest in the medium. But the data isn’t as relentlessly optimistic.

Being a young industry, podcasting is still figuring out what works. Mena listenership, production and investment are compelling, though, and the region is ripe with potential for all involved.

Austyn Allison is an editorial consultant and journalist who has covered Middle East advertising since 2007

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