There is a renaissance happening in storytelling.
The type of stories that grip you, transport you to other worlds, endear you to characters and personalities such that you feel like you have known them all your life. And these stories are becoming tech-savvy; they are available at your fingertips.
They are called podcasts: on-demand, online radio.
Podcasts are democratising radio – anyone can use their smartphone, record an episode, and toss it up on the interwebs.
No need for expensive recording studios or bureaucratic distribution channels – podcasts are relatively economical to produce and free to distribute on audio streaming platforms like iTunes or Soundcloud that play right off your smartphone.
Now, this democracy obviously does not control for quality, but listeners screen for that themselves. It is because of this ease of production and distribution that the number of podcast listeners has steadily grown about 20 percent annually since the advent of podcasting in 2004.
According to a study by Edison Research and Triton Digital, the number of podcast downloads crossed 2.6 billion last year.
The “greats” like Serial (97 million downloads), The Tim Ferris Show (70 million downloads), or Radiolab (3 million listeners per bi-monthly episode), to name a few, command a lion’s share of the market, but newcomers with strong content are seeing fast growth. For example, Serial reached 5 million listeners within four weeks of launch.
While the majority of podcasts are freely available for download, corporates and brands are starting to wake up to the fact that podcast listeners are a commercially attractive audience to advertise to. People often listen to podcasts while driving, doing the dishes, or exercising – they are captive and attentive, and demonstrate higher levels of engagement with the material in comparison to other media like TV or film.
For example, one episode of This American Life told the story of an American high school with a history of gun violence amongst its students, and listeners rallied together to donate $250,000 to support reforms in that school. As another data point, according to a Midroll survey across 300,000 podcast listeners in the US, 63 percent of listeners have purchased an item advertised on the podcasts they listen to.
This high level of engagement earns podcasts higher advertising rates than radio and television – combined. Podcasts sell their 15 to 30 second advertisements to brands from $20 to $100 per thousand listens, whereas television earns between $5 to $20 per thousand views. It is because of this huge commercial opportunity that podcasts like Gimlet Media recently closed a second fundraising round of $6 million at a $30 million valuation.
These figures come from the US market, where podcasting is growing rapidly and more and more media players are jumping on the bandwagon: The New York Times just invested in a full audio department to release podcasts; General Electric is hiring Panoply Media to produce branded content in the form of a science fiction podcast at handsome rates, and similar.
Here in the Middle East, podcasting is in its infancy, but we have all the ingredients for this industry to be just as successful as it is proving to be in the US. There is a long history of the oral tradition in the Middle East, hence why radio reaches more households here than television.
Audio files are considerably lighter than video, meaning they can successfully reach places with slower internet speed. As content goes digital and on-demand with our globally superior rates of smartphone penetration, users are consuming more content from their mobile phones, the choice listening device for podcasts. Moreover, the commercial potential for advertisements is lucrative as podcasts can offer clearer analytics than channels like radio or even television, such as number of downloads, device used, moment when stopped listening, profiles of listeners, and similar.
In recent years, we see more podcasts cropping up here in the Middle East: our own Dubai-based, storytelling podcast Kerning Cultures, talkshow style podcasts like MSTDFR (Jeddah-based, discussing technology and entertainment), Riyadi min Biladi (Jordan-based interviews with regional entrepreneurs), or existing radio shows like Dubai Eye reposting their content on podcasts for digital consumption - one show reaches about 3,000 additional listeners per weekly episode.
The challenge for podcasters here in the Middle East is the fact that not many people know what podcasts are.
No business license exists here in Dubai, for instance, and one conversation with a licensing authority recommended folding the license under the broadcast and radio jurisdiction. That is significantly more cumbersome since it requires a radio frequency and fixed office space, despite the fact that many a successful podcasts have started from home recording studios and distribute online.
Moreover, listeners are still learning that the world of podcasts exists – few iPhone owners realise there is an undeletable purple podcast app embedded within their phones that enables podcast listening with ease. Lastly, organisations that financially sustain podcasts through sponsorships or advertisements do not have podcasts on their advertising budget radars… yet.
What is exciting about this nascent industry is that the commercial opportunity is massive.
Our unfortunate typical approach in the Middle East is to import content, to tell foreign stories. And yet, imagine were we to produce quality audio content from our own region that deeply engages an audience – at an economic cost, for a considerable profit margin, with analytics of consumption. Imagine.
About Hebah Fisher:
Hebah Fisher is a co-founder and host of Kerning Cultures, a podcast telling stories of entrepreneurship, culture, history, philosophy, and science for a more complete narrative of the Middle East. Fisher studied global development and built microfinance and incubation programmes for small businesses in the US and the Gulf. She is currently based in Dubai.
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