Adapting the Middle East’s Oral Tradition for the Digital Age

Ramsey Tesdell says the Middle East is ready for podcasting to hit big

Ramsey Tesdell (right) at the Google Podcasts creator program bootcamp

Ramsey G. Tesdell is the executive director and partner of the Arab podcast network Sowt, and a member of the Google Podcasts creator program advisory committee. Based in Amman, Jordan, Ramsey flew to Boston in January to participate in the week-long bootcamp that kicked off the program.

Below, Ramsey shares insights on the podcasting scene in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The medium, he believes, calls back to the region’s strong traditions of oral storytelling. And thanks to an increased access to technology, he says, the industry is ripe for disruption.

If you’re a podcaster (or aspiring podcaster) eager to help grow podcasting in the Middle East or in another region or community where the industry’s on the rise, consider applying for a spot in the next round of the Google Podcasts creator program. Selected teams will receive intensive training, mentorship and funding to develop their shows.

Ramsey Tesdell: Imagine two people in front of a crowd, reciting poetry. They respond to each other, calling and answering, teasing each other playfully. The crowd hoots and hollers. In the end, one is declared the winner.

You might be imagining a scene from 8 Mile or a slam poetry contest.

But it could be a Zajal competition somewhere in Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Jordan or Palestine. Zajal is a traditional form of slam poetry that still takes place all over the Middle East, in cafes, restaurants, night clubs and cultural centers. And, Zajal is just one form of spoken word entertainment in the region. Live poetry readings and hakawati, or traveling storytellers, continue to be commonplace throughout the Middle East. It is this oral tradition that we as producers of audio in this region explore, innovate on and adapt for a digital age.

For the last 50–60 years, there has been little innovation in audio broadcasting in the MENA region. The economics of radio and audio publishing here isn’t built to spur innovation or creativity. Radio stations struggle to stay afloat and political pressure has made it difficult or financially impossible to produce quality content that challenges the status quo.

Even as technology has brought changes to media in the region in the last decade or so, in audio, we haven’t seen much evolution. Radio stations put their live feeds online, but it’s not enough for users who crave on-demand content.

The audio production industry in MENA is ripe for disruption. An average of 60% of Arabs are online and the rates of adoption are among the fastest in the world, but differences between countries are important details not to dismiss. The UAE’s internet penetration is over 90%, for example, while Egypt is hovering around 50%.

This all points towards the fact that more and more Arabs are receiving information and communication through internet-based tools, and yet there are few digital audio providers who are producing engaging content for this growing and hungry population.

There are fewer than 400 active podcasts in the MENA region — has the most comprehensive list, and it counts around 360 podcasts. While a relatively small number compared with 660k in the iTunes directory, podcasting is growing with more activity and interest daily.

Sowt is a podcast production studio that works across the MENA region. We produce 8–10 shows a year including Eib (عيب “Taboo”), an exploration of love, gender and sexuality, Religion and the State, which examines the complicated relationship between state power and religious power, and an upcoming music show, Dum Tak, in which we use narrative storytelling to uncover the stories behind female singers and divas struggling to refine their art and fight personal struggles.

Logos for four of Sowt’s current podcasts: “Eib,” “Religion and the State,” “Visualizing Conflict” and “Blank Maps”

Our shows reflect a more diverse region — politically, religiously and culturally — than is typically portrayed in the media or to audiences in the U.S.. While calling back to our history as an oral society, spoken word, language and identity are intertwined in new and different ways.

We at Sowt think Arabs aren’t listening to podcasts because of the lack of options available. Many shows are currently produced in English for a limited and niche market. But it’s not enough. We know we can reach more by producing Arabic content for an Arab audience that is hungry and excited for content. Most of our listeners are in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf countries, Egypt, Algeria and across MENA. And we are bringing these stories outside of the region as well — the United States, Canada, the U.K. and many European capitals also appear in the top 20.

Attending the Google Podcasts creator in Boston was an excellent opportunity to connect with podcasters from around the world and to the podcast industry in the U.S. Having founded an organization that often functions alone or with media organizations who don’t understand podcasting, the feeling of solidarity is essential. During the program, I had time to exchange notes with peers, and it was exciting to see everyone, at different stages in their production, learning from each other and refining their offering. I’m excited to watch everyone develop and grow in their own ways.

For podcasting in the MENA region to go viral we need more producers of higher quality narrative-driven content, alongside creative individuals producing shows in their bedrooms on their time off.