Jordan’s Arabic podcast Sowt a platform for democracy and human rights
AMMAN - What started as a simple social media platform has developed into a powerhouse, with the Arabic podcast scene allowing voices to be heard on a wide variety of subjects, even ones labelled as taboos in a society ruled by traditions.
Podcasts are revolutionising the Arab world, said Ramsey Tesdell, partner of Jordan-based Sowt, an Arabic podcast that produces programmes in which people can express their feelings and tackle sensitive subjects to Arab audiences around the world.
“In 2012, we founded Sowt, which means ‘voice’ in English, as a social network and it took some time for people to grasp the podcast idea but today voice notes are becoming an essential part of the lives of Arabs everywhere through various smart applications,” Tesdell said, adding that “sending voice notes is more personal than a written note as it shows feelings through storytelling techniques.”
“With Sowt, we are trying to solve two issues: the lack of high-quality Arabic content podcasts and content that people want to listen to,” Tesdall said.
“At Sowt we discuss everything and there are no taboos. Our popular ‘Eib’ podcast, which tackles social taboos within the Arab society, is excellent proof that people need to know about everything.”
“Eib,” Arabic for “shame,” is a podcast produced by Sowt that addresses subjects such as divorce, rape, sexuality, gender equality and religion.
“There is no doubt that ‘Eib’ was a hit, especially that it brought people with personal experiences to talk about them. The podcast was credible in all it presented, and because it was in Arabic, people were able to relate to” it, Tesdell said.
A 2017 survey of the Middle East by Northwestern University in Qatar indicated that about 49% of Jordanians across all age groups listen to radio in Arabic while 1% listen to it in English, which implies, Tesdell, said, that “more programmes are needed in Arabic.”
“There is a need for more engaging programmes and not just talk shows about a new game but about real subjects that the society will feel okay to talk about and interact with,” he said.
However, challenges are always there for Tesdell, who is half American, half Jordanian.
“Creating the right content, sustainability and, of course, securing financing are big challenges,” he said, noting that Sowt has been financed by the European Endowment for Democracy, an organisation in Belgium that supports actors of democratic change in the European neighbourhood and beyond.
“We hope to have more audience and work on creating shows with other organisations, including launching the Arabic version of Doctors without Borders podcast,” he said.
About 85% of Sowt’s funding is from grants but it is aiming to lower that to 65% this year.
“Stations depend on advertisement to finance [themselves] but I personally don’t see advertising as a sustainable model to go forward,” Tesdell said. “I believe that focusing on building a dedicated audience and high-quality podcasts that a small number of people will pay for and then innovating as you move forward is a more sustainable revenue-generating approach.”
In addition to its original shows, Sowt makes audio stories commissioned by private clients such as the UN Development Programme, which provides the company with another source of revenue.
There are 31 private, music-based FM radio stations in Jordan.
“Radio stations are more popular nowadays than the internet because they can reach more people, especially in the poor countries and podcasts in cooperation with radio stations can develop programmes and have a strong outreach with less costs,” Tesdell said.
Sowt is a popular platform in the Arab world offering original shows that cover all aspect of Arabs’ life with a global twist and a fan base of 2,000 listeners per original podcast episode.
Lina Summaqeh, 25, an employee and a fan of Sowt, said it is a great idea to have people voicing their experiences instead of writing as it involved more story telling than just reading.
“We are at the end human beings with feelings and listening is one of the gifts that make us close to each other,” she said. “I find reading a dry action where feelings cannot be expressed but listening is more human and that is why I am a fan of the ‘Eib’ podcast where you can listen to people’s experiences with full emotions.”
“Still our aim is to produce original Arabic programmes for people to enjoy and relate to and this is not an easy task but we are happy with where we are so far and we are sure that the future looks brighter for podcasts in the Arab world,” Tesdell said.
With 150,000 subscribers, Sowt aims to become a platform for democracy and human rights-based on podcasts that reach people through digital media and radio infrastructure. In addition to “Eib,” Sowt produces “Blank Maps,” a podcast that examines statelessness in the Arab region.