Listen up: How Saudi Arabia is tuning in to a new future

Tue, 2021-10-26 01:29

JEDDAH: As digital audio and podcasts become part of everyday life in Saudi Arabia, millions of regular listeners are tuning into the future, sparking what one insider describes as a “podcast frenzy.”

Easy to access, and with a seemingly endless choice of programs and subjects, podcasts are transforming Saudis’ daily rituals, turning mundane activities such as driving, exercising and cooking into “listening experiences.”

But not content with simply tuning in, many people are setting up their own audio blogs and becoming podcasters themselves.

“It’s a free space; anyone can participate,” one podcaster told Arab News. “All you need is content, a microphone and a mobile device, to record and publish.”

Podcasts began to appear in the Kingdom in 2015, gradually reviving Saudis’ love of listening to radio broadcasts.

According to one 2020 survey, 15 percent of respondents in the Kingdom’s western region were regular podcast listeners, while more than 5.1 million people tuned in around the country.

Numbers continue to surge in line with worldwide trends, as national surveys in countries such as the US and South Korea show up to 50 percent of respondents listening to podcasts in any given month.

A podcast is a digital audio file made available on the internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device. Typically, podcasts come in series, with new installments that subscribers can automatically receive.

According to Ammar Sabban, creative director and founder of the “Mstdfr” podcast, ease of access makes podcasts especially appealing.


Podcasts, previously known as audio blogs, date back to the 1980s. With the advent of broadband internet access and portable digital audio playback devices, such as the iPod, podcasting began to catch hold in 2004. The term podcast is an amalgam of ‘broadcast’ and ‘pod’ from iPod.

“Unlike TV shows, you don’t have to wait for a podcast — you can listen to it any time,” he said.

“The average person usually listens for up to 15 minutes, but those who are into it can listen for up to two hours — the more the merrier for them. Some people are obsessed with podcast shows. Another reason is because the hosts are spontaneous and laidback, and people like that,” Sabban added.

As the trend gathers pace, more people are coming up with their own concepts for podcast shows. “Anyone can do it if they are talented enough,” he said.

“We can meet anyone, and record and upload anywhere, because we don’t have to be in the same place to interview people. Production costs are low, so we can interview people who are not that famous but are interesting to listen to. This is what our listeners want — someone they can relate to.”

Sabban believes podcasts can only grow. “There is a podcast frenzy now. A lot of people are making them and we have thousands of them. Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest Arab countries and the production of podcasts is big here — now companies are aware of this and want to join the field.”

Firms seeking to creatively market their products are also looking to podcasts, with the equivalent of modern-day radio ads.

“Ads, sponsorship and company contracts are the main ways for podcast income, and we do have a studio that we rent for content creators. Companies contact us with a podcast idea, and we create it for them,” Sabban said.

He said that podcasts also lead to a lot of business deals. “We did not expect that our shows such as ‘Mstdfr’ and ‘Cartoon Cartoon’ would bring people together. Some of them created businesses because they found their people through podcasts.”

With more than five years’ experience in the field, Sabban and his colleagues constantly strive to keep their programs fresh.

Their latest podcast, “Let’s Talk Saudi,” highlights Saudis that people overseas want to know about.

“We received a lot of messages from Saudi students studying abroad, telling us that this show touched their hearts and they feel closer to home when they listen to it,” he said. “It is like a haven for locals away from home.”

Another Saudi podcaster, Abdul Aziz Al-Qattan, host of “Tanafs Breath,” described the podcast as an “audio companion that whispers to those who are curious about their surroundings.”

He added: “It guides those searching for answers and meaning, especially understanding themselves.”

Al-Qattan said that there is a revolution in podcasts and audio media in the Arab world. “The future of podcasting is very large and wide, but it lacks organizations and sponsors to support content makers, to push and motivate them to continue providing content,” he said.

The podcaster’s interest in audio media grew out of his love of voiceover and recitation. “I met with my friend Mohammed Ishaq, who had a passion for writing, and discussed the idea of a podcast, and we started publishing initial episodes. The popularity of the podcast was unexpected, exceeding half a million listeners. After that, we had Ibtihal Al-Misfer join as a writer, too.”

Al-Qattan said: “We started in October 2020, and it was a humble beginning. We had to learn how to present ourselves to an audience, to prepare realistic content.”

People listen to the podcast because it is an effective way to enjoy content, he said.

“Unlike visual content, which may require you to focus on certain details and visuals, with podcasts you can listen to a science article or story while you are driving or doing sports, in other words keeping outside noise out and enjoying an audio journey using your imagination.”

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