Sowt: an Arab podcasting movement
Ramsey Tesdell is co-founder and executive director of the Sowt podcasting company based in Jordan. Sowt, meaning "voice" or "sound" in Arabic, has produced over 30 shows and thousands of episodes since its launch in 2016. Tesdell is also the founder of the online citizen journalism organization 7iber.com, also based in Jordan, and worked extensively in the Arab world with youth, media and journalism outlets.
Part of our Global Journalism Seminar series.
Read an automated transcript.
Seven takeaways from the talk and the discussion:
1. When creating audio content for the Middle East, it is important to showcase its diversity. “The Middle East is a beautiful cloth work of difference. There are so many different languages. There are different people, there are different races, there are different religions, and there's this plurality of things. And I think, for us, audio is an interesting way to look at that. One of our major goals is to look at the differences, to look at the things that bring us together, and to look at the world around us,” Tesdell said. For this reason, many choices regarding the production of Sowt’s podcasts, like the version of Arabic they are presented in, are intentional to best reach the desired audience.
2. The team produces content in formal and colloquial Arabic to reflect the language's complexity and diversity. “There is a formal Arabic that most people are educated in, and most news is presented in and so even those decisions, what Arabic we use, and how and when are fraught, but for us, we flip that and look at it as a beautiful tapestry that we can tap into and it's something that we enjoy. And so we produce content in different types of Arabic: we use the formal, but we also use colloquial accents when we think that would be best,” Tesdell explained.
3. Original content is a great tool to attract an audience. “To attract listeners, the way that we did it at the beginning, was to produce original, very unique content that nobody else was producing, talking about subjects that nobody else was talking about, or talking about it in a way that nobody else was talking about it,” Tesdell said. Following this initial stage, Tesdell and his team then started thinking about sustainability and supporting their product with different income streams.
4. Working with content creators can also help broaden your audience. Collaborating with popular content creators can also be a good way to get your product out there, Tesdell suggested, differentiating however between influencers and content creators, with the latter defined as creators who focus on producing content and wanting people to consume it ‘because they see a value in it.’“We've worked with a bunch of content creators to produce shows that align with their audiences and with how we see people consuming content,” Tesdell said.
5. Audio is a great medium for thoughtful conversations. “We find that there are conversations that you can only have in audio or you can have better in audio. And so we're focused on those areas. For example, more sensitive things, especially now with social media and people screaming past each other [on social media platforms]. You can have more thoughtful conversations,” Tesdell said.
He gave the example of Eib, a series focused on challenging social constructs and addressing taboo topics, adding that many of the individuals who share their stories for the series are ‘shy’ and would be uncomfortable with being recorded on video.
6. Successful audio projects take a lot of time and effort. “One of the ways that we differentiated ourselves from other people was that we created narrative-driven content and narrative-driven content is not to interview talking heads. It's based on a story and following a story arc. And basically, it takes a lot more time. There are a lot more interviews and a lot of research. Different people work on a script together, produce a very thoroughly produced and edited research script, and then that is produced into an audio piece,” Tesdell said. A focus on storytelling and research leads to a more nuanced final product but also takes more time and effort to make.
7. Audio can be used to tell humanising stories and challenge mainstream narratives. Tesdell spoke about ‘Stories from Palestine’, one of Sowt’s most recent audio projects aiming to rehumanise Palestinians and provide access to their perspectives in the absence of widespread on-the-ground reporting in Gaza since the outbreak of the current conflict.
“Unfortunately, there's so much toxic discussion. There's a lot of bias, there's a lot of dehumanising that is taking place now. Our focus there was to re-humanise Palestinians and the conflict in a way that is not picked up often in the mainstream narratives. And so, we are looking for stories about young people, stories that are not typically heard or told or allowed to be told, and unfortunately, there are a lot of really powerful stories from that area,” Tesdell said.
The bottom line
Audio content such as podcasting can be a great tool for nuanced, thoughtful exploration of complex and sensitive issues, as well as a way to tell untold stories. However, it requires time, effort and thoughtfulness throughout the ideation and production process to arrive at a valuable final product that audiences will be willing to listen to, Tesdell outlined. On the other hand, having a well-produced, original product is a great way to build up an audience, as well as collaborations, both with other podcasts and with content creators active in the field.