Kerning Cultures is a podcast whose mission is to dissect the more complex narratives of the Middle East through stories. I spoke with one of the show’s co-founders, Hebah Fisher, about podcasting in the Middle East — how listening behaviors vary, the different types of stories that get told, and the role of the Western perspective. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why did you and your co-founder, Razan Alzayani, decide to focus your show on narratives of the Middle East?
Audio storytelling pulls on the long tradition of oral history that we have in the Middle East. Many years ago, storytellers (called hakawaty) would gather people in a circle in the streets and tell long narrative, often historical stories of heroes and legends to entertain and educate them. That tradition hasn’t been completely lost, per se, but it’s no longer common. We wanted to modernize it and bring it to the current day to explore topics like society, culture, history, entrepreneurship, and current affairs through personal stories.
Most podcasts have a very Western point of view; we wanted to add our Middle Eastern perspective. Our team really reflects this international outlook: Razan, my co-founder, is based in Dubai, and the rest of the eleven person team is scattered across the UAE, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, the UK, and the United States.
How do show formats in the Middle East differ from what we see in the U.S. and Canada?
There are two other excellent podcasts that are similar to ours in terms of format and content — sound-rich, narrative-driven, and highly produced. One, out of Jordan, is a network of podcasts called Sowt and focuses on stories around taboo topics like homosexuality, divorce, and more. Another podcast that publishes on a more irregular schedule is out of Qatar, called Hyperstage. Both work exclusively in Arabic.
Most shows in the region, though, are talk show-style ones that review movies, games, or something else.
What is the general culture of radio and podcast listening in the Middle East?
Radio reaches more households in the Middle East than television; there is always a radio on in people’s homes. But podcasting and the notion of on-demand listening is still very new, although no doubt it will see increasing adoption quickly given that the region boasts some of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world.
As far as we’re aware there are about 65 active podcasts in the region, and ours is the only one that is story-based, professionally produced, and done in English (some of our episodes are also published in Arabic).
Who are you trying to reach with Kerning Cultures?
We’re primarily trying to reach people who identify as Middle Eastern, people who we can introduce (or reintroduce) to the region and its stories. We also have a secondary audience of non-Middle Easterners, people who are looking to understand the region more deeply and in a more sophisticated and personal way.
Are patterns of listening and podcast consumption different in the Middle East?
They are — while there is a growing trend of accessing podcasts on a smartphone, many more listeners in the Middle East use desktop computers as the prominent platform. The trend is clearly tipping toward increasing access on smartphones, but it’s still early enough that we’ll commonly start conversations about our work with with “Do you know what a podcast is?” which is not true of our conversations in the UK or in the States. We pay close attention to audience listening trends so that we can adjust our marketing strategy to reach people and take them where they want to go.
We started hosting listening parties for every episode we’ve released since last October. We debut the episode at a live event (hosted in a public spot, like a coffee shop or yoga studio) and afterward we facilitate a discussion among the attendees, which can go on for hours. We’ve done these events in Dubai, Seattle, New York, and more. In a culture where everyone is always on their phone, it feels fantastic to bring people together to listen in a way that sort of reinterprets the public storytelling tradition from so many years ago.
In this country, in this time, the Middle East is a region weighted by a lot of biases and misinformation. Is your experience that audio storytelling has a political aspect to it, even if it’s unintentional?
Yes. Since coming to Seattle, where I’m currently based, I’ve pitched stories nationally and found that a lot of public radio stations talk about being inclusive and representative of broader communities, but actually only want localized stories that directly pertain to exactly where that station is based. I also think there’s a lack of interest in truly representing non-white voices. I’ve found that our stories about the Middle East get more pick up by community-based stations, which are more flexible in the stories they can and cannot tell and are more interested in being representative of the people they reach.
I’ve found that episode editing also infuses a very Western perspective. For example, a story about Lebanon that’s produced in the U.S. might feed a certain narrative about Lebanon being on the brink of war, with not much thought to balance that narrative with other aspects of the country. There’s a certain Western narrative about what it means to be from the Middle East, or to be Muslim — that you’re one step away from being a terrorist, or you’re oppressed as a woman — and those are the only things that ever get represented. I think this is really reflective of the lack of diversity in the radio and podcasting worlds at every level. A lot of the way public media addresses Middle Eastern stories and perspectives is simplistic and gives unfair weight to the extremes.
Middle Easterners aren’t immune to this, either: A lot of Middle Easterners look to the West for inspiration, so the kinds of stories we tell are also politicized, particularly in English programming. A lot of our friends say things like, “If you want great coffee you need to go to London,” or “If you want great music you have to go to Berlin.” We’re not recognizing or telling the great stories and cultural experiences of our own region.