“We deserve to listen to our own stories. We have so many of them already. We’re trying to put out content that every young Arab can be proud of and also relate to immediately,” says Majid Al Qassimi, one of the co-founders of regional podcasting network Finyal Media.
Podcasts have quickly gone from being the new media frontier, to both a solid content format and a viable business opportunity. Different shows have gained global popularity, while regionally, more and more content creators see the need to foray into the world of audio.
Finyal Media, a Cycle 3 startup in Womentum by Womena and Standard Chartered’s Women in Tech, caters to this audience through a Dubai-based podcast network that creates immersive audio experiences for young Arab audiences.
Finyal’s journey began when Kuwaiti podcaster Mshari Alonaizy started out in 2018 with his passion project “Millennial Mirrors,” a podcast that reflects on the duality of the younger generation and their experience navigating the cultural norms of the region.
Following a successful first season that resonated with a dedicated audience, Mshari had a vision to evolve the podcast and launch a full-blown network.
He later met Majid, an Emirati veterinarian, and avid podcast listener, and the two bonded over their shared interest. Once over coffee, Mshari shared his idea for a regional podcast company like US-based Gimlet Media, and Majid was on board.
“While we came at it from different places and different personal histories, the overall ‘why’ was we felt as young Arabs, we deserve better narratives and our narratives and stories were not being told the way that did them justice or represented us or resonated with us,” says Mshari.
Their drive and ambition had them sealing the deal, coming up with the company name (finyal is the Emirati dialect for finjan, a small coffee cup used for Arabic coffee), and reserving social media accounts in a matter of 24 hours. They launched with their podcast “Yalla!” in 2018, where they started to document their journey to founding Finyal Media.
Together, the two co-founders navigated the anxiety of starting something new. Mshari handled the creative part as the Chief Creative Officer, while Majid handled the people as Finyal’s Chief People Officer.
While they had the creative parts covered, they needed a CEO to handle the business side of Finyal Media. That is when a LinkedIn ad brought them Leila Hamadeh, who was leaving a corporate job after 15 years in search of the courage to start her own venture. Three years down the line, she is now not only the CEO but has joined the duo as a co-founder of FInyal Media.
“I had to listen to their podcast before I went into the meeting. I’m listening to it and I’m thinking, ‘This is great but are these guys actually doing any work? Hanging out, recording their conversations. Is this a business or is this a hobby?” says Leila.
“When I sat down with them I saw that they knew what they were doing. There was a plan in place. They’re passionate about the business.”
According to research by 4DC in 2019, people in the Middle East tune in to radio more than television, given the oral nature of the Middle East combined with the love of storytelling. This gives podcasters a very powerful and tuned-in audience.
Podcasters have seen their numbers increase significantly in the past three years, and the audience is made up of those who represent more of a disposable income and are digitally savvy. Compared to other countries, the UAE is in the lead, but Finyal is not focused on competing on a global scale, rather, they are focused on the people in the region.
“I’m listening to stories in midwest America. Okay, but what about the guy around the corner?” questions Majid. “This was the impetus of let’s put our identity front and center.”
While building Finyal’s foundations, Leila had to grow thicker skin as accepting rejection when you are investing time, money, and faith in something is an unavoidable part of entrepreneurship.
“One week, everyone likes to talk to us and the next week, no one will pick up the phone. The highs and lows are so extreme but when you get those highs, we feel like we’ve built something from nothing,” she says. “The impact that you create as an entrepreneur is unmatched.”
Due to the bond that is fostered between the host and the listener, podcast advertising is seen to be one of the most powerful tools for advertising. Finyal creates customized audio ads and podcast series’ for brands who are looking to tell their story and target a specific audience.
Finyal Media remains loyal to their goal of championing local culture in a relatable way, and their podcasts encapsulate the art of storytelling in a powerful and modern light. They have released five #1 hits on Apple podcasts and in September launched the region’s first Arabic language drama podcast series titled “The Basement.”
“Especially when it comes to a lot of the fictional and narrative content that we create, what I love about it is that we paint with sound. But then, it’s up to the listeners to imagine what is happening,” says Mshari. “Each listener’s experience of our content is unique to them. The personality they’re imagining looks different to each person.”
Finyal Media is planning to scale up their production to serve the growing demographic of Arab youth over the coming years.
“In five years, we’re looking at a podcast market where we have around 50 million monthly listeners. So, we’re going have a lot more people tuning in to audio content than we see today where it’s still relatively niche but growing at an incredible pace,” says Leila. “By that point, we’ll be dominating that landscape and everybody listening to podcasts will be listening to Finyal Media.”