This interview was first published on 4th September 2020 on Pods 4 Africans.
Kim Fox is the founder of Podfest Cairo, which first took place in Egypt last year on March. She is also a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo. She talked to me about the podcasting scene in Egypt, including some of the growth barriers the country is seeing. Plus we talk about how choosing to podcast in Arabic or English can impact your audience and much more.
Q: When did you start getting into podcasting?
A: I was a podcast listener early on. One summer, I had a fellowship at NPR in Washington, DC at their headquarters. I can’t remember what year this was. And while I was there, I was really talking about podcasts. And I remember on my last day, I was telling one of the women who worked in corporate communications [about it]. And she was like, “What’s the future of podcasts?” And she kind of looked down her nose and [said], “Yeah, that’s just what you academics think! Here today, gone tomorrow.”
I was so offended by that because this is a real thing. If only I could go back and find that person and ask them , “Hey, what do you think now?” [laughs]
Q: You moved to Cairo, Egypt just over a decade ago to teach journalism at The American University in Cairo. When did you start teaching podcasting?
A: When I arrived in Cairo, because of my teaching arrangement my initial classes were in a room with no technology. It was in a room with a whiteboard. How can I teach a production course like this? I needed to get really innovative. And so I immediately started looking at resources that I could use. Students are producing content, where will it go? I was trying to put together a process for students to make their work available online. So all of their work is currently available on the Internet Archive, which is where we store our works back to 2009.
Q: I think there are only so many journalism and media programs at universities across the continent right now that are teaching podcasting…
A: Actually there are quite a few from my knowledge. For example, I moderate a Facebook group for audio educators…so it’s radio, it’s audio, it’s podcasting. It’s everything. We have surveyed the group to say, “Hey, who’s teaching podcasting?” A lot of hands went up. Invariably, more and more professors are teaching podcasting, either individually as a course or as a module within another course.
Q: Why do you think they’re including podcasting?
A: It’s necessary. If we’re media or journalism educators, we’re doing a disservice if we’re not doing that. How do you prepare your students? And keep in mind when you’re a print journalist, often you’re already recording your interview. So you have audio right there that you’re probably tossing out and doing nothing with it. And so if you go into an interview knowing that you will repurpose it for a feature or as a standalone audio, you have options there. So just teaching the students all of the intricacies. And remember that the barrier to entry is low.
Q: What is the podcasting space like in Egypt?
A: I know that people are interested in the in the genre. They definitely want to to understand it more. You do have pockets of people who listen to a lot of podcasts. These are obviously non-Egyptian podcasts… People who are very savvy and very aware of what’s out there in the ecosystem. I would say we certainly trail behind other places in the MENA region. So for example, in the UAE, I think they might have a more vibrant podcasting community. And I would say probably the same for Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Jordan [as well].
I feel like our struggle is — maybe this is the struggle of every podcaster — who’s your audience? Are you trying to get an English speaking audience or an Arabic speaking audience? So you have to be really concerted in terms of what kind of content you are pitching and who it’s going to get to. So if it’s an Arabic speaking audience, how are you going to make sure they know that you exist?
Q: Is this because of discoverability? Or is it because lack of knowledge around podcasting?
A: I want to say discoverability. There are a lot of forward thinking people here in Egypt and in Cairo. In May, I think someone reached out to me and she said, “I’ve heard these podcasts [that are created in Egypt] and they’re bad. And I’m like, Well, you know, that’s a very wide overarching statement. But it does become an issue of how do we tackle that so that the content is of higher quality.
Q: Let me understand this. If your podcast is in English, that’s a different audience…? Can I capture both English and Arabic audiences?
A: Yes, it’s definitely a different audience. I’m not one to tell [someone whether to record their podcast in English or Arabic]. I believe that there’s a benefit for either way. But you just need to know where’s your starting point? You can’t have both. Mixing them is confusion.
Q: With Africa Podfest, we struggle with what to do with North Africa. I guess my question is political in many ways, but do Egyptians see themselves as part of MENA or part of Africa when it comes to podcasting communities?
A: It’s hard to say. It does get a little bit blurred. So in terms of identity, where and who and what and how do Egyptians identify themselves? I would say Egyptians are more likely to be very chameleon…I’m going where I feel like I fit in best. Where’s the opportunity? Where’s the interest? So, I think they’re definitely going to just take advantage of all of it.
Q: Do you have a sense of what the other North African countries are doing with podcasting?
A: I don’t think I can speak to that. North Africa….I would be thinking Morocco…Algeria… Yeah, I know that those communities are there. I don’t know how vibrant they are, and I haven’t looked into them. I really can’t speak to that.
Q: Where did the idea for Podfest Cairo come from?
A: I’m out and about. I’m going to conferences, meeting people, and I listen to all these popular podcasts. I’m talking to other educators. So I know what’s going on. And I’m looking at these conferences and thinking we should be doing that [too]. And I said, who is going to do that? And I kind of waited to see who is going to do it.
Q: What were you seeing on the ground that made you think a festival would do well here?
A: People are constantly asking me about how to do it. And people are wanting me to consult on projects and people are asking me to come and talk to their employees about podcasting. It’s one thing for me to go and talk to people, but they need to know each other. They need to come together and see what the community looks like and how they can do this and get support from others. I figured out we need to establish the community.
Q: In our discussions with you as Africa Podfest, you highly recommend taking advantage of the universities in your city. Why?
A: Because when you know the resources that are available, you can take advantage of it. Having Podfest Cairo on campus didn’t cost us any money. And that means I got my department to be our host and our sponsor. I was able to apply for a special grant from my university to pay for our keynote speaker. Those were two barriers that were really useful [to overcome]. What else do you have to pay for if those things are taken care of? That was very convenient. But dealing with the university also has its pluses and minuses …
Q: Did the university immediately see the opportunity around the Podfest?
A: No, but I didn’t need them to see the immediate opportunities. I’ll tell you a real quick backstory: the day before Podfest, I got an email from the president of the university. One of my colleagues forwarded it to me. A local media startup had put out a list of podcasts that were business and entrepreneurial-oriented that someone had recommended. And our university president saw it. He forwarded it to my colleague like we should be doing more of this. And she was like, “Well, actually Podfest Cairo is tomorrow and we are hosting it!”… We’re already on it!
Q: And what was the Podfest Cairo experience like?
A: The turnout was really good. We had just shy of 100 people. And everyone’s energy was just so positive….Our moderator was on top of things. Most of the speakers were my former students. They work in different media fields around the city. And there was a lot of energy because people stuck around for the pitch competition to hear the pitches and to offer feedback to those who pitched their ideas.
The organizing team was amazing. Everyone did their part. Most of them are my former students. They just volunteered to help out and they have an interest in podcasting. Everyone did it for free because that’s their passion. Moving forward I would like to figure out a way to get some funds to pay people for their efforts.
Q: What are your goals and hopes for Podfest Cairo’s future?
A: I don’t know that it will expand or grow. But I think being able to do it [annually] and being consistent with that… I think that’s important even if we’re offering the same topics with different people. That’s because we’re still thinking about growing the audience, and new people are going to discover it and be able to participate. My aim is to do it again. But if it’s not 100 people or more then I won’t consider that a failure. The achievement is being able to do it more consistently.
I’m also very conscientious that I am a Black woman expat and an American. And I’m not trying to take away from what Egyptians are doing. But I do realize my privilege… even my privilege of working for my university. I was very fortunate that I was able to take resources from them for Podfest. But I’m also very conscientious that I’m not the voice of Egyptian podcasters. But I also feel like, I can’t just sit around and just not do it. I waited for years before I did Podfest Cairo. And I was waiting for someone else to do it and it didn’t happen.
No one has accused me of appropriation, but I’m very conscientious that I’m not the voice of Egyptian podcasters. I’m not an Egyptian, but I live in Egypt and I’m very much tethered to this place. But I am not the know-all-be-all about Egyptian podcasts.
Q: You produce an award-winning podcast called Ehky Ya Masr (Tell Your Story Egypt) about life in Egypt. Tell me more about it.
A: So much of the Podfest Ciaro team are also part of the Ehky Ya Masr podcast. These are former students who really excelled in audio. And they wanted to find out what else they can do after graduating. I had so many students saying, “hey, how can I continue to do this?” And again, I was waiting for opportunities to get involved. A lot of the US opportunities are US-centric. So they’re not applicable for people who aren’t in the US.
So I just said let’s just do this podcast. Initially, I was trying to get a couple of grants where we’ll be able to pay them. Because my ultimate goal is to pay producers and reporters for the things that they do and the content they produce. But we haven’t been able to break into that.
Q:Why do you think these students keep coming back to it?
A: The power of storytelling. A lot of them have won awards as students for the audio that they created, and they could just see the difference that that approach had…The narrative storytelling process is very vigorous. There are so many moving parts. But to see them not shy away from the extra work that’s needed to put together and develop a really good piece…it’s a testament to their character. So it was nice to be able to move them over to the podcast and continue telling those stories.
Q: What do you think are the biggest barriers for entry into podcasting right now within Egypt?
A: I think we’ve talked about that already: identifying your audience and figuring out who you’re going to go after and how you’re going to do that. That language question is huge. I had a former student, and she’s now a fashion designer. She wants to do a podcast talking about the struggles of a fashion designer in Cairo and Egypt. She was like, “Well, what language should it be?” And I’m like, this is a tough question. Again, who’s your audience? So I think I think that’s going to be one of the biggest struggles.
I really also would like to see us have a podcast house that doesn’t have that doesn’t cost a lot. Something like a PRX Podcast Garage. It needs to be at a low cost. And in some cases, it needs different packages. Do I want to come in and take the audio with me? Or do I want to come in and you help me package it and put it out? And it just needs to be at a lesser cost so that people can get the exposure. That’s the kind of initiative that we need. And [not just one location], because Cairo is a huge city. So every community needs to have this.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
You can reach out to Kim Fox with any questions and more of her podcasting wisdom on Twitter.
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