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sowt 2020

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2020: The year of sound

By Tala El-Issa

It has almost become a cliche to begin one’s writing with an apocalyptic description of our current times, but cliches are useful in bringing our accumulated totalities into abstract brevity, so allow me to begin with: “What a year” ! 

In an attempt to wrap our heads around the continuous bombardments of 2020 we, at Sowt, found ourselves shifting like a raging pendulum between reality and fantasy, between acknowledging the fact and escaping it. 

The problem with realism, and excuse my cynicism, is that it is rarely ever pleasant, especially if we are talking about 2020. This meant that if we wanted to keep our sanity we had to dissociate ourselves from our wrecking exteriors by allowing ourselves inspirational interludes; new shows celebrating tiny pleasures and psychedelic sounds. 

Eventually, despite this nauseating ride, or perhaps because of it, we managed to publish 294 episodes and 10 new shows. This is an increase of 155% from 2019. Number of listens has also increased by almost 300% from the previous year. 

A glimpse into our new shows

As a media organization, it is our core mission to bring forward what happens on ground into closer contact, to analyze it and dissect it. 2020 was no exception and so, unsurprisingly, COVID-19 became a recurrent theme in most of our shows, but due to its complexity we decided to produce an entire new show “Almostajjad” to delve deeper into the virus and its intersections. After completing a whole season however, we decided to zoom out and focus on weekly news features, other than corona related, that ranged from Beirut’s deadly explosion to Netflix’s inappropriate film “Cuties”.

In parallel to the weekly highlights, we knew that there won’t be a better time to talk about death and this is how “Matryoshka” was brought to life, unapologetically. Such a loaded topic needs to be discussed through audio; written content is too impersonal, and visual is too disturbing. Audio is able to carry the confusion and reluctance in people’s voices, but at the same time it allows listeners some distance from the gruesome fact. Very few people want to think or talk about death, even among themselves, and so it only makes sense that when we do talk about it we make sure it’s private, imaginative, and only traceable within fleeting whispers. 

As the world was coming to an unexpected halt, reshuffling all norms and givens, we also thought it was a good idea to challenge and rethink our positionality as a journalistic organization in the Arab world, to allow ourselves to question the purpose of audible content and what independent media really is. In order to do that we talked to tens of different Arab organizations working in the field and published our conversations with them in a new show we called “Indymedia” which we produced in collaboration with Tunisian web magazine Inkyfada

The question of independence has always troubled us. Can we really be entirely independent in an ecosystem that is heavily dependent on governments, corporations and donors? It is indeed not easy, but our commitment to produce high quality content stemming from our own editorial vision instead of anybody else’s has motivated us to find alternative revenue models. From this discomforting ravel, “Safahat Sowt”; a product designed around the subscription model. “Safahat Sowt” offers Arabic audio articles curated from the region’s most trusted online publishers including “7iber”, “Aljumhuriya”, “Mada Masr”, “Mitras”, and many others. Articles can be accessed through monthly/yearly subscriptions. We are offering an end of year offer that you can use to subscribe for 10$ a year. You can learn more about the product here

Moving on from such very important but dense topics and endeavors, we were kind enough to allow ourselves and our listeners a 2020 defense mechanism through “Nafas”: our latest show dedicated to experimenting with sound. It had come to our attention that at Sowt, we usually use sound merely as a relay that carries on currents and intensities, messages and speech, but nothing more than that. Sound is strictly a medium that we use to our service, but through “Nafas” we wish to complicate this linear relationship and turn it into a multilateral experience. 

In addition to the tingly sensations and relaxing trips that “Nafas” offers, we almost unanimously agreed that food can transport us to splendid interludes as well, and this is how “Mahdoum” was founded. 

Turning into digital nomads

This massive expansion in production has pushed us to hire seven committed freelancers and four new full timers to the existing team of seven. The fact that our team is still fairly small has allowed us to manage work remotely during lockdown. The more tech savvy members were kind and generous enough to show us laymen around. We spent hours on google hangouts brainstorming new ideas, talking about corona and audio, and trying our luck with lame jokes. That last one is on me, I have to admit that remote work falsely boosts my confidence to make me think that it’s less dangerous to crack a joke behind a screen. 

The discrepancy, frustration, lags, and overlaps have of course driven us crazy at many times, but transitioning online has also allowed us to meet listeners and potential collaborators we would have never met otherwise. As expected, our listening parties this year moved online. At first we were very disappointed, the whole point of a listening party is to gather in a place, network and listen! But after we’ve tried it a couple of times, I must say that online parties proved to have many pros that went unnoticed. We had several participants who preferred to remain anonymous; were they not protected by a screen, they would have probably not attended a face to face party. They told us about their STD’s and divorce problems. Others joined from North African countries and Europe, they told us about their long distance relationships and identity crises. Such rich diversity and flexibility is very hard to attain on ground. 

Several years ago when I joined Sowt, I was wondering whether the whole podcast frenzy is a bubble that would eventually leave us all disenchanted. Admitting that I was wrong is an understatement. The tremendous growth is only one of many proofs.Take this fun fact: if we combine all the minutes that were spent on listening to our shows during 2020, they would amount to 88 years!

We are rest assured that more and more people in the Arab world are finding value in opening up their minds and imagination for content that tingles around in that tiny diameter of magical cartilage that is known to be the human ear.