“It’s a way to transform the most mundane moments of our lives” – creating the first female-led podcast platform in the Middle East

“It’s a way to transform the most mundane moments of our lives” – creating the first female-led podcast platform in the Middle East

Hebah Fisher is a podcasting pioneer in the Middle East. The half-American, half-Egyptian entrepreneur is the founder and CEO of Kerning Cultures, a podcast network spread across seven different time zones in the region, with shows in Arabic and English. 

She decided to create the company because she felt that there weren’t any media outlets speaking to her generation. “Most mainstream media in the region was created for our parents,” Fisher explains. “It was quite alienating, frankly, to turn on the radio in Dubai.  So we wanted to create content that was something that we ourselves would get excited about, and tell the kinds of stories that we’d want to share with our friends.” 

Thanks to an entrepreneurial background, Fisher had the determination to reach out to investors at the time when the sector was still unexplored, and in 2015 Kerning Cultures was born. 

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” she says. “I didn’t have a background in media. On our team as we slowly grew it, everybody was a journalist from another medium, so we were photographers or print journalists or videographers, but audio and podcasts were completely new [to us]. 

“At the time there weren’t a lot of podcasts in the Middle East in general. We just kind of fumbled our way through learning and really bad interviews and episodes, and we got better at it. Now we produce the kinds of shows that regularly top the podcast charts across every country store in the region.” 

Crossing boundaries and cultures 

The network now has five Arabic-speaking shows and two English ones, covering everything from love stories, to guided meditation and history. “I get so excited to listen to our shows when I go for a run or I’m folding laundry,” Fisher says. “It’s such a fantastic way to transform some of the most mundane moments of our lives.” 

Fisher grew up between Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the US, an upbringing which she says, “makes for a lot of existential crises. There have been many times when I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and other times where I fit in everywhere.” However she adds that this also creates a good foundation for being a journalist, because “it gives you enough empathy to understand an issue and a person, while being able to stay removed enough to consider different perspectives and ask the right questions.” 

“I think all of us on the Kerning Cultures team, whether we’re Egyptian or Lebanese or Saudi, just by growing up in this globalised world we have eastern and western influences that make for really good storytelling, which is one of our strengths.” This fusion of cultures inspired the name, as “kerning” refers to the typographical process where the spacing between letters or symbols is adjusted to make the result more legible, or visually appealing. 

Fisher says it was chosen as a metaphor for the space between the countries the podcast network covers. “I think there are a lot of gaps in between our own cultures within the Arab world. It’s really incredible to then have stories that cross borders. One of my favourite things about what we do is that when you listen to a Caribbean culture show you’ll hear a voice from Sudan, a voice from Palestine and a voice from the UK.  I love that we have a platform where we can showcase all of us.” 

The other part she enjoys is interviewing people. “I feel incredibly honoured when a guest opens up to us. It’s such a sacred space. We always joke that a good interview is like a good therapy session.” 

The process of creating a podcast 

The stories they cover are decided as a team; first they brainstorm themes which are then distilled into a pitch per episode with a list of potential guests. They then carry out pre-interviews, usually short conversations over the phone to get a sense of what the guests will talk about, before the idea is shaped into a story. These go through several drafts with editors and producers. “Every story has quite a long process of production so we can make sure it’s as interesting as possible for our audience – we never want to put something out that we think would waste somebody’s time to listen to,” she explains. 

Fisher says that starting the business and getting financing has been a long process, and they raised seed funding more than four years after the company was first started. “I think the key for why we were able to close that round was because we had an existing product. We had a really strong team of four, and the content spoke for itself. I think that being able to hear what we were producing and experience what we envisioned in terms of the quality of stories that we wanted to produce, really helped persuade the investors.” 

As well as successfully fundraising for her own company, Fisher says she’s proud of having helped to pave the way for others. “I think we’ve really opened the industry for the region. There are a few other companies that have since raised venture capital and I think ours was a signal that helped build out the space.” 

Advice for aspiring podcast startups

Does she have any advice for other young startup owners? “If you are a first time founder, having a team around you is really helpful. Fundraising is a full time job and it’s really hard to build a company and fundraise at the same time. The only way we were able to do it is because we had a strong team.

“You have to become really comfortable with rejection, which is hard. I take a lot of things very personally for example, so that’s a skill I’m still learning. It really is a volumes game when it comes to raising capital and you will get a lot of noes. 

“The other piece to keep in mind is that when you’re building something that doesn’t exist yet you are selling your vision of the world. Not everybody is going to see the world the way that you do and that’s something that you have to keep in mind when you’re speaking to an investor. You’re really looking for a partner, so make sure that the investor has the same mindset of view this as a partnership.”

This is an edited version of a podcast hosted by Unlimited. NADJA Media is a partner of Unlimited, a multimedia podcast platform that gives a voice to female entrepreneurs in the UAE. To listen to the full episode visit Anchor FM.

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