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Interview with ‘What I Did Next’ Creators Malak Fouad & Chirag Desai

Journalist Malak Fouad and entrepreneur Chirag Desai take a turn in the hot seat in this exclusive interview.

Startup Scene

Interview with ‘What I Did Next’ Creators Malak Fouad & Chirag Desai

In this high-tech age of information, where productivity defines a person’s worth, people have been shifting towards podcasts as a way to keep themselves informed, entertained and perhaps even enlightened without getting in the way of their workload. One such podcast is Apple Podcasts’ chart-topping What I Did Next, the brainchild of two MENA-based audio content companies - A&T Media and Amaeya Media.

In 2021, Egyptian-American journalist Malak Fouad - whose career spans the offices of New York’s Condé Nast, the foreign desk of the Ahram Hebdo, the travel desk at Punch Magazine, and the features department at the Daily Mail Newspaper - founded her own audio content company, A&T Media. Named after her sons Aly and Teymour, the company has so far released four seasons of the regionally-acclaimed podcast, What I Did Next, which is produced by Chirag Desai, founder of UAE’s Amaeya Media.

What I Did Next has been putting the Middle East and North Africa’s most prolific entrepreneurs, world-renowned creatives, and affluent businessmen in the hot seat. Guests have included Samih Sawiris, Hend Sabry, Mo Gawdat, Dr. Ahmed Heikal, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, and Fatma & Amina Ghaly to name a few. Malak and her guests discuss pivots in life and have deep conversations that reveal the twists and unexpected turns that our paths take. 

In this exclusive #StartupSceneME interview, Malak Fouad and Chirag Desai take a turn in the hot seat themselves, providing valuable insights on both the podcast industry and their own careers.  

Amidst all the thriving mediums of creative output or content creation, why did you choose audio/podcasts? 

MF: In the world of podcasts, I see myself as a listener first and a creator second. I like the self-selection or 'pull' aspect of podcasts. As a listener, you can choose from an infinite catalogue of subjects and interests, as well as when and in what context to listen. I did a Masters degree a few years ago and was commuting from central Cairo to AUC. Podcasts were my constant companion and I realised quite quickly that I wanted to create my own podcasts. As a creator, I knew I could bring my wide experience from across the communications industry to produce content of high quality and intellectual rigour, and at the same time have it be fun and entertaining. 

In a creative economy dead-set on the belief that video is the way of the future for content – especially with Instagram, for example, TikTok-ifying itself – how do you navigate conversations around the importance of audio with other creatives, entrepreneurs, and business moguls? 

CD: I’d push back here and say that the creator economy isn’t dead-set on video—podcast advertising is a $1.4b industry in the US alone, and growing. Last month I was at Ignite the Sound, the first-of-its-kind audio creator conference in Saudi Arabia which saw more than 9,000 attendees! 

We also do not think it is about pitting one against the other—more often than not, we advocate a multi-channel approach to creatives, entrepreneurs & brands. With that said, audio is quite different in its consumption—it’s passive in that 90% of people listen while doing other things. Audio can be in those places that other mediums cannot, such as when you’re driving, exercising, or even doing household chores and you can’t offer up your full attention, but you can listen to a podcast. So audio continues to have a space and importance as a medium in the present, as well as the future if you look at tech-trends such as smart speakers and how well podcasts already integrate with them.

MF: Audio is also unique in that it is an extremely intimate medium; you can cocoon yourself in another universe, a bit like reading a great book, it has the power to transport you. Look at the rise of Audible and other audio platforms; there is something very comforting about shutting out the world and relying on your hearing only. 

There are pillars to any media company, values through which the founders’ vision comes to life…what are A&T’s? 

MF: I had a clear aim with A&T Media from the outset. Firstly, the company is named after my two boys, Aly and Teymour. I started A&T Media in my late 40s. I wanted my boys to see that anyone can start a business at any age and if you love what you're doing, you'll probably be good at it. I felt I had accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience from a very rich and varied career that saw me work in New York, London and Cairo. I saw a gap in the market for an English-language media company that was producing content for a Middle East audience and from a Middle East perspective. I believe there is a space for high-quality, English-language content that is intellectually stimulating and that is at the same time fun and light. What I Did Next is the first podcast from the company and looks at people's pivot points in life. We are currently in our fourth season which wraps up in December.  

Can you recall who the first person you shared the dream of an audio media network/company with was? If so, who were they, who are they to you, and what was their reaction? 

MF: I discussed the idea with my husband, Hatem El Nazer. Hatem runs his own private equity business and has a keen eye for new business ideas, and understands Middle Eastern markets very well. He is a great person to bounce ideas off of and he was super encouraging, and he has continued to be my greatest cheerleader and advisor.

Can you describe the feelings you’ve experienced upon launching the first season? 

MF: I was totally blown away by the reception it received from listeners. My producer, Chirag, had given me download estimates so my expectations were quite low. Our numbers exceeded our expectations right out the gate, and we went on to be listed in Apple Podcasts’ Best of 2021. It’s been incredible so far and a reaffirmation that I had the right mission and a great concept. 

What obstacles face entrepreneurs and creatives in the podcasting corner of the media industry?

What particular challenges did you face and why? 

MF: Money, money, money. Because it's such a new industry most executives don't understand the medium or how to harness it as an advertising tool to further their businesses' messages. Like all nascent industries, there is a steep learning curve and we have spent considerable time explaining the benefits of associating with a successful podcast. What I Did Next has been lucky to have been backed by some tremendous heavy-weight companies. Our sponsors, Sodic and EFG Hermes, are forward-thinking institutions and have positioned themselves at the forefront of what is expected to be an explosion in the regional podcasting sphere. 

CD: To add to Malak’s note, I think it does come down to brand education, so that more businesses in the region understand the medium better, and know how they should explore it. As creators, we’re also still exploring a small series of verticals in the region in terms of types and categories of shows, and there’s a huge opportunity for growth.

You have successes in gathering an incredibly impressive portfolio of impactful individuals - what’s your secret to convincing these people to give their time?

MF: I'm very open and transparent with my guests about the process and what they can expect from being on What I Did Next. There is also a foundation of respect and trust that we’ve been able to build as a show that is now in its fourth season, and I’ve tried to bring a level of empathy and sensitivity to make our guests feel comfortable and safe in sharing their stories. I've also been lucky to have an incredible line-up of guests who have been willing to open up, about the highs and the lows, and in some cases, divulge stories they've never told before.  

Which episodes were your favourite from each season of What I Did Next so far, and why? 

MF: I honestly can't choose a favourite as I have favourite moments from each interview with each guest. This happens when we touch on a topic that had been previously unexplored or when an unusual observation is made that sheds light on their personality or life path. I find I walk away invigorated at the end of each interview.

Who is someone you really want to have in the hot seat sometime in the future? 

MF: I’d love to get behind the personal journeys of Mohamed Mansour, Mohamed Salah, Queen Rania of Jordan, Amal Clooney, and Rami Malek, for example. I’d also love to explore other parts of MENA that aren’t in mainstream conversation, such as inspiring guests from Oman, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

What’s one question you wish you’d asked one of your interviewees and only thought of later?

MF: I don’t think there was a specific question that I feel like I’ve missed out on. But one of the questions that wasn’t in my original list that I found myself wanting to know about our guests was how they viewed their legacy, so this is something I started asking a few episodes later.

What learnings from your guests have most stood out for you or has there been something particular any of your guests has said that has really resonated with you?

MF: The importance of luck and the acceptance of failure. This might sound counter-productive but they are both elements that have come up repeatedly. Luck, because the happenstance of life can make or break your hard work, and how you pivot from that is what ends up defining you. Failure, as Steve Jobs said, is often a precursor to future success. 

Which business mogul surprised you most or was very unlike their public image? 

MF: I can think of one guest who doesn't quite correspond to his public image: Prince Abbas Hilmi. As a member of the Egyptian royal family he can be perceived as reserved and perhaps a little aloof. In person, he is charming, warm and incredibly humble and an easy communicator. From the current season, Fadi Ghadour, for all his remarkable career achievements, comes across as amazingly engaged, curious and with an undiminished drive to improve societies in the region. To turn your question on its head, Hend Sabry, who was on the show in season 3, is exactly like her public image; girl-next-door, easy to talk to and fun.

What was the funniest story an interviewee has ever shared with you?

MF: One answer that definitely led to a lot of laughs was Dina El-Mofty’s response to our dinner party guest question. Not only did she ignore my upper limit of five guests, but unlike any of our other guests, she picked musicians and comedians, because her party needed to be loud and full of music! It was a nice light-hearted take on the question and remains one of the best answers we’ve received. I don’t know if it qualifies as funny, but one that sticks out is by Max Rodenbeck. After growing up in Cairo, Max was at the end of his college years in the US, unsure of what to do next. He had a few hundred dollars in his pocket, which was nearly all the money he had, and a return ticket to Cairo. Standing by the Brooklyn docks one day, he was watching ships loading cargo for Egypt. He took out his glasses to read its name, and as he did that, his cash flew out as well. Seeing the positive and serendipitous nature of the incident, he decided there was only one way forward; he took the next flight back to Cairo. 

How do you get your guests to loosen up and really share authentic stories and insights with you?

MF: I think the format allows for free-flowing conversations, and we spend quite a bit of time going over their journeys and in particular the pivot points they’ve had in their life. My experience in communications has definitely helped me be a better listener, and I love hearing how our guests ‘connect the dots’ so to speak. I also kick-start the interview with some ice-breaker questions which tend to allow guests to settle in, relax and find their flow.

What I Did Next is currently the main product you’re producing, do you have plans to expand the portfolio to include other shows?

MF: There are a few shows in the pipeline, all following the ethos of A&T Media: Middle Eastern focused, for an intellectually curious and engaged listener. However, like all start-ups, funding is a challenge. We are looking to partner with avant-garde companies who can see the potential of podcasts to reach new audiences and who want to be associated with our high calibre audience. 

What would you say are the biggest reasons people should be listening to your podcast?

MF: What I Did Next focuses on life’s pivot points, and I think there’s something for everyone in that, whether you want to know more about some of our region’s personalities and their pivots, or find something that is relatable to your own life’s pivots. We have guests from so many industries; the business world, the arts, media, publishing, medicine and so much more. The one common thread is that they have all had fascinating journeys and as a listener there is always something to learn, a positive take-away. 

In the last year it’s started to feel that anyone who feels like it is starting a podcast, even if they don’t have any interviewing or journalism experience - is this a case of the more the merrier or do you feel this could be negatively impacting the space?

MF: Like all new industries there is an explosion of options and content at first. With time, that tends to narrow down. We are still at the early stage in the Middle East and I say, 'the more the merrier'. At the end of the day listeners will choose what they like. 

CD: Seconding what Malak said, I think it’s fantastic that more creators are coming into the space and as a result, listenership will continue to grow as each of them becomes an evangelist for the medium. There’s still a tremendous opportunity for new creators as well—remember that while there are 4 million podcasts around, less than 40% have published more than 10 episodes. I have now been in the industry for five years and helped launch more than 25 shows out of the region and produced over 625 episodes. I've realised that it comes down to your purpose which will ultimately drive your passion for the medium.

What podcasts do YOU listen to - both regional and global?

MF: The Lighthouse Conversations, Slo Mo, People Like Us, Middle East Focus, Intelligence Squared, The Economist Asks, The Ezra Klein Show, The News Agents, The Rest is History, The Midpoint, The School of Greatness What resources would you recommend to those looking to enter the podcast space?

CD: I think it’s important to understand the medium you’re working with. We’ve already mentioned how podcasts are listened to passively, how audio is an intimate medium, so understanding how people consume is important—and this is true of any medium you might want to work in, not just podcasts. There are some great podcasts for podcasters available, but also fantastic podcasts like those Malak recommended that are great ways to learn how content is produced and what works. Finally I’d point out The Podcast Academy, which is a membership-driven organisation that wants to nurture the industry to excellence. They run numerous workshops for members and non-members as well and host the industry’s first red-carpet awards, The Ambies, to help reward creators.

What advice can you give those who have only just entered the world of podcasting but are passionate storytellers?

MF: Do your homework, and that means starting off by listening to lots of shows and identifying what you like and dislike about them. Have a strong concept and spend time honing this. This is your foundation. And when you're ready, go and jump off that cliff!

CD: Start with your purpose, and then plan it out. We see over and over again that consistency is key to growing your audience, and that requires a purpose your audience can connect with, and a good plan. Finally, I’d always recommend having a producer who can power you through the process and keep you on track. 

What in your opinion makes a great podcast interview?

MF: It's a two-ingredient recipe: It's one part a great interviewee who knows how to express themselves, is authentic and listens to the question, and one part an empathetic and sensitive host who really listens, knows when to jump in and when to shut up. In my opinion great interviewers include Barbara Walters, Christiane Amanpour, Jon Stewart and Ali G.

CD: I would go back again to that purpose, which drives what you want your audience to get out of the episode. I find what happens outside the interview is almost as important as the interview itself—the show’s direction, the guests you curate, your own preparation, and the edit process, all contribute to making an interview the best it can be.

What’s your long-term vision for A&T Media, do you see yourself expanding outside of podcasts and into a new audio content format?

MF: We’ve already started exploring other audio content formats. For example, our episodes have aired on Talk 100.3, a talk radio station based in Dubai. We’ve also launched a podcast-subscription offering this season with Apple Podcasts where members can get bonus content from each guest as well as early access to episodes. My long-term vision is to keep expanding the catalogue of podcasts and branch out into different subject areas. 

Where can listeners find you online?

MF: What I Did Next can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anghami and all other podcast platforms. You can also find our entire back catalogue on our website. We have a strong social media presence on Instagram and Twitter as well.

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