Will Sullivan's guide to global mobile, tablet & emerging tech ideas

Building the Radio Sawa mobile app to reach youth in closed, censored Middle East markets

Today we’re starting the promotional campaign for a new Android and IOS apps for Radio Sawa, one of our broadcast networks focused on music and pop-culture in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It’s quite a unique experience and while building the product our technology, design and editorial teams were very focused on making a rich, mobile-first experience by doing less things better (rather than trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink in). The core product development and user experience values we focused on to achieve this were:

Streaming radio on the mobile phone is by far the most popular content format, even beating out gaming and social media.

Streaming radio on the mobile phone is by far the most popular content format, even beating out gaming and social media.

Across all demographics, especially young adults, streaming radio is dominantly used on the smartphone form factor.

Across all demographics, especially young adults, streaming radio used most on the smartphone platform.

Build products with data-driven decisions.

Streaming radio is consistently the most used content format on mobile phones — even beating out Games and Social Media. We built Radio Sawa around that experience with our seven 24/7 Middle East and North Africa music streams front-and-center in the application to optimize for this.

Harness technology to get around broadcast censorship and circumvention.

Many of the MENA countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria have very tight restrictions on their media and broadcasting licenses from the government, so it’s impossible to get FM transmitters approved for our broadcast stations and instead we went pure digital and mobile-focused to offer multiple country-specific streams in countries where users can’t receive get our broadcasts.

Empower censored citizen voices through technology.

Sawa Chat is one of the most popular programs on Radio Sawa’s network — it’s a conversational, community voice program discussing opinions on popular issues of the day. We also built in robust tools for Radio Sawa listeners to voice their thoughts through the app and send them directly into our production staff and CMS to be published on air quickly.

Create mobile-first and social-first content.

While my product teams worked on the design and development, Radio Sawa’s editorial teams retooled their reporting workflow and style around the mobile app content, evolving to focus on digital/mobile-first and social-first content to appeal to a younger, mobile-only audience. The content is quick, talkative and filled with social media embeds, polls, tweets and videos about the popular sports, tech and cultural news of the day and there’s deep social integration to share out of the app with friends.

Make the design gorgeous and mobile-native

When showing the app to people for the first time, we consistently get the most passionate feedback about the design; it’s a totally mobile-focused, touch and swipe-driven experience that is more gorgeous than any streaming music app in the world. (We did exhaustive product research and couldn’t find anything that’s nearly as beautiful as this experience from Pandora, to iHeart Radio to Swell to Spotify.) I personally don’t really understand much Arabic, but I can’t stop staring at this breath-taking application. It’s beautiful.

Give it a try yourself, Radio Sawa is available on Android 4.0 and above and Apple IOS 6 and above. We’d love to hear your feedback.

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