(The USAID-funded Central Asia Media Program in Tajikistan is implemented by Internews.)
By Lilia Gaisina, Project Coordinator, USAID's Central Asia Media Program, Tajikistan
However, limited advertising, rampant censorship, and restricted data sources can make working in media difficult in Tajikistan. Aside from international agencies, there are only two major media outlets in the country. Zebo had to think outside the box.
“We looked for a niche market. There weren’t any popular podcasts, so we decided on this format,” Zebo said.
Using a grant from the USAID Central Asia Media Program, she created a podcast team with the “Three Bears” -- Farkhod Kholmatov, Iskandar Mirzoganiev, and Behruz Nasriddinov. Each of them is an experienced audio content creator. Behruz, for example, is a popular radio presenter; the whole country knows his voice. However, the onset of a COVID-19 pandemic suddenly put their plans at risk.
“Like any new entrepreneurs, we were ready for difficulties, but not of this scale,” recalls Zebo.
By the end of March 2020, Tajikistan’s airports had closed and under-informed and misleading news was causing panic and confusion.
“Some people believed that there was no coronavirus in the country, they did not follow safety rules and scolded journalists who questioned official information. Others were terrified of the new virus and shared fake news to confirm their fatal predictions. We wanted to share facts and scientific evidence about the virus with everyone,” says Zebo.
Relevant authorities withheld information about the new virus, leading to a drought of evidence. Soon Zebo found a solution - she recorded a podcast with a Tajik citizen living in Vienna who had already experienced COVID-19. The respondent explained her condition, the symptoms of illness, and safety measures.
But, most importantly, she talked about the fact that the coronavirus was real and dangerous, and not necessarily fatal. On April 4, 2020, Zebo’s team published its first podcast and had over 40,000 plays. It was a great success.
“We decided then that we would start talking about the new reality, regardless of whether the authorities recognized the presence of the virus in our country or not,” says Zebo.
For the next podcast, the team invited Firuza Mirzoeva, a professional psychologist, to explain how to deal with the stress caused by the new disease.
“When we found answers to our questions, we shared the findings with our audience” said Zebo.
“Commercial advertising budgets were cut before COVID-19 was recognized in Tajikistan... If it were not for USAID’s support at that moment, there would be no podcasts,” explains Zebo.
Following the COVID-19 stories, the “Three Bears” then created four more podcast series on different topics including business development, new media, and the global economy. Each podcast has been listened to 10,000 times on average, and their current podcast play record is over 80,000 for an episode that questioned the funding of a popular local TV series.
The podcasts are also inspiring a whole new generation of audio content creators. Nasibahon Aminova, creator of the TajikMama community, launched her own podcasts “Mama Said”, inspired by the experience of Zebo and her team.
“I started listening to the “Three Bears” podcasts from the very first episodes. I really liked the quality of sound and their topics,” said Nasibahon.
(Banner photo: Zebo conducts an interview for the podcast. Credit USAID)