How a former Vice TV host came to launch Serbia’s most successful podcast

With many Serbian-language podcasts struggling to compete with Western media, Galeb Nikačević — who started out as an MTV host in the early 2000s — has found a way to draw local listeners in.

19 May 2020

If you live in Serbia, are under the age of 45 and own a television, it’s almost certain that you know Galeb Nikačević. Over the last two decades, Nikačević has grown into one of the most recognisable media personalities in the country. Part of this has to do with his appearance: mixed-race and covered in tattoos, there aren’t many people in Serbia who look like Nikačević. Even fewer have managed to forge a career in the public eye like he has.

Having made his name as a host for MTV and Vice, last year Nikačević left his role as editor-in-chief of Noizz — an Axel Springer-owned news portal targeted at millennials — to launch his own podcast. Five short months since publishing its first episode, his show Agelast has fixed itself to the top of the national podcast charts a time when the format is experiencing something of a national boom, with a rapidly growing podcast ecosystem.

“It really feels like people here are in desperate need of some new [media] formats,” Nikačević tells me over Zoom one afternoon, unable to leave his flat due to the Serbian government’s hardline coronavirus containment measures. “It feels like people don’t know that podcasts are what they need, but when they hear one they’re like ‘that’s what I’ve been crying out for this whole time!’. Every week, I’m getting about 1000 new subscribers. That’s a lot for a country like Serbia.”

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Agelast, which takes its name from agelasta, an ancient Greek word that roughly translates to “smile-less”, bears a marked resemblance the Internet’s most famous podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience: each episode clocks in at roughly two hours and consists of a sprawling interview between Nikačević and a noteworthy guest. The 21 interviewees that have appeared on the show so far are incredibly varied, and no two episodes are the same. Some of his most notable guests to date include DJ Tijana T, photographer Boogie, actor Darko Perić (famous for playing the character Helsinki in Netflix’s hit new Spanish series La Casa De Papel) and Croatian political philosopher Srećko Horvat who, alongside Yanis Varoufakis, founded DiEM25.

“I have two aims,” says Nikačević. “Firstly, if someone has an interesting life story, then I’m interested in that story because I want to try to connect with it. On the other hand, I try to have as much variety as I can, so that I can test myself speaking to a broad spectrum of personalities. What bothers me about the media these days is that everybody has pigeonholed themselves; there’s no diversity. Everybody’s trying to be a master in one area to the neglect of everything else, which results in atrophy.”

Image: Dušan Petković

The Serbian media landscape is very different to the one where Nikačević began his career nearly 20 years ago, when he debuted as an on-screen host for Metropolis — a small, cult TV station that could most accurately be described as a cross between MTV, pirate radio and Jackass. Its signal didn’t even cover the whole of Belgrade. Today, the Serbian press consists almost entirely of tabloids, the state broadcaster is little more than a mouthpiece for an increasingly autocratic government, most private media companies are owned by corrupt tycoons, and Big Brother-esque reality TV shows dominate programming. The 21st century has been a period of great upheaval for the media globally, but in Serbia, it has been uniquely devastating.

“Space for that kind of cultural content [like we ran on Metropolis] has disappeared,” says Nikačević matter-of-factly. “The state doesn’t invest in culture on any level and talented individuals usually go abroad to find work, so we have a huge brain drain. The only formats that get any sort of investment are those that are proven to work, don’t cost a lot of money, and can very quickly and easily turn a profit. Risk-taking, creativity, innovation, long-term investment in things that are new and original… that’s reserved for markets that are financially and culturally a bit better off.”

Unsurprisingly, more discerning audiences have largely tuned out and rely on the output of the Western media instead. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t hunger for homegrown content as well. Nikačević says that even though people “are raised on Western media and consume Western culture, one of the most common comments I get [about Agelast] is ‘oh, I love how this is like an American podcast, only it’s in Serbian!’.”

Nikačevićtells me that this feeling of localism is incredibly important to Serbian audiences. A big reason why MTV and Vice failed to gain the sort of cultural relevance that they enjoyed in the West in their respective heydays is because both companies tried to apply a foreign editorial formula that was too alien to resonate with local viewers, he says. Nikačević‘s first documentary for Vice is a case in point.

Filmed at the 2014 edition of Belgrade Pride, Nikačević joined a small procession of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies as they marched through a deserted city that had been sealed off by police to prevent outbreaks of rioting and violence that had derailed previous instalments of the parade. In the documentary, Nikačević comments, “look around, there’s no one in sight … it kind of defeats the purpose when there’s no audience around … there’s no one to parade for.” Like gay rights and liberal politics, Vice’s output appealed to a very small proportion of the Serbian public, which means that the company was doomed from the start.

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“I remember this one time when we had an international [editorial] meeting and they asked us and the Romanians why our audiences aren’t interested in stories about climate change and somebody replied ‘because we have real problems’,” Nikačević recalls with a sardonic laugh. “How many people in Serbia identify with these global narratives? Not many, unfortunately. The focus is completely different and it’ll take a long time before that sort of content becomes standard for a society like ours.”

Vice and MTV may have failed to take off in the Balkans, but Nikačević says that on a personal level, working for international companies with much higher standards than their local counterparts taught him a lot professionally. He credits the high production value of his podcast to the skills he picked up while working for his previous employers. This has been a significant factor in Agelast’s success: because not only do Serbian audiences want content that feels personally relevant to them, they also expect it to be presented to them in a slick end product.

“You have to give people a certain production value,” says Nikačević. “You need to have good sound quality, good picture quality, it has to look good and resemble the sort of content being made in the rest of the world. That’s then a good base to get people to go ‘hmm, alright, I’ll give it a try’.”

The accessibility of podcasts as a format feels ideally suited for a country like Serbia, where there’s a distinct lack of variety in the media. But although launching a podcast is significantly cheaper than setting up your own TV station, it’s still prohibitively expensive in a country where a “lower-end broadcasting microphone” (in Nikačević‘s words) costs as much as many people’s monthly salary. To complicate matters further, recuperating your initial investment is much more difficult than it is in the West due to the fact that YouTube, which is the primary publishing platform for Serbia’s podcasters, calculates the value of views in their country of origin.

“Because Serbia is the way it is, our cost-per-click is one of the lowest in the world. So there’s very little money to be made on the Internet,” laments Nikačević. “The number of views that would earn me $1000 in America will only make me around $70 or $80 here.”

According to Nikačević, the biggest hurdle that podcasters in Serbia need to overcome is the language barrier— this limits their reach and, by extension, their revenue. As a result, their income is almost entirely dependent on advertising. But in a market where ads exist almost entirely on billboards and TV, few brands are savvy enough to have even heard of podcasts. This means that Nikačević also has to act as a salesman by approaching potential clients who would never think of investing in podcast advertising on their own accord.

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Nikačević tells me that, as a result of these unenviable circumstances, podcasting is just a hobby for the vast majority of producers in the country and that he is part of a tiny minority — perhaps just three or four producers — for whom it is their primary source of income. Most people would be put off by these challenges, but as a half-Somali kid growing up in Voždovac, one of Belgrade’s rougher neighbourhoods, in the 1990s, Nikačević is no stranger to adversity.

“I started school in ‘89. A year later all that shit kicked off here,” says Nikačević, referring to the Yugoslav Wars. “In the ‘90s, people hated Muslims. In the ‘90s, people hated everybody who was different. It’s 2020 now and society has modernised in many ways so that these problems aren’t on the surface anymore, and you can live a normal life. But I don’t fit into the official social narrative of the Republic of Serbia and the way that Serb identity is presented in the present day.”

As is the case for most people in the public eye, Galeb has to endure his fair share of abuse. And while much of the vitriol can be attributed to his divisive personality or his outspoken support for progressive values in a fiercely conservative society, there can be little doubt that his race is a contributing factor as well. Were it not, he wouldn’t have to listen to accusations that he wouldn’t even have a media career were it not for his skin colour.

“That’s called affirmative discrimination, which is toxic in its own way,” says Nikačević. “Because when you do achieve some sort of success then people are like ‘oh, it’s easy for you, you’re mixed-race, of course you’re interesting to people’. It’s never because I worked myself like a mule. And if people think that you’ve gotten something because of your appearance, then you have to endure their intolerance. They dislike you because they think that they have to rely on their hard work while you just get by on your appearance.”

Despite the difficulties facing podcasters in Serbia, Nikačević is ultimately optimistic about the future of the medium and the role that it can play in his home country. He’s so optimistic that he even thinks that, with time, podcasts will be able to act as a counterweight to the servile, pro-government media in much the same way that the famed radio station B92 undermined the official narrative of Slobodan Milošević’s regime back in the 1990s.

“It’s not a question of if but when,” Nikačević says confidently. “Podcasts are going to become a new and important means of staying informed and will be a catalyst for the democratisation of information – which means that we’ll have different sources to confirm or dispute information or doubt. Because of the flexibility, mobility and possibilities of the format, podcasters will be able to do things their way, unhindered by the hand of a grey eminence that would seek to censor them. And if the state tries to bring in any sort of ban, we all know what happens with bans. That would be the best promo we could ever hope for.”

Either way, regardless of what happens Nikačević and Agelast aren’t going anywhere.

“I don’t have a plan B,” says Nikačević. “I quit my job. That’s it, I dived in and I’m not doing anything else.”

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