Audio infotainment has for long been a medium close to the heart, with people soaking in on cricket commentaries or prime-time bulletins emerging from their radio sets. But a lot of that changed some thirty years ago, and the once-ubiquitous transistors, as radio sets were popularly called, yielded space to a barrage of television soap operas and, more recently, the YouTube phenomenon. But it is now making a comeback in the new avatar called podcasts.
Podcasts are on-demand radio shows streamed over the internet and there is now a plethora of free content–from interview shows to fiction story-telling–out there on the web. Though a global phenomenon, the podcasting boom in India is not only unique but also stupendous in how quickly both listeners and producers have embraced the new medium.
A rapid surge in original podcast shows has left the audience spoilt for choices. News publishers have launched podcast divisions, while business firms are using it as a brand-promotion channel. Podcasts have become a social media extension of sorts for celebrity figures like the Obamas, scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others who regularly churn out new episodes to keep their audience hooked.
However, underneath the glut, a special class of upstart podcast-creators is emerging. Armed with free tools on the internet and an off-the-shelf microphone, these self-starters are not only bringing fresh original content to the fore but are also creating a brand name for themselves. The democratic nature of podcasts–easy to produce and feature on endless aggregator platforms–is also a key enabler.
Ashdin Doctor, the creator of Habit Coach podcast, is a Mumbai-based fitness and lifestyle consultant. His journey from being unfit through his 20s, to changing his lifestyle upside down through obsessive reading on nutrition and health, prompted him to take it up as a career. Doctor wanted to deliver his learning to a larger audience on the internet and started a podcast a year ago.
“Initially it would take me four to five hours to record a few minutes,” says Doctor, who publishes five-minute episodes each, on one actionable habit, nutritional advice or lifestyle recommendation. One year and 166 episodes later, he says podcasting has helped him get hundreds of queries and engagements on his social media pages. “Now I publish three podcasts a week. I write my own scripts, and record the episodes as per a schedule,” he says adding that he gets 150,000 listens every month.
Through he initially tried his hand on Anchor, a free internet tool to create podcasts, Doctor’s first show was recorded in partnership with IVM.
IVM, or Indus Vox Media, is a podcasting network founded by Amit Doshi and Kavita Rajwade in 2015. In many ways, IVM is a unique company and a major force behind popularising Indian original shows. The company functions as a network, production house and distribution platform solely focused on Indian creators, and now boasts on 95 original titles on its platform.
A skim through its Android app best captures the pulse of local shows: Varun Duggirala, founder of ad agency The Glitch, interviews top marketing voices on the changing nature of advertising on his show ‘Advertising is Dead’; Finance consultants Anupam Gupta shares personal financial tips on ‘Paisa Vaisa’; while ‘Kini aur Nani’, hosted by children book-writer Nutran Raj, is trying re-create the experience of grandma’s bed-time stories on radio.
Personalities like investor-entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala and comedian Cyrus Broacha also have popular podcasts running on IVM.
“The last six months have been the most exciting times I can think of,” IVM’s Doshi wrote in a blogpost in March, when the outfit completed four years. “Everything from the growth in content catalog, to the huge growth in traffic and name recognition, the avalanche of job applicants, the constantly increasing interest from brands and VCs, and, most importantly, the conversations we are bringing to the world, has been a fascinating journey."
“Originals and Podcasts have the potential to be among the most popular mainstream non-music genres on OTT platforms like Gaana,” said its chief executive officer, Prashan Agarwal.
Tasting blood, creators and platforms are trying to go deeper into India’s hinterlands with themes and plots that connect with India values. Start-ups have caught on to the opportunity. Enterprises like Kuku FM, Pocket FM and Azaaz.com are squarely focusing on curating the biggest catalog of Indian podcasts.
Pocket FM, founded barely a year back by IIT-Kharagpur graduates Rohan Nayak and Nishanth Srinivas, is pitching itself as the radio destination for non-English speaking listeners. In a short span, it has created curated hundreds of thousands of audio content items in categories like audiobooks, ambience music collections, English speaking classes, and story-telling shows in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati, among other languages.
The regional focus is evident from the fact that it brings listeners access to local FM stations (some smartphones do not come with FM transmitters) and the ability to download audio shows offline. In another unique initiative, Pocket FM gets presenters to narrate popular Indian stories like Akbar-Birbal and Vikram-Vetal, creating a collection of 12,000 such titles, which has come to be a major hit with its listeners.
Popular radio personalities are also embracing podcast with fresh content. Neelesh Mishra, who’s show ‘Yaadon K Idiotbox’ on Big FM 92.7 is counted among the most-loved audio-story telling programmes, has signed an exclusive deal with JioSaavn. He talks about Kahaani Express, which takes the audience on a “journey through the length and breadth of India, with stories of love, hate and relationships, with every tale set in and around India's nerve centre - The Indian Railways. It allows the listener to soak in emotional stories that connect the country.” Even ‘Suhana Safar with Annu Kapoor’ by the celebrated firm critique and actor is now available on multiple platforms in podcast format.
Podcast businesses are still evolving, but like other digital content, rely solely on advertising. Creators say that in the initially days of new podcast series, they would drop a mention of other podcasts shows as a means to cross-promote to the same audience of listeners. These partnerships are commonplace and done without handing out any money. For instance, on IVM, narrators drop a teaser of other podcasts on the platforms which helps new shows get visibility.
As the shows gets more listeners, they lend air-time to other advertisers. Currently, app companies, online tools or some kind of internet service, such as a domain name website, have come forward to advertise on podcasts. The medium demands a great deal of attention from the listener and thus enables better brand recall to any advertisement, creators say.
For large networks such as Gaana and JioSaavn, the longer length of podcasts allows them to place multiple advertisements within a single episode. To listen without ads, they nudge the user to buy a premium subscription of the platform, resulting in sign-ups and, in turn, revenue.
Top music app companies are now spending money on content, and partnering with creators for shows from cricket to Bollywood and so on. Spotify India recently announced its first batch of exclusive podcasts: cricket-themed ’22 Yards’ hosted by popular television anchor Gaurav Kapur, dating and relationship advice-focused ‘Love Aaj Kal’ from journalists Aastha and Ankit, and fictional detective series ‘Bhaskar Bose’ narrated by radio host and actor Mantra.
Gaana has also going big on original exclusive shows. “Today we host one of the most vibrant podcast libraries in the country, with more than 3,000 shows including original content hosted by the likes of Zakir Khan, Sunny Leone and Rannvijay Singha.
“In the coming year, we have committed steady investments in this space, with premium independent creators, and expect it to drive 100 million streams in 2020. Like we have seen in the exceptional rise of regional music on Gaana, we believe the podcast content has to be created as per the tastes of Indian customers,” said Gaana CEO Agarwal.
A PwC report from June had India had 40 million podcast listeners in 2018, a number that is growing 70-80 per cent every year.