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Starved for time and privacy, India’s women are finding refuge in podcasts

ILLUSTRATION BY ALICIA TATONE + QUARTZ / PHOTOS BY GETTY IMAGES

In March 2020, when Covid-19 was about to explode in India, Women in Labor had just wrapped. The English language comedy podcast, which addresses the issue of Indian women leaving the workforce, had just finished taping its first season.

But just a few weeks later, the staff was back recording—albeit in distributed mode. A podcast about the female workforce in India couldn’t really ignore the impact Covid-19 was having on women’s work, and the heightened set of domestic demands to which women were going to have to respond through the crisis.

Podcast producers weren’t inspired to tape another episode because of the news per se. It was rather that they felt their podcast—with over 200,000 downloads, a sizable reach for a podcast not led by a celebrity—had a community around it. And that community—mostly women in or out of the workforce—needed the opportunity to discuss the way the epidemic was changing their lives.

India already is one of the places in the world where women do the largest amount of unpaid work, spending an estimated 5.6 hours daily on it, compared to a global average of 4.4 hours. Like elsewhere in the world, Covid-19 made that burden even bigger, eating into whatever privacy and personal space women had been able to carve for themselves. Confined at home, without the respite of the office or of children being at school and husbands at work, and with the added caretaking load of extended families, many women felt overwhelmed.

The two Women in Labor episodes discussing this came out in early June, and comprised 14 individual stories. Women saw themselves in them: After the episode was released, many wrote to the producers to share that the podcast had given them a space to feel less alone, and less guilty for wanting some time for themselves.

“Especially at this time during Covid, everyone is stuck at home with their family. So listening to a podcast in your earphones is a way to create a little audio bubble around you, of intimacy in a shared home space,” says Christina MacGillivray, who co-hosts the show with comedian Aditi Mittal.

Traditionally, women in India have had limited access to news and entertainment. And even as they gain more economic independence and freedom to access entertainment, they still have limited opportunities to enjoy a movie or TV show with privacy. This is where audio content stands out—it’s ready to capture a growing audience, offering listeners a chance to access information and entertainment without disrupting routines.

Podcasts for all 

India has had podcasts for at least 15 years; the shows now number in the thousands. But prior to the ubiquity of mobile phones, the reach was quite limited. India’s podcasting network had to build up its community on its own—while in other countries podcasts built on a tradition of talk radio, India didn’t have many of those. So initially, the field was populated by shows made abroad, with few shows conceived for a local audience.

It is only in recent years, with more Indian productions, that the number of listeners has gone up. In 2018, there was a 60% jump in podcast listeners over the previous year, although the numbers are still small: As of 2018, only about 40 million out of 500 million internet users in India had ever listened to a podcast, according to a PWC estimate, although many in the field think they reached 40 million listeners in 2020 instead.

Nishant Kumar, the head of sales and partnership at Hubhopper, India’s main podcast distributor, says most podcasts still struggle to build large audiences—a few thousands downloads, he says, are considered a good reach at the moment.

Though the industry is growing fast, podcasts are still somewhat of a novelty in the country. Even the term “podcast” isn’t that popular. “In India, we don’t use the word ‘podcast’, we say ‘audio content’,” says MacGillivray.

I have heard women searching for songs [on music apps] and stumbling upon a podcast—and then being hooked to it.

“Even when Audible launched [in India], they never launched a podcast app; they launched audio shows,” confirms Mae Thomas, who runs a podcast production company and consultancy called Maed in India. “The word podcast is too deep in the jargon of Apple, and they don’t want to use it at all,” she explains, noting that podcasts were labeled “audio shows” and offered up to be discovered alongside other content, such as music or audio books. “I have heard women searching for songs [on music apps] and stumbling upon a podcast—and then being hooked to it,” says Swati Rawat, the host of the Vision-Nari podcast in which she interviews renowned women professionals, artists, and academics.

On-demand audio streaming has become increasingly common in the past five years, Thomas says. Streaming services and apps, notably Gaana, JioSaavn, and Wynk, reach over 100 million users each in India. That’s substantially more, in fact, than international brands such as Spotify, which reported 2 million users at the end of 2019, or Apple, which remains somewhat niche in India, where most people use Android phones.

Why podcasts are popular among women

According to Kavita Rajwade, the co-founder of Indian podcast network Indus Vox Media, most podcast listeners in the country are still male. But that balance is improving, even if slightly. “In the past 18 months or so, I have seen our female audience go up from about 20% of the total listeners to 30%,” she says.

Some of that increased interest is because shows are now being made with female listeners in mind. A lot of that activity is coming from independent producers. Women were starved for relatable content, Rawat says.

Rawant launched Vision-Nari in June 2019, and reached over 50,000 listeners across platforms like Spotify and Apple Music in less than two months. “Most women listeners have been reaching out to me over Instagram or LinkedIn, often telling me how my podcast was something they were always looking for,” she says.

The people who are starting podcasts aren’t doing a ton of market research into target audiences or key demographics—they’re mostly operating by gut instinct, making the shows they themselves would like to hear. There are the usual suspects, such as the podcasts on parenting and family. But even those are now being offered up with intelligent twists, according to Samyuktha Varma, of Bengaluru-based Vaaka Media, an independent podcast production company. “Even with parenting, the spectrum now includes podcasts like Scummy Mummies, which has an irreverent and witty take on the subject.”

Vaaka’s City of Women podcast show, too, explores “the calculated strategies, backdoor negotiations, and often absurd lengths women go to have fun and feel free in their city.”

And while City of Women, which delayed its launch planned for Sept. 21 because of Covid-19, speaks directly to women, not all shows need to do that in an obvious way. “As podcast creators, you need to find out if you can create a loyal audience. You have to care about who they are and if your podcast speaks to them authentically,” says Radhika Viswanathan, the show’s co-founder. “In this process, we also try hard to think about who our woman listener is, whether we have enough women experts on the panel, and if we are asking the right questions,” she says.

As podcast creators, you need to find out if you can create a loyal audience. You have to care about who they are and if your podcast speaks to them authentically.

Among the popular and more mainstream content is fictional stories, especially those read out by Bollywood celebrities. The other category is Bollywood talk shows, which have been wildly popular. Music streaming app JioSaavn has been running No Filter Neha, a podcast with actor Neha Dhupia about inside news on Bollywood, though the show (like many others in this category) is not marketed as a podcast. When it launched in 2016, No Filter Neha reached 2.3 million viewers in a single year.

Another reason podcasts are attractive to women: They offer a bubble of privacy, no matter if the women are commuting to work or doing chores at home. Even without the pandemic-induced lockdowns, Rajwade believes the privacy that a podcast engenders could be a reason why more women are taking to this form of media. “A lot more community media consumption—watching films and TV shows together—happens for women while they sit with their children, mothers, or siblings, more so when you’re all stuck at home. But with a podcast, you truly enjoy something by yourself,” Rajwade says. “There’s also something that needs to be said about the screen fatigue during this lockdown. On the whole, we have witnessed a huge switch to podcasting.”

“We have seen an 18-22% increase in listenership over the last 10 days. Usually, we have increased listenership during morning and evening, but now we get people through the day,” Sreeraman Thiagarajan, co-founder of podcast platform Aawaz.com, told the Economic Times in March, early on in the lockdown.

Samyuktha Varma, co-founder of Bengaluru-based Vaaka Media, agrees. “Podcast consumption is different from other media. There is an honesty that this medium allows women to express and there is space for intersectional positions,” she says. “This is why female chatcasts, where women talk to each other, are also popular. Podcast audiences are niche, cozy, small, and loyal, and the medium lends itself to intimate conversations. This is also why audiences are very strongly matched to the shows they like.”

Meeting women where they’re at

Women are also able to access podcasts in a way that meets them where they’re at, in a way radio often cannot. Radio is heavily regulated in India. For instance, news can only be transmitted on government frequencies, which are auctioned off at very high prices, resulting in a limited number of stations. That is why Mumbai, a city of over 20 million, has less than a dozen official radio stations.

To reach as large an audience as possible across the country’s 1.4 billion people who speak 1,500 languages, podcasts started in India’s unofficial lingua franca, English. “I do feel podcasting was an American import and borrowed the codes of that country and the language. That often happens to any new medium,” Rawat says.

Recently, however, digital on-demand audio is expanding into vernacular languages—so far the prerogative of India’s robust community radio network, which is able to broadcast in limited areas but isn’t regulated as much as government frequencies.

Advertisers are catching on. Thomas, who has recently produced a show about sexual health, says her audience is 50% female, something of an achievement for any medium, even with subject matters that appeal to women. “A while ago I was in a meeting with an advertising agency, and when I was talking to them about the gender split, they were super shocked,” she says. “Media audience is always male-majority, and they couldn’t believe that ours was 50% women.”

Media audience is always male-majority, and they couldn’t believe that ours was 50% women.

Although India is a very young market, there are brands that have found a good advertising opportunity in podcasts. Aditya Kuber, the co-founder of Fount Media, an agency focused on sponsoring podcasts, says companies that advertise on podcasts tend to be in the financial, lifestyle, fashion, tech, and health sectors.

Especially since Covid-19 hit, Kuber says, brands really turned their eyes towards podcasts and other digitally-distributed content, as they offered a committed, engaged audience that could be reached even without the budgets required to buy ads in traditional media. And even where the audience numbers don’t compare to more popular products, podcasts offer niche audiences that might be more interested in specific products and services advertised.

Thomas says this is what makes podcasts an area of such potential, both in terms of business and as an avenue to new content production. “There are more and more [people] listening to podcasts, and the amount of women that are part of that is huge,” she says. “As [the number of] podcasts start increasing more and more, there are more and more women listening. Because there are more women hosts, you’re hearing your own voice and different kinds of voices.”

“There is an empowerment that’s taking place,” she says. “If I had to tell you the number of calls I get from women who want to host their own show! Because whatever it is that you want to do, you’re able to do it in this space, you feel like your voice will be heard. Nothing else matters—it’s about what you’re trying to say.”

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