India’s podcast buzz is now getting loud and clear

Tuned in.
Tuned in.
Image: Reuters/Jitendra Prakash
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At the heels of India’s online video-streaming boom, another phenomenon is gathering steam: podcasts.

A portmanteau of iPod and broadcast, this small yet significantly growing segment of online entertainment holds great potential in a country with a massive youth population, abysmally slow internet speeds, and perennially long daily commutes.

Already, music streaming has gained popularity in India for these reasons.

“Video and audio are like siblings where video leads and audio runs behind,” Gautam Raj Anand, founder & CEO of podcast-hosting platform Hubhopper, told Quartz. “Already 98% of the apps are fighting for screen time. There’s room to capture some potential passive consumption hours where they’re not actively looking into their phones.”

Currently, only 40 million of India’s nearly 500 million internet users listen to podcasts. The number, though, is growing rapidly. In 2018, there was an almost 60% growth in podcast listeners in India.

The right tune

Audio streaming is growing in India like never before. In fact, Indians are so hungry for audio content that they’re using the world’s biggest video-streaming site, YouTube, to just listen to music.

As the internet and smartphone penetration increases, experts believe more audio content will find takers. “It’s kind of a grassroots movement happening via word-of-mouth, not too dissimilar to other new media-based phenomenons. We’ve seen photo- and video-sharing spreads via friends, families and social networks,” said Michael Mignano, co-founder and managing director of podcast-creation app Anchor.

In 2019, competition in India’s music streaming segment intensified as Stockholm-based music streaming app Spotify launched operations in February, and less than three weeks later, Google-owned YouTube Music entered the country. Incumbents such as Apple, Amazon Music, Gaana, JioSaavn, and Hungama, continued to widen their offerings.

As the audio streaming segment expands, podcasts could prove to be a key differentiator, experts say.

“The artistes and library are the same across every platform give or take a few labels. That is not going to differentiate things. The key differentiator is going to be original content. Creating original music is a very expensive proposition with labels signing on artists. That only leaves the spoken word or podcast,” Aman Goklani, former India head at on-demand audio and podcasting distribution platform Audioboom, had said in August this year. (In November, he joined JioSaavn as the director of podcast and partnerships.)

The right content

Although the term podcast is new to India, the country is fairly familiar with the concept. Traditional channels such as radio and news publishers gave podcasts the first push in India, and now myriad companies and individuals are hopping onto the bandwagon.

“This is almost the rise of the intellectual. New ideas are getting formulated and presented in a way that haven’t had the luxury for a long time in traditional media,” said Ramya Ramamurthy, host of the Feeding 10 Billion podcast on Indus Vox Media (IVM).

A pioneer of sorts, radio channel RedFM has been among the biggest publishers on Audioboom, an on-demand audio and podcasting distribution platform, since 2016. “Radio shows already have (a) deep connect with (the) audience but radio is very linear. You have to listen to it then. With podcasts, they give the audiences the opportunity to listen on-demand,” said Goklani.

Moreover, there’s a “huge gap in talk radio where India is concerned,” Kavita Rajwade, co-founder of IVM,  a premier podcasting company launched in 2015, told Quartz. “FM stations aren’t allowed to do current affairs, politics, and so on.”

This is a void podcast can easily fill. In fact, established news organisations such as Network18, Moneycontrol, and CNBCTV have already fared well. Indian Express, which got into the game in mid-2018, has seen success with many podcasts, too.

Looking beyond renowned media houses, podcasts are a welcome break from the mainstream mayhem.

Ayesha Aleem, a journalist-turned-podcaster, thinks the medium offers respite from fake news. I thought it would be powerful to have people speak about their experience in their own words. It allows for less manipulation,” the 33-year-old host of The Ilm with Ayesha Aleem said, adding that she wanted to include new voices and have greater diversity.

The medium also makes room to discuss taboo topics.

For instance, Aastha and Ankit, hosts of a Spotify original podcast Love Aaj Kal, will get direct messages on Instagram where people ask things like “Is it safe to have sex in an OYO room?” In a country where sex education is lacking and judgment is rampant, this is an arena people can turn to for knowledge and candid advice. Other topics they cover include LGBTQI relations and even more alien concepts like polyamory.

One hack that’s working to spread the word is leveraging one of India’s biggest obsessions: Bollywood.

JioSaavn’s #NoFilterNeha is already on its fourth season and IshqFM’s shows hosted by Karan Johar and Kareena Kapoor have garnered massive listenerships, too. Kalki Koechlin got a second season of BBC podcast “My Indian Life.” Clearly, in a country where Bollywood is all the craze, celebrities can help podcasts go the extra mile.

The right numbers

For Sanjay Manaktala, who created the Global Comedian podcast, about 50% of the listens on his episodes came from iOS devices three years ago. Apple pre-installs the podcast app on its devices but its market share has always been in the low single-digits, so the push has been slow. However, more platforms and devices are catching on now.

Since it is among the more seasoned players, Apple Podcasts leads the way, but JioSaavn is catching up. Spotify recently placed a big bet on the space, announcing a handful of originals. “Everybody who listens to music also listens to podcasts and they want one place for that,” Amarjit Singh Batra, managing director at Spotify, said during a Nov. 19 press conference at Mumbai’s Soho House.

In India, Audioboom has a sticky run-rate of ~3.5 million listens each month. Three-quarters of its listeners in India fall in the 18-34 years age group, Umesh Barve, the company’s head of India partnerships told Quartz.

“We think, for anyone who is between the ages of 16 and 28, their attention span is short, that they’re a headline generation. They’ve gotten upset with this perception,” said Gaurav Kapoor, host of Spotify original podcast 22 Yards. “They’re swinging the pendulum the other way and are extremely interested in doing deep dives.”

In fact, what works in favour of creating podcasts is the longer timeline compared to videos on television or on the web. Kapoor, who has hosted the IPL show on television and Breakfast with Champions on the web, is generally “medium-agnostic but subconsciously, something kicks in,” he said. “If you give me one minute to answer versus 10 minutes, my response will change.” A podcast gives more opportunity for interviewees to ruminate.

While entertainment is taking the cake, storytelling, business, horror, and children’s podcasts are doing well, too, Audioboom found. The devotional category, which includes the likes of Hindu religious text Bhagvad Gita and epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat are also hits.

Currently, the audience skews towards young and male (67%), as it does for Facebook and pretty much all of the web in India.

The right creators

With the buzz mounting, more and more people are taking to podcasting.

Though it’s still a technical job, it’s perhaps not as expensive, time-consuming, and labour-intensive as producing videos. “Bhaskar Bose has a great cast and original music production. It’s a film,” RJ and actor Mantra, who’s launched the Spotify original fiction thriller, said. “Just visual hatado, budget kam kar do, aur mazaa double (remove the visual, reduce the budget, and double the fun).”

However, the process isn’t that straightforward.

When someone wants to write a blog post, they can go to portals such as Medium. When they want to post videos, the can log on to YouTube or Vimeo. But with podcasts, most people don’t know where to begin.

AI-based platform for podcasts, content aggregation, and publishing, Hubhopper, has tried to remove the barriers, Anand told Quartz. “It’s such a travesty and shame that technology hampers their (podcasters’) creation,” he said. “We gave free hosting, free recording as software, free basic editing like pre-roll, post-roll, background music, cropping, fade in and out, and so on.” Other paid platforms like BuzzSprout ($12/month) and Transistor ($19/month) also offer similar podcast hosting services.

In India, thousands of podcasts have been launched by Anchor, a New York-based podcast-creation tool that was recently bought by Spotify. The company expects a ripple effect of sorts as the sector opens up. “Once people see friends and families and influencers making podcasts, they’ll want to jump onboard and make their own,” Anchor’s Mignano said. Anchor takes a 30% commission from podcasters’ revenues for sponsorship products.

Already, a lot of direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands are taking note of podcast advertising, Mignano told Quartz. Companies such as website-designing service Squarespace and eyewear brand Warby Parker are among those. In India, IVM, which has 93 shows, is creating a 15-part series for Accenture which revolves around tech careers.

The right pitch

On the podcasters’ end, getting the quality right, both in terms of technology and content, remains challenging.

Proper recording setup: When left to users who aren’t experts, “audio is still iffy,” says Rajwade. “Here, you’re using a single sense so we need a hi-tech setup like we have at IVM. You need to get that experience down pat.”

Content is king: A stronghold on content is the make-or-break factor for any and all podcasts.

Aping the west to score success won’t come easy. Serial, one of the most popular podcasts ever, had 10 New York Times journalists working on it for one year before they put out a single episode. “To hire the quality team and get them to put out one piece is a huge investment,” said Rajwade.

Funding constraints: Often, Indians don’t have the financial bandwidth to make, popularise, and sustain podcasts. For instance, Aleem, inspired by podcasts like Serial, Stance, and NoSugarCoat by chef Pooja Dhingra, self-produced her first season and used her personal social media accounts to promote it. Although her first season of weekly podcasts spanning three months was well-received, season 2 has hit a wall. ”I pay an editor, which costs me per hour,” she said. “If I want to do another season together, it’s going to cost me money again and I need to figure out a source of funding before I can move ahead with season 2.”

It’s a chicken and egg problem. Without enough users, spending is sparse. And without enough funding, reaching users remains a task. “Even in the US, just one in three Americans have listened to a podcast in the past month. The Indian market is still a few years behind,” said Matthew Lieber, founder of podcast network Gimlet.

Seeking tech solutions: Music-streaming companies could change the scene. “JioSaavn is at it probably first among music streaming companies. Gaana is looking more meaningfully (at podcasts). Spotify’s entry will be a big boom for podcasting globally,” Goklani said. “The key challenge is discovery of content. As companies like Spotify try to tackle curated playlists and algorithms to increase discoverability, it will get the industry to inflexion point.”

On the technology side, Spotify is trying to smoothen the listening experience with “podmarks,” which will function like bookmarks. The company is also creating trailers for podcasts to generate more buzz, Spotify’s Batra shared.

On Dec. 12, Amazon launched a free podcast app called Audioble Suno in India, which is separate from its audio books platform Audible, to pay special attention to the medium.

Catering to the many Indias: Overcoming the language barrier in a diverse country like India is crucial. For now, the listenership is mostly urban. For IVM, 40% of it is the Indian diaspora internationally. A large part of actress Koechlin’s audience is also Indians residing abroad. However, data show that the regional markets offer a massive opportunity. “Most podcasts are created in English but most listens we get in Hindi and other languages,” said Barve. “One Bhojpuri and one Assamese podcast are always among top 10 or 15 most heard.”