Lend Me Your Ears: How podcasts bring voice amid quarantine

With many parts of India still in quarantine, people are turning to podcasts like never before for entertainment and knowledge but the industry should have moved from niche to mainstream.

Published: 28th June 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th June 2020 08:17 AM   |  A+A-

Maed in India by Mae Thomas Touted as India’s first indie music podcast, showcases the best Indian independent musicians from India and abroad

Maed in India by Mae Thomas Touted as India’s first indie music podcast, showcases the best Indian independent musicians from India and abroad. (Photo| EPS)

The foot-tapping music lights up his eyes. It runs for a second or two and sets the tone for the next 20 minutes. Aayaan V Saad, an eight-year-old from Noida, is listening to his favourite podcast But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids.

The current episode is about fishes. Kids his age have asked the podcast host a variety of questions—how do fishes sleep, how can they see underwater without goggles, why they can’t breathe out of water?

Aayaan wants to learn it all so that he can, in turn, quiz his grandmother about the underwater world of fishes. "I get to learn so much from podcasts. My mom doesn’t let me watch TV but she doesn’t say no to listening to them," he says about his favourite podcast.

Mother Vidhi Bhargava nods in agreement. She introduced Aayaan to podcasts when "Alexa ran out of jokes" for him. "The biggest concern for all parents these days is that children watch too much television. Keeping them engaged is an equally big challenge. Happily, podcasts do both," she says.

What are podcasts and how do they work? What makes them so popular? What does the phenomenal growth in podcasts mean?

Simply put, a podcast is a subscribed audio programme available on your smartphone where hosts speak about diverse subjects, often accompanying music—the advantage is that you can listen to them whenever and wherever, including in your car which makes information available hands-free.

The length doesn’t matter—they can be either an hour-long with interviews or simply short takes. They can be posted daily or monthly or weekly. You upload your audio file aka audio blog to a website and allow it to be subscribed to via an RSS feed and presto! You have a podcast.

The coronavirus has forced people to stay at home, away from offices, businesses, schools and colleges forcing people to work from home and consume extra screen time on streaming platforms. Even after offices have opened, the podcast habit has remained with most listeners. "The learning is a bonus," says Vidhi, editor with a publishing house. 

India is the world’s third largest podcast listening market and as per a PwC report, the number of listeners is going to rise from four crore in 2018 to 17.61 crore in 2023. India’s music, radio and podcasts market was worth Rs 5,753 crore in 2018 and could hit upwards of Rs 10,000 crore by 2023.

And according to a 2019 report by Deloitte, globally podcasts could be a USD 3.3 billion-plus business by 2025. The growth of podcasts, while not displacing TV and print, is no doubt challenging established communication mediums with a rise in revenue. With global music giants such as Apple and Spotify entering the business, the global podcasting market will increase by 30 percent to reach USD 1.1 billion in 2020, as per a Deloitte industry report.

While Aayaan wants to impress his grandmother, Alex Mathew is brushing up on his professional skills. “I read a lot of articles on marketing, cars, bikes and design. With podcasts, I realised I could listen to them while multitasking such as doing mundane chores at home or driving to work and so on,” says Alex, a 34-year-old marketing manager with a technology research firm in Gurugram.

He enjoys short podcasts since the information is "well-packaged with actionable insights". Alex lists Marketing School by Neil Patel and Eric Siu, and Car Talk as his favourite podcasts. "It’s like a lecture, but of the interesting kind," he adds. Podcast is the new radio. Only it is on-demand unlike FM. 

When much of the world went into lockdown in April and May, millions of people enthusiastically took to podcasts. In April, Apple announced that it had more than one million shows on Apple Podcasts. While Apple dominates the podcast market, the entry of platforms such as Pandora, Castbox and Spotify, shows the popularity of the medium.

According to Acast, one of the world’s largest global podcasting companies, the demand for comedy went up by 24 percent during the lockdown and education had a 20 percent increase. Episodes with ‘corona’ or ‘Covid’ in the title were downloaded over 27.5 million times globally. 

“In current times, people are looking for a daily escape from the visual chaos through audio experiences, which can be taken along during daily activities,” says Amarjit Singh Batra, managing director-India, Spotify.

The company has seen a 50 percent jump in podcast consumption. Users worldwide have been streaming news, health and fitness, and children and family content. Podcasts with the words "cooking" or "recipes" in the title or description have become more popular recently, says Amarjit. In the world of content creation, podcasts are booming, thanks to people working from home and looking for content that doesn’t strain the eyes. 

Podcasts & Pandemic 

During the lockdown, Hubhopper—one of India’s largest podcast creation, hosting, and distribution platform—recorded 35-40 percent increase in storytelling. "We’ve seen a remarkable jump on our platform across genres," says Nishant Kumar, head of sales and partnerships, Hubhopper. There are several reasons why podcasts are here to stay. Listening to them isn’t restricted to commute timings anymore. It’s a great on-demand medium to tune into while multi-tasking.

"People listen to podcasts while doing household chores or as a break from boring webinars," says Chhavi Sachdev, podcaster and founder, Sonologue, a Mumbai-based audio production house. "When I started out in 2008, I had to explain to people what podcasts meant. Now they know it as Netflix for the ears,” says Chhavi, who also offers consultancy and is a podcast coach.

"Podcasting has become the popular medium to easily churn out fresh, exciting and new content. Moreover, this can be done while observing the necessary coronavirus norms," says Mae Thomas, founder, Maed in India, a production and consultancy firm. 

So with more people working from home and staring at their smart devices for longer periods than before, consumers turned to podcasts. "Last month our Facebook community of podcasters went up from 400 members to 800," says Bijay Gautam, host of the popular show Inspiring Talks.

Dozens of the new podcasts centre on the pandemic. "We’ve added a dedicated carousel in several languages to connect people to podcasts and help them understand the virus’s impact," says Robin Bhaduri, product manager, Google Podcasts.

"India is in the top five countries for Google Podcasts adoption," he adds. Platforms focusing on pandemic-related content got good engagement. For instance, Suno India—a multilingual podcast platform which started in 2018—began producing daily Covid bulletins and easy-to-understand Covid flashcards in English, Hindi and Telugu.

"Our episodes on tackling myths around Covid-19 and lockdown, especially in Telugu, have been doing very well," says DVL Padma Priya, editor and co-founder of Suno India. Just a month into the lockdown, Suno India’s shows garnered nearly 1,50,000 listeners. "We plan to deep-dive into the humanitarian crisis and bring more stories," says Padma Priya.

Creators' Corner

 While most people may curse the Bengaluru traffic, Subhashish Bharuka is grateful. It was on his two-hour-long commutes (both ways) that Subhashish, then a communication consultant, started listening to podcasts.

Drawing inspiration from the biz gurus he listened to daily, he finally evolved into an entrepreneur-podcaster himself and started to explore the landscape beyond just listening. "I found podcasts a brilliant way to connect with a niche audience," says Subhashish, also a part-time stand-up comic.

Last June, he started hosting Life, Lemons & Tequila, a weekly podcast on the role of humour in life. Four months later, he set up Nuttyfox, a gourmet snacking brand. In February 2019, when Spotify entered India, it launched itself as Spotify: Music and Podcasts. Today, the company has 15 original shows directed at the Indian market.

Of late, domestic music streaming companies such as Wynk Music, Gaana and JioSaavn have begun to include podcasts in their portfolio. Launched in 2019, Aawaz.com, one of the largest Hindi podcast networks, started an English network early this year.

Last year, Amazon-owned Audible’s new India-focused app Suno hit the market with over 100 shows. Journalists, doctors, radio jockeys, entrepreneurs, authors, nutritionists, influencers, comedians, life coaches—almost everyone worth a voice is uploading podcasts. While the fly-by-night operators fizzle out after a few uploads, some gather a large fan-base. 

Take for instance, Mumbai-based journalist Amit Varma. When he first started The Seen and the Unseen, a weekly podcast on politics, economics and behavioural science in 2017, the motive was curiosity. "The show evolved and gained a following," says Amit, whose weekly programme gets over one lakh downloads a month.

With more than 175 episodes, it’s rated as one of the top podcasts by Apple and despite its length, which at times goes beyond two hours, has become a must-listen show. "When I started, I had the impression that people have short attention spans, and episodes should be no more than 20 minutes long. But I soon realised that there is enormous hunger for deep knowledge. Now I do deep-dive interviews that last between two and three hours. I aim to make timeless episodes to get insights 30 years from now," says the 46-year-old, who won the prestigious Bastiat Prize for Journalism, twice, in 2007 and 2015. 

The power of the medium and the ease of expression also drew Dr Munjaal V Kapadia, a Mumbai-based obstetrician and gynaecologist, to become a podcaster. "Listening to a podcast is a wonderful, solitary, learning experience," says Munjaal, host of the show, She Says She’s Fine.

"We wanted to create a safe space where women could listen to other women who have been through unfortunate experiences, broken barriers of patriarchy and who have stood back up despite being knocked down. That safe space lies between two earphones," he says.

The show produced by Maed in India has run two seasons: the first season has 10 free episodes on all podcast platforms. The second season with 24 episodes is available for free exclusively on Audible Suno. 
Demographics Decoded

So, has the podcast revolution finally hit home? Mae Thomas of Maed in India puts it in perspective. "There is a lot of curiosity around the space. This medium is considered the new real estate for anyone looking for refreshing ways to communicate," she says. Maed in India first started as a podcast where indie musicians presented their music. They now put out videos, merchandise, besides releasing their 200th episode in January.

Mae’s journey into podcasts happened by fluke when she had quit a radio show five years ago and was approached by a podcast company. "I made an indie music show. At that time I was quite jaded by the fact that radio stations weren’t playing independent music," she says.

Musicians who appeared on her show range from Indian Ocean, Euphoria and Apache Indian to Karsh Kale, Hard Kaur, et al. In 2018, Maed in India was one of the seven podcasts picked as 'Apple’s Best Podcasts in India'.

"My weekly show prides itself on being the destination for new music, little-known stories, and has grown to become an ongoing repository/archive of unreleased music that artists feel comfortable sharing and performing," she says.

Today Maed in India as a podcast production company works with creators, OTT platforms, brands and agencies. “We provide an end-to-end solution for podcast production," Mae adds.

Creating a podcast isn’t as difficult as YouTube content. If you have the passion, a basic recorder and a good mic, there are enough free editing software available online that will allow you to put up a show. "I spent less than Rs 20,000 in setting up my equipment and almost all interviews were done when I travelled for business," says Subhashish.

Taking advantage of the rising interest in the medium are media houses, publishing outlets and corporate houses. Last month, Delhi-based Roli Books launched its digital arm Roli Pulse, which also includes podcasts. Their first podcast Your Place or Mine will be released in August.

It is co-produced by Delhi-based production house The Jamun Collective and will feature writer Indrajit Hazra who will look at Indian cities and towns through the prism of food. The second show called Publishing Perspectives will be a 12-part series that looks at various aspects of the publishing industry with professionals from across the world.

"The topics vary from independent publishing, marketing books, opportunities in digital publishing, secret of childrens’s book publishing amongst others. Just like we publish books on a range of topics, our podcasts, too, will reflect the same," says Priya Kapoor, editorial director, Roli Books.  So how did podcasts—a term used by Apple when it started rolling out podcast support on iTunes in 2005—slowly become the go-to infotainment option?

"Podcasts are empowering. You get to listen to the unheard voices and they make you feel as if you are a part of the story," says Padma Priya of Suno India. What makes a podcast different from the tightly-controlled radio is that this is on-demand audio.

"When you take away the visual, you realise that people start paying a lot more attention to what you are saying," says Dhruv Rathee, a popular YouTube creator, now a podcaster too. In April, he launched Maha Bharat with Dhruv Rathee, a Spotify Original. "The idea is to tap into a brand new audience that can get hooked onto great audio, and to think of audio content on the whole instead of only music," he adds.

The major shift in the industry is visible globally where streaming giants are working on exclusivity. Take for instance, how Spotify wooed American comedian Joe Rogan, a popular podcast host. A huge acquisition, the deal ensures that his top-ranking show, The Joe Rogan Experience, will become a Spotify exclusive. "It’s a phenomenon that will come to India," says Roshan Abbas, multi-faceted media personality, and managing director of Geometry Encompass, an experiential marketing agency.

Globally, it was the year 2014—nine years after podcasts got added to iTunes—that marked the turning point. The waves started hitting India in 2015, when Indus Vox Media (IVM), now a premier player in the Indian podcasting market, entered the space. "TRAI regulations don’t allow FM radio channels to create content around current affairs, politics, policy or simply non-film content. So we saw a huge opportunity," says IVM Podcasts co-founder Kavita Rajwade. 

The entry of IVM and subsequent podcasting networks allowed professionals to experiment and explore the space. Some like Bijay Gautam quit their job to make a career in podcasting. He was 24 years old in 2018, when he hosted his first podcast. A year later he quit his job as a research assistant to dedicate himself to a career in this industry.

He co-founded WYN (What’s Your Narrative) Studio where he offers podcast consultancy, workshops and online courses. "I am planning to host an online summit on podcasting in the next few months," says Bijay.

Content is always the king and audio isn’t any different. For Dhruv, who has always wooed his audience through visuals, audio wasn’t easy to come by. "The amount of research that we are trying to distil into a 20-minute-episode is quite a task," he says. 

Vernacular Version

While English dominates and Hindi is scaling up, regional languages too are slowly making a foray into the market. Compared to other forms, audio content and podcasts are literacy-agnostic, less capital-intensive and easier to create. Languages that are getting popular besides Hindi, are Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

"We run a very popular Marathi podcast with Sonalee Kulkarni (Sangtey Aika with Sonalee). Our thriller show in Kannada called Karma is a Witch did so well that we subsequently launched it in Hindi," says Nishant of Hubhopper.

Niche shows are striking a mark with the audience. Shows such as Manoj Kumar Jain’s Talks on Investment, Josh Talks and The Big Story are very popular. Suno India’s forte is its storytelling podcasts for children in Telugu and Tamil. Their Telugu storytelling podcast Katha Cheppava Ammamma has over one lakh listeners, and Hindi career podcast Raah for millennials is another hit.  

Some of the podcasts are born out of personal stories. "Our flagship podcast Dear Pari, on child adoption in India, is one of our most popular shows. We are looking at running another season now," says Padma Priya.

It was an idea that had stemmed from the co-founders' (Rakesh Kamal and Padma Priya) story of adopting their child. Maed in India ran the popular The Lit Pickers about books early this year, "where the only feedback we got was that our 35-mintue episodes were too short," says Mae.

With the Google Podcasts Creator programme, more regional language creators are getting a platform. "We are also removing barriers to create content in languages that are spoken but not necessarily written (e.g. Marwari)," Robin says. 
Revenue in a Pod
 Unlike video OTT, a podcast does not have a unified platform and is fragmented. As a result, advertisers, sponsorships and deals are slow to come by. “While there’s definitely an opportunity, these are still early days. The overall consumption of podcasts in India is still far from ideal,” says Roshan. Advertisers for now are looking at how trends are evolving and what their audiences are listening to.

“There’s no reason why they wouldn’t consider being a part of this medium, given the intimacy and connection that listeners feel when they tune in to a podcast. Brands are advertising but the money they are spending is still for a very niche top-end audience,” he adds. Amit Varma agrees. “I want my podcasts to remain free. I opened up voluntary contributions recently via Instamojo and Paypal, and listeners have been generous. I have been lucky that my audience has grown and is dedicated enough to keep me independent,” he says.  

Companies are slowly producing shows related to their area of expertise. Take for example, Dreamers and Unicorns by Abhijit Bhaduri, a podcast that explores the future of work, workers and workplaces, as part of the New Code of Work series by PeopleStrong, a HR Tech firm. “PeopleStrong is helping organisations discover the #newcodeofwork and that resonates with my work and writing. I believe that traditional modes of employment will disappear with entrepreneurs in different fields becoming the new role models,” says Abhijit, a popular life coach, author and columnist.

Marketing and business gurus are optimistic. Sanjay Mehta, joint CEO, Mirum India, a digital marketing agency, believes the medium is effective. “With the advertisement coming in the middle of the content stream, the listener is sort of forced to listen. Also if the ad is well-integrated, it makes for effective experience,” Sanjay explains.  That in the coming months there will be revenue traction is evident in the kind of players entering the segment. While big-ticket sponsorships and monetary gains may still be a few notes away, Aayaan has moved on from fishes to mythology. Both the grandmother and the grandchild are outscoring each other as school still seems a distant reality and life is still under lockdown.

According to PwC’s Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2019–2023 report, India is the world’s third-largest podcast-listening market (after China and the US). The report, released last year, puts the total monthly listeners at four crore in 2018 and is set to increase to 17.61 crore by 2023. According to a media report, National Public Radio (NPR), one of the largest US radio broadcasters, saw 3,35,828 podcast downloads in India in 2018, a remarkable rise from the 81,789 downloads in 2015.

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