How the Podcast Industry is Making Silent Waves in India

The number of mobile phone users in India is rising by the day and with it, the market for mobile-specific video content, applications, short-format videos et al. This makes Indians among the fastest-growing consumers of visual information. Against this backdrop has been the quiet rise of podcasting, an industry that couldn’t be more dissimilar to this phenomenon.

According to the Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2019–2023 report by PwC, podcast listening has increased significantly in India in the past few years.

An outline of the report reads: “Monthly listeners (defined as people who listened to at least one podcast in the last month) totalled 4 crores at the end of 2018, up a sharp 57.6% from 2.54 crores in the previous year. This made India the world’s third-largest podcast-listening market (after China and the US), although it ranks much lower on a per capita basis. Growth is set to continue over the forecast period with listener numbers set to increase at a 34.5% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) to 17.61 crores by 2023.”

In a span of seven years, this nascent industry is looking at growing from 2.54 crore listeners to 17.61 crores. How does a purely audio non-music format—that is comparatively long-form—hold its own despite being low on the marketing radar, yet growing at this staggering rate in a country where one is constantly bombarded with visual content?

The perfect setting

The answer, finds Mae Mariyam Thomas, lies in our long-standing love for storytelling.

“We’re a nation that loves storytelling — whether that’s through fiction, interviews, or people talking about their personal experiences, we love being told stories. I also think that India is a country that likes to be informed. So, wanting to learn more and having knowledge is important and we have a sense of pride about.”

Thomas is the founder of Maed in India, a podcast production company that handles everything from the stage of idea development to the distribution of podcasts. Her immensely popular weekly podcast Maed in India is India’s first on the indie music scene in the country.

While our inherent nature contributes to our interest in tech-fuelled audio formats, a lot also has to do with some pre-existing conditions that have worked in favour of the podcast industry. When Gautam Raj Anand, founder of Hubhopper, started to do his research on India as a market for podcasting, he realised how it was primed for the format without even being aware of it.

“I had many questions on why podcasts hadn’t yet taken off in India. To answer those, I looked at the variables that worked in other countries and drew parallels with India: 1) Wherever there is high transport/commute time, podcasts tended to do well. Where are we on that stack rank? We are the second highest in the world with an average of 1 hour and 31 minutes every day. 2) Places where people spend a lot of time at home. Again, we ranked second in the world. 3) Wherever there were many languages and cultures in one location, podcasts always did well. This one I didn’t even need to research.”

Anand continued to find variables that helped him make his argument for creating a podcast culture in the country. He learnt that countries with low data costs and high digital penetration too tended to be conducive for the growth of podcasts. India faired very well on both those accounts.

“Two other variables stood out distinctly. 1) Countries with a long history of audio content and 2) countries with high YouTube consumption. India listens to the radio all the time, be it for music, to listen to religious discourses; it isn’t uncommon to enter a shop where the radio is playing in the background. We are also one of the largest consumers of YouTube not as a video tool but as a listening tool. This goes to show how much we care about an audio tool, but we just don’t know how to verbalise it,” says Anand.

Hubhopper is India’s leading podcast distribution, creation, and hosting platform with over 1 million hours of content across 15 languages (12 of which are regional).

The audience for it

Mumbai-based graphic designer Tushar Doshi’s daily commute across the city gave him ample time to listen to podcasts. He’s been an avid listener for over a decade. Back when Indian content wasn’t conceptualised yet, he’d listen to the likes of Joe Rogan and Slash Films while looking out of his BEST bus window.

“I liked the idea that it was a passive activity. It allowed me to multi-task, unlike video formats that require your attention at all times. I took to podcasts primarily out of the interest to learn more about certain subjects and discovering like-minded people who had podcasts on those subjects. It gave me a sense of companionship without being intrusive while being very informative. The process of discovering new content made for a very compelling argument in favour of podcasts,” says Doshi.

Thomas’ transition to podcasts too had the joy of discovery at its core. Already popular with radio listeners, she was contemplating the creation of something in a space that was very familiar to her, yet one that hadn’t been traversed as well. The tremendous response to her Maed in India podcast and the subsequent setting up of her company is testimony to how well-received podcasts are in the country.

“A lot of people knew me from my radio days, and I did see a lot of those listeners move to listen to me on my podcast. However, I also saw a new audience that grew out of what I was doing on Maed in India. For me, the podcast represented music discovery which is what I grew up on as a 90s kid listening to radio. Which is what I wanted to kindle — that sparkle of finding something new and building a community around it. And then, what was exciting for me was creating something bigger with Maed in India. That it wasn’t just a podcast; we wanted to have live events, videos, and a line of merchandise. One of the biggest joys for me was walking through a music festival and spotting someone with a Maed in India t-shirt on!”

The platforms

Anand realised that despite India’s long history with audio content, the prickly access to “podcasts” also had much to do with the word itself. Given that podcast comes from “iPod” and “broadcast”, he felt that the word itself was misappropriating because in India one tends to associate Apple products with certain strata of society.

“Everyone listens to audio content that is not music related yet, the word podcast seems to be stuck with an ‘ameeron ka content’ image. I found that to be a problem but one that could easily be addressed. The bridging together of what we know to be radio content and what the word podcast becomes very important to me. I wanted to champion this community, this medium. It is language and literacy agnostic for creators, less capital intensive, and it has so many benefits to it. Thus, began the journey of creating HubHopper.”

The advent of Spotify, a Sweden-based audio streaming and media service provider too recognised the nascent potential that lay in plain sight in India, waiting to be harnessed. Known internationally as a music streaming platform, Spotify also looked to tap the podcast scene in India. Says Unni Nambudripad, Executive Producer — Podcasts at Spotify India,

“Globally, Spotify is focused on an audio first strategy, and India is an important part of that. Within a span of one year, we’ve launched 25 Spotify Originals in the market, have 3 exclusive partnerships, and over 25,000 podcasts have been created locally on Anchor, a Spotify company that enables podcast creators to make and upload their content across platforms.”

He adds that in the past, podcasts were restricted to traditional metrics which were often debatable, and the industry itself was at a nascent stage. This led to content creators, especially the bigger publishers staying away, along with agencies and brands being wary of advertising on the medium.

“Today, access to data insights through platforms such as Spotify for Podcasters, and production via Anchor, ensures that creators have information at their fingertips on what is working, and what can be improved – based on content, guests, episode duration, and other relevant metrics. This is critical if podcasts have to become sustainable and even a full-time profession for many creators,” he adds.

The money

In a country accustomed to being incentivized for using new experiences, getting Indians to pay remains a culture shift that is changing at a glacial pace. With low data rates and schemes, people are more willing to access free content for longer durations than paying for a service.

“That may be the case for most people, but the podcasting audience tends to be one that is opting for the service purely on the basis of the content, more than the platform itself. When you find something really good and you wish to continue using it, you will pay for it,” says Doshi.

Thomas believes creators need to treat the podcast market and its ability to monetise, differently than other mediums. Unlike music streaming and YouTube where an artist or content creator can expect some amount of passive income from streaming, she says,

“In podcasting, you have to actively pursue and convince advertisers or your audience of the value they will receive from partnering with your content. Passive income will come as soon as the industry grows, and opportunities grow.”

On the face of it, a lot of podcasts are free. And the fundamental question for us who are viewing this from the outside in, if it’s mostly free, why are people doing this? How are they getting paid?

“Podcasters have many ways to monetise their content but it’s contingent upon them getting a native audience listening to them. They can monetise by using their podcast to upsell merchandise, or even from direct contributions from their listener base. With that they can orchestrate AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions, add new episodes… some of them put their second season partially behind a paywall after a successful Season 1. Some even do live shows,” says Anand.

From the advertiser perspective, Anand explains, either the podcaster goes to the hosting platform to help find an advertiser or an advertiser approaches a hosting platform with an ad, seeking guidance on how best to advertise it via podcasts. The hosting platform plays a crucial role in facilitating that. Content aggregators can also find ways to monetise on a technical level through interesting plans, and even offer strong SAS (Statistical Analysis System) models for the creator.

The future

Hosting platforms are constantly assessing what works for a consumer and what doesn’t. At this point, while English and Hindi are predominantly the languages of choice, content is being created and hosted in many Indian languages. Says Nambudripad,

“We’re currently seeing podcast consumption primarily in English and Hindi. The local Spotify Original podcasts are in Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu, and ‘Hinglish’, and we are open to working with local content partners, as we have in the past to develop relevant content for our listeners. We’ve also seen regional content such as PURIJAGANNADH, Chai Bisket Original Telugu Podcast, and Schumy Vanna Kaviyangal Podcast perform well on the Spotify Top Podcasts chart in India.”

While definite plans are being made for going hyper-local, Spotify is also testing a new Polls feature that gives podcasters the opportunity to ask their audience questions within the app. He adds,

“Both the host and listeners will be able to see the responses in real-time, opening up an entirely new way for creators and listeners to interact. The intent is to increase engagement and give creators the opportunity to ask their listeners what they’d like more of, views on a specific episode, etc.”

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Spotify may be looking to increase audience interaction with podcasters, but it is this very lack of interaction that resonates with some users. Doshi feels that the lack of trolls makes this a peaceful platform with the focus firmly kept on the podcaster-listener relationship.

“There’s no unnecessary chatter, no toxic messaging like you find on other social media. And I hope it remains that way. I particularly like the sanctity of this being intact. But one can never say about the future.”

The future though is a vast, blank slate for this industry, waiting to be explored further. Thomas says,

“In the middle of this year, Voxnest released a report that said that India is the 2nd largest growing podcast audience in the world. We are at the tip of the iceberg. I want to get to a stage where no matter who you are or where you come from, whether you’re a farmer from Vidarbha, a musician in Aizawl, a homemaker in Kanyakumari, a coder from Hyderabad, a biologist in Agumbe, there should be a podcast out there for you to listen to. Which is where I am definitely in it for the long game. And anyone who is working in the podcast business should be looking at the bigger picture.”

Text by Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

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