Think of a random subject and it’s likely that there is a podcast about it in some corner of the World Wide Web. Over the last few years, Indian podcasters too have raised their game, catering to interests both mainstream and niche. Bhumika Popli writes about how an audio distribution format from the early Noughties is taking over the Internet.
We live in an age dominated by the moving image. Films, TV programmes and the massive assembly line of online videos have transformed not only the way we consume information, but also the way we think. In such a visually-saturated context, how do we make sense of the burgeoning trend of podcasting?
There’s nothing recent about this phenomenon. Users have been uploading and downloading digital audio clips on the World Wide Web for more than a decade now. The term “podcasting” itself goes back to the year 2005. It was coined by the journalist Ben Hammersley as a portmanteau combining “broadcasting” and “iPod”. He, of course, had no idea that his ad-hoc coinage would become this big. Nor could anyone have guessed at the time that in the year 2019, we would still be talking about podcasting.
There has never been a better time to be a podcaster in India. Today, one can access independently-produced online audio programmes made by Indian podcasters on subjects ranging from music, travel and games, to social and political issues.
Suno India, a podcast platform founded by Padma Priya, Rakesh Kamal and Tarun Nirwan, takes up a different subject every season. The podcast brings to the fore matters which concern our society but are not talked about on popular forums. Their first series, Dear Pari, from September 2018, included 10 episodes on the subject of adoption.
“There is little scope of actually listening to people and understanding their views, especially on certain topics, on Indian television,” says Padma Priya. “Often, what we see is too much screaming happening on panel discussions. Even the videos on social media do not do justice to such topics due to their duration. Along with all this, there is an information overload on people, thanks to the numerous apps we download on our mobiles. We observed that people wanted to slow down in their consumption of information. Hence, we decided to create something which would provide in-depth analyses of different subjects.”
Among the country’s most popular podcasts, Maed In India is run by Mae Mariyam Thomas, a former radio jockey. Its focus is music, in particular independent music by Indian bands and artistes. The show combines the interview format with in-studio live performances by guests.
Thomas started Maed In India in April 2015 and, in 2018, it was included by Apple iTunes in its list of India’s best podcasts. Podcasting, for Thomas, is about creative freedom. She says, “Unlike radio in India which is restrictive and not open to taking risks with regards to audio ideas, podcasting allows you to explore new formats and shows. You are not limited to ‘appealing to the masses’. The whole point of the rise of digital is to be able to cater to niche audiences and build communities around common interests. Which is why you have the ability to make podcasts about public policy, comic books, mental health, the LGBTQ community etc.”
Bijay Gautam always wanted to decode the thought processes of highly successful people in the world. And so, he began The Inspiring Talk, a podcast featuring the life stories of high-achieving individuals. Gautam also produces another show named Podcast Unfiltered, in which he speaks to fellow podcasters about the nitty-gritty of creating and producing podcasts, touching upon technical as well as financial aspects of this work.
“There are very few people who make money directly from their podcasts in India,” Gautam tells Guardian 20. “One needs to have a considerable number of listeners before one reaches out to an advertiser. However, podcasters can sell their products and services directly on their shows, and I do the same. I help people with launching their own podcasts. But most people are exploring this genre for the love of the game. For them, podcasting is a hobby.”
But is there a secret to succeeding at this hobby? Shrishendu Banerjee runs Biker Radio Rodcast, with his friend Arvinder Singh. The podcast, as is clear by its name, focuses on the biking community in India. It was also a runner-up last year at the Whicker’s Radio & Audio Funding Award held in London.
“What we are doing is very different from a regular podcast,” Banerjee says. “We are creating content around a community. And India’s biking community is quite a close-knit one.”
There are plenty of challenges that such a podcast might face. Finding a sponsor being one of them. What keeps Banerjee’s project afloat is his, and his co-creator’s, passion. As well as their belief that in podcasting, finding your niche is very important. As he says, “Being niche is the key to a successful podcast.”
But Amit Doshi, founder of IVM, a prominent podcasting distribution network in India, disagrees with this view. He says, “I don’t think that only niche shows work. I think niche shows are one way of creating podcasts where you know your target audience. But the larger opportunities in podcasting in India are in talk-format shows. What we are looking at is the podcast space becoming a de-facto talk radio platform, addressing a variety of subjects.”
Niche or otherwise, the market for podcasts is surely growing in India. Since there are only a handful of radio channels here—which work under strict restrictions—Indian podcasters are operating in an area left untapped for years. There was a clear lack of quality audio content on the airwaves, and today’s hit podcasts seem to be compensating for that.
Also, the recent slashing of mobile data prices in the country has helped Internet creators of all stripes, including podcasters. According to a 2018 report by Voxnest, a research organisation focused on podcasts, there was a 30% growth in the number of podcasts created in India from January to November 2018—the highest growth rate globally.
Bangalore-based Saif Omar and his wife, Faiza Khan, is the couple behind The Musafir Stories, a travel-themed podcast. Omar also writes for a podcast newsletter called Podtalk. According to him, India’s audio ecosystem is definitely growing. “People have started funding their own shows,” he says. “After the hugely popular Serial [an American investigative journalism podcast], people here have started taking this medium quite seriously. Audible and Spotify got into India, and Hubhopper, a purely home-grown network, is helping a lot.”
Hubhopper’s founder, Gautam Raj Anand, shares with us his plans to support the podcasting community in India. “On the distribution side, we are working with various technological devices to spread the word. And on the creative front, we made a platform called Hubhopper Studio. Early on, we realised that while many people here intend to create interesting shows, they don›t necessarily know how to go about it. Hubhopper Studio gives them free hosting, an avenue to upload multiple podcasts, create an RSS feed. It brings them the analytics of their respective shows and exposes them to the best methodologies of recording.”
In his opinion, one can make the audio space in India grow further if we stop thinking of “podcasting” as a limited Internet-generation concept, and re-associate it with the wider segment of audio content. “We have been consuming audio content from the past 70 years, especially through radio. I believe the word podcast isolates people by making the activity sound very niche.”