The art of the pod connect

The art of the pod connect

It seems there is a happy byproduct of the pandemic — the visible rise in podcasts created in India and for Indian listeners. Indians are going beyond genres that are usual suspects and exploring audio storytelling, motivational as well as humorous conten

Riding the pod waves

Beyond the glamour of the movies and the ‘cool factor’ of digital entertainment, there’s a little space in the world of Internet, which really is not so little, that has over the years, quietly crept into the lives of people.

If you aren’t addicted yet, you’ll be there soon because podcasting might be the next big thing when it comes to information and entertainment. Mumbai-based storyteller and podcast producer, Chhavi Sachdev explains that given that podcasting is a very democratic medium, there is a lot to choose from — be it pure and simple entertainment, such as comedy shows and fiction, or the more serious and thought-provoking conversational podcasts.

And in the past few months, since the pandemic, there has been a massive surge in the numbers as well. “I believe there are about one million podcasts to choose from on the Apple store now. And I am talking about indie and organised podcasts from India. That, in itself, is a phenomenal number,” she says. Incidentally, the number of podcasts from India before the pandemic was apparently at 850,000 (approximately). Sachdev, who has a background in journalism, has been part of the podcasting industry since 2008 and is the second podcaster in the country. Her expertise ranges from hosting shows to currently even holding workshops on podcasting. Plus, she directs, produces and conceptualises shows. “The best part about podcasting is that you can listen to it whenever, wherever. And yes, even though the listenership is heavily dependent on commuters, people are now listening to it from home, while washing dishes or even exercising,” she says.

An exploding market

And with platforms such as Saavn, iTunes, Spotify, Aawaz, HubHopper, Khabri, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Stitcher and Overcast, among others, India’s podcasting industry is growing rapidly. And here’s something to chew on. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), by 2021, the global podcast industry is expected to reach $20 billion and after US and China, India is a close third when it comes to having the largest podcast streams and listeners.

Some of the most popular genres of podcasts include horror, comedy, spirituality, storytelling and even self-help episodes. “Audio is very transportive. People relate to it quickly,” Sachdev explains. In fact, Sochcast, a Bengaluru-based audio content and distribution company, was launched during the pandemic. Its CEO Anil Srivatsa says that the timing was just right. “But, it was not a Eureka moment. We would have started in 2012, but couldn’t, as we still were curating content. So, when the pandemic happened, we realised that this was a good time to start. And we have so much content already since we’ve been preparing for years,” he says.

“I've seen a lot of new and first-time listeners gaining interests in listening to podcasts since March. There was a concern for many podcasters that listening might plummet, because people weren't commuting, running or working out at the gym anymore. While many people who listened to podcasts exclusively while commuting/running did reduce their listening, what I've seen across my shows is that new listeners have more than made up the difference. People have adapted podcast listening into a work-from-home or at-home activity. Dedicated podcast listening (where you aren't doing a second task in parallel) has also increased,” says Pavan Srinath, host of The Pragati Podcast.

Podcasting in Kannada

He is also the host for the Thalé-Haraté Kannada Podcast, India’s first weekly public affairs podcast in Kannada. Even Srinath sees a rising trend in the Indian podcasting scene. “A lot of organisations in India too have stepped up and started podcasting; media houses, non-profits, think tanks, cultural organisations and others. This was long overdue and I think the lockdowns gave an urgency to long-pending plans in many cases. I helped the Bengaluru International Centre launch their podcast BIC Talks within a week of the lockdown. It became an important part of the centre's online programming at a time when physical events were impossible,” he adds. One of the greatest advantages of podcasts is that they are less expensive to produce than videos and a lot more flexible when it comes to consumption. The how, when, where, how often — it’s all in the control of the listener.

Sreeraman Thiagarajan, co-founder and CEO of Awaaz, a podcast that streams in Hindi, English and now Marathi, says that the industry was worried about the pandemic affecting the listenership of podcasts, but it needn't have. “We created a few mental health podcasts during the lockdown period. Our listener base went up by 22 per cent!” Awaaz’s content is available on 12 different outlets, including phones, select content on Alexa, tablets, etc. Thiagarajan says their Hindi programmes are currently the most popular, which has mostly fiction and storytelling content. Their English podcast, however, is more niche and focuses a lot on comedy, conversation and upskills, which again are catching on quickly. Amit Doshi, co-founder and CEO of IVM, yet another popular podcast network in India, says, “When the pandemic started, there was definitely a dip in the number of listeners, because no was commuting so much. But then, people recalibrated their listening habits. So now, it’s evened out. People wouldn’t listen to podcasts so much on the weekends, but that too has changed.”

The importance of being a podcaster

As podcasting becomes the next big thing in media, the big question is: Do podcasting professionals make money and is there a career in it, yet? “We do a mix of content. Some are our own and some are sponsored. And yes, you can eventually make money if you know how to sell your programme,” says Thiagarajan. Awaaz also happens to be one of the few podcast creators and platforms that generates revenue in India. Doshi says the only way to make a career in podcasting is to dive into it. “If you want to host one, just do it. Host your own podcast, it’s a great learning curve. You don’t necessarily have to release episodes till you’re comfortable, do dummy ones, but treat it as a real show. Manage talking points, find a balance, learn how to maintain pace. To me, that’s the only way to do it.” However, he also added that apart from being a host, one can also explore other avenues such as sound editing, production and content creation, among others.

Right now, for individuals, podcasting is best done as a part-time effort or even as a hobby, to begin with, at least, says Srinath. “It's not very different from Indian YouTubers, say three-four years ago, or bloggers from a decade ago. As podcast listeners grow in India, more podcasters may be able to start making a living purely through podcasting. The big challenge with indie or institutional podcasts is not starting one, but sustaining one; creating a good podcast is a marathon,” he adds.

Srinath became a full-time podcaster only over the last year, “but that's only because I manage three shows and have institutional support for doing so. At the moment, podcasting in India is by and large possible only with donors or institutional support (or directly owned by organisations). The exception to this is how Spotify India, JioSaavn and a few other platforms are directly investing in creating original content,” he adds. A handful of podcasters also earn money through listener contributions.

Massive potential

Srinath also goes on to explain the massive potential of regional podcasts. “Kannada, for example, still only has about 5-10 regular podcasts that come out every week. Early adopters and listeners might still be young people in the metros or large cities, but we have seen the Thale-Harate Kannada Podcast reach listeners purely by word of mouth. We've also seen it reach people in their 60s and even 70s because of recommendations from their children or younger relatives.”

Thiagarajan says, “Podcasting can definitely be a career choice. But, you don’t necessarily have to be a host. There’s a lot of work that goes into each podcast. There’s the tech side, audio production and editing. If you want to be an indie-podcaster, do it for three to six months, create your portfolio, showcase it to other companies. That in itself might open doors for you. Choose your skill and hone that skill.”

Building communities

Incidentally, the idea behind Sochcast is to build communities and is one of the few audio network companies that also provides an open platform to aspiring podcasters. “We give people a free platform to upload their content. It could be anything and in any language. In fact, we encourage regional language podcasts as well. And, of course, we are also creating content to generate revenue.

But, in general, people are most welcome to upload their own thoughts. We want people to be heard, we want to give people more to listen to,” he adds. Sochcast, at the moment, has over 70 shows and these shows cover all sorts of subjects. “We are not into censorship. If anyone has a problem with anything we host, they are most welcome to report it to us and we will investigate. But, I am a facilitator, not an editor,” he says, adding, “Creating a podcast is not rocket science. You sit in your car and record something on your cell phone and upload it on our platform. As long as it can be heard, it’s a good way to start. Anybody should be able to do it.”

Sachdev, who conducts workshops on podcasting from time to time, says, “We are not quite there yet, but I do think it will happen. We’re still trying to reach critical mass. And don’t be mistaken, podcasts can seriously influence how people think. However, podcasters don’t make that kind of money in India yet, barring a few organisations and hosts who’ve managed to make it work. Podcasting is not all creativity; a large part of the success is dependent on marketing and sales.”

Hear, hear

Here's a lowdown of some of the most popular Indian podcasts:

Cyrus Says: Hosted by Cyrus Broacha, this show contains enough humour and satire to keep you hooked. Broacha interviews popular personalities and discusses current affairs; all with a dose of fun.

The Ranveer Show: Hosted by Ranveer Allahabadia, this show is about self-improvement. Each episode brings to you various ways to improve your life, be it in health or career. Allahabadia interviews actors, entrepreneurs and sometimes, life coaches on this show.

Indian Noir: A critically-acclaimed podcast that features crime and horror audio stories that are set in India. The voice behind the show is Nikesh Murali, a professional voice actor and an  award-winning writer.

She Says She's Fine: Started by gynaecologist Dr Munjaal Kapadia last year, this show is all about women and focusses mostly on women's health — from periods to sex. Kapadia invites women guests from across industries to discuss the topic of the day.

Being CEO: Hosted by Deepali Nair, this show explores the lives of corporate leaders, what makes them tick, what doesn't, their success mantras, turbulent times and more. The show takes a closer look at the lives of these CEOs to get a better understanding of how at the end of the day, they are not just leaders, but also human beings.

The Seen And The Unseen: A podcast that delves into the apparent and the invisible effects of our actions. Presented by award-winning journalist Amit Varma, the show discusses public policies and their impact on our lives. Each show has a panel of experts and topics could vary from education to economics.

Khooni: This is a thrilling podcast where two Indian girls talk about some of the most gruesome or intriguing crimes committed in India. They discuss the details and explain it to the listeners in the most riveting fashion. This also happens to be India's first independent true crime podcast.