India has emerged as the third-largest podcast listening market in the world after China and the US

Nirupama Venkat had trouble sleeping during the lockdown last year. To keep herself occupied, she would watch YouTube videos or movies and series on OTT platforms.

This only exacerbated the sleeplessness. To prevent herself from entering the video rabbit hole, she decided to use the podcast app, which she downloaded several months ago.

“I listened to BodhiCommons (a lecture series on socio-political topics). It felt as if someone was talking to you,” she says. It helped her sleep better, too.

Nirupama is a regular podcast listener now. She produces a monthly podcast, What’s Next? In Social Sciences, with her friend.

There are many like Nirupama, who listened to and created podcasts in India last year.

Spotify-owned Anchor, a podcast-making platform, added more than 25,000 podcasts from India in 2020. According to the Media and Entertainment Outlook 2020 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, India has emerged as the third-largest podcast listening market in the world after China and the US, with 57.6 million monthly listeners.

But why are podcasts popular in India?

Intimate and non-intrusive

‘Podcast’ might be a new term in India. “But it is not too different from listening to stories from our grandparents,” says Amarjit Singh Batra, Managing Director – India, Spotify. “Storytelling is something that is rooted in our culture.”

Audio-visual content, like a web series or a movie, also tells stories. But podcasts, according to Amarjit, are more intimate. “It feels like you are literally sitting next to the podcaster. This experience of companionship is so powerful,” he says.

Actor-podcaster Mantra Mugdh, whose audio production house, MnM Talkies, produces podcasts of various genres, explains, “[Audio-visual and audio-only] are two different worlds. There is no competition between them. It’s like we continue to read books even if the stories in them are adapted into movies and shows.”

India’s familiarity with radio is another reason for its people jumping on the podcast bandwagon. Unlike television and other screens, which requires singular attention, radio seldom stops household routines. “Much like radio, podcasts too can be in the background, as you do your other work,” says Mantra, who has also been an RJ.

Kavita Rajwade, the co-founder of Indian Vox Media (IVM), a podcast network started in 2015, agrees. “I think we are a country that is starved for time. And, a video requires way more engagement unlike audio, which allows multi-tasking,” she says.

This unobtrusive nature of podcasts is a reason for their boom during the pandemic. IVM’s listeners, Kavita says, grew over 30% during the lockdown. “We were initially worried when cars went off the streets because we usually see a huge jump in consumption during drive-time. And, now, people could be at home and watch shows. But that excitement died soon. They still had to wash dishes, walk their dogs, clean their rooms… So, household chores replaced drive-time. And, the consumption rate was high throughout the day.”

Plethora of genres

Platforms like Anchor and Spreaker have made it simple to record, edit and share podcasts from home. There are not many topics for which you won’t find related podcasts.

Spotify lists Arts & Entertainment, Education, and Lifestyle & Health as its most popular genres in India. For JioSaavn, they are Comedy, Film & Television, and Storytelling. So, no one genre towers above the rest. If we broaden the classification, however, non-fiction podcasts outnumber fiction. This is the case globally as well. These, for instance, are Spotify’s top-five most popular podcasts of 2020: The Joe Rogan Experience, TED Talks Daily, The Daily, The Michelle Obama Podcast and Call Her Daddy. All five are non-fiction. The conversational non-fiction podcasts, in most cases, are easier to produce than fiction. They don’t require voice artists, audio effects, and a studio setup, which are essential for a good fiction podcast. Hence, the proliferation of non-fiction content. But it is difficult to stand out from a large crowd.

“Ultimately the content should be good and unique,” says Kavita of IVM, “Though our focus is solely on non-fiction, we have managed to become fairly popular by focusing on Indian stories. The challenge for us is to find the right kind of people to talk about things.We also talk about topics that people rarely discuss. Public policy, for instance, is our second most popular genre.”

How podcasts are taking off in India big time

Fictional podcasts, Mantra reckons, have a great potential in India. “Audio fiction is a genre that hasn’t been tapped into. But it is something we are always used to. Decades ago, Hawa Mahal was one of the most sought after radio programmes in India. Families used to sit together in front of their radio sets, waiting for that show. Also, people used to listen to films like Sholay.” Mantra’s detective series, Bhaskar Bose, is among the top-10 podcasts on Spotify in India. His audio production house also made a psychological thriller show for Audible, Kaali Awaazein, which features Amitabh Bachchan.

Mythology is a genre that has always been popular in India, says Bijay Gautam, the co-founder of WYN Studios. Heirs of The Pandavas, a spinoff series on The Mahabharata, narrated by voice artist Nikesh Murali, got over 100,000 streams for their first 10 episodes. Bijay and Murali expect a spike in the listenership this year. “The plan is to create something like the Lord of The Rings for an Indian audience,” says the latter.

Speaking many languages

When IVM began in 2015, most of the Indian podcasts were in English. Listeners and producers were from metropolitan cities. But this trend is fast-changing. All major hosting platforms, including IVM, are focussing on regional language podcasters and listeners. Kadhai Podcast’s Ponniyin Selvan, which narrates Kalki Krishnamurthy’s classic Tamil novel, is IVM’s most popular show. JioSaavn claims the number of regional language podcasts listed on its platform has increased by 150 times since 2019. “Since October 2019, we have seen a huge interest and engagement with Tamil content given the launch of our podcast, MindVoice with RJ Balaji, with close to a million streams in under six months,” says a spokesperson of JioSaavn.

Rakesh Tiwari’s Millenial Kavi was the most streamed (2.6 million streams) JioSaavn podcast of 2020. The weekly show has Rakesh reciting Hinglish poems in less than five minutes on miscellaneous topics (sample: real estate agents, user manuals and ex getting married).

Rakesh, who is from Benaras, was a big fan of radio, growing up. “I always wanted to do something in the audio space. [Radio journalist] Neelesh Mishra was an inspiration,” he says. “I even interned for radio stations during my undergraduate days in 2007-08. But it didn’t work out. So, I joined the BPO space for 12 years. But I used this time to practice my poetry, create a financial backup and make contacts. Once the JioSaavn podcast happened, I left my job to do this full-time.”

Podcasting can also be a source of income thanks to platforms like Spotify and IVM. But do these platforms make money through podcasts? “Not yet,” says Kavita, “Podcast advertising is yet to take off in India. Unlike in TV or radio, you don’t expect an ad break in podcasts. So, the advertisements have to be integrated into the podcasts like they do in the US. It will take a couple of years.”

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimates that India will witness an increase of 30.4% compound annual growth rate in its monthly podcast listener base over the next five years. So, this boom in podcasts is perhaps just the beginning.

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