Podcasting finally comes of age in India
New start-ups are catering to the needs of hundreds of thousands of listeners who want to hear news beyond Bollywood gossip, listen to experts on different topics, and also let some witty commentator brighten a few moments of their day.
For millions of listeners in India, radio - whether state-owned stations or private FM channels - has mostly meant music. Conventional wisdom is that very few people switch on radio for non-entertainment listening.
Unsurprisingly, most of the new FM channels, obtained by private players by bidding hefty licence fees at auctions - the third phase of auctioning, in which the government has already raised a whopping Rs12 billion, is still going on - will be focused primarily on music, both Bollywood and regional films, as that is where the big bucks (from advertising) rolls in.
So what does a consumer, not tuned in to music but eager to listen to non-entertainment talk shows, features, stories and other radio programmes, do? Sit back and enjoy, as a new crop of podcasters, brimming with excitement, are rolling out audio shows that can be captured on a range of devices, from desktop PCs to laptops and smartphones.
More than just Bollywood
Podcasting is finally coming of age in India, as new start-ups are catering to the needs of hundreds of thousands of listeners who want to hear news beyond Bollywood gossip, listen to experts on different topics, and also let some witty commentator brighten a few moments of their day. And do all this without being interrupted by frequent ads.
Fortunately for podcasting - and for the listeners - the segment (basically the Internet) is unregulated, so podcasters do not have to pay exorbitant licence fees to start their 'channels' or 'audio stations.' Consequently, they are not unduly worried about lack of advertising - at least for the time being - as overheads are low.
Rajesh Tahil, co-founder of Audiomatic.in, one of the newest podcasters to appear on the scene, told Khaleej Times that the sector is still nascent today. "Our sense is that the listener base is about a million or so, but we expect this to grow ten-fold in the next couple of years and that will bring in both the revenue and the investment."
According to him, a key insight is that podcasts attract advertising from digital budgets rather than radio budgets, and digital advertising is growing at a robust rate. "For all digital businesses in India, cheap smartphones and easy/cheap data access (such as 3G and upcoming 4G) is a key growth driver," points out Tahil, a media veteran who, over a span of two decades, set up a radio network, ran a daily, headed programming for a television network and produced one of the longest running radio dramas for UNICEF. "Already, we have about 40-45 per cent of our listeners through mobiles and we see that increasing to over two-thirds in a couple of years."
Amit Doshi, CEO, Indus Vox Media, another new podcast start-up, admits these are early days. "But the progress has been very encouraging," the radio professional - who worked for several years in the US - told this correspondent. "While radio in India generally goes for mass audiences, podcasters target a niche audience."
The advantage podcasters have over traditional radio stations including FM, is that a listener can tune in to specific programmes - even on smartphones, as there are several podcast apps - whenever they want and wherever they are. Doshi points out that 35 per cent of Indus Vox listeners are NRIs mainly from the US. Tahil says he is looking at the Gulf NRI market as one with good potential. "Hopefully, over the next few months we will launch podcasts in Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil and Gujarati, catering to listeners in the Gulf," he points out.
The proliferation of smartphones in India and the rapid expansion in Internet usage has given a boost to the podcasting business, which has been languishing for many years, unlike in the developed world.
One of the oldest podcasters in India is Indicast, which was started by Aditya Mhatre and Abhishek Kumar, two former Mumbai collegians in 2005. It focuses on current affairs and has featured 250 episodes and had close to a million downloads so far.
The new players are increasingly having celebrities on their podcasts. Indus, for instance, has popular former VJ Cyrus Broacha, who has an irreverent take on current events in his show, Cyrus Says, featuring guests and podcast twice a week. Michael Burns, an American documentary filmmaker, who about two years ago set up Tall Tales, which organises live story-telling events in Mumbai, also curates Tall Tales Takeaway on Indus.
A new form of storytelling
Leading food writer Vikram Doctor has The Real Food Podcast on Audiomatic. "It has been a really fascinating process with learning experiences that are new, as well as those that just reinforce the basics of journalism," says Vikram.
"The new part is researching for what will sound good or interesting in a podcast."
According to him, the most effective articles are those that tell stories, "and this is even more true in a podcast where there is always the danger of the listener's attention wandering. You need a strong story to retain their attention and to keep the podcast together. And it also taps into that earliest of human experiences -hearing stories told to us when we were children."
Vikram and others in the podcasting business point out that India is traditionally known for its vibrant aural culture, where people have been listening to stories for centuries. "Living in Indian cities gives you more than enough reasons for listening to podcasts, since the constant traffic jams, or time spent in trains and buses while commuting is actually excellent time for listening to podcasts."
Columnist Aakar Patel, whose show Ask Aakar Anything, also features on Audiomatic, says in some ways radio is like print in that the spoken word is like the written. "Emphasis is added or removed through tone rather than punctuation or ellipses," he says. Live radio has also been a medium to reach hundreds of millions of people in India. "I see little reason why podcasting cannot appeal to millions," adds Aakar.
Though podcasting attracts relatively small numbers (as compared to radio) at present, the potential for growth is huge. Tahil refers to the 350 million Indians who have access to the Internet (with nearly 220 million accessing it on their smartphones). These numbers are growing at a frenzied pace. Not surprisingly, podcasters such as Audiomatic are also reporting month-on-month growth of 50 per cent.
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