Podcasters and experts from the industry point out how the increase in listenership of south-based podcasts reflect on business models, viability of the medium, technological advancements and more.

Co-founder of Suno India Padma Priya, RJ Balaji, podcaster and public policy researcher Pavan SrinathRJ Balaji/ Facebook
Features Podcast Tuesday, October 19, 2021 - 11:08

In the last few years, there has been a flurry of online content – be it streaming platforms, films and shows in the audio-visual sphere, or podcasts, audio shows, and audio books in the audio only sphere. India too has seen increasing popularity of the latter, perhaps the appeal being that in today’s ‘hustle’ culture, people like options that allow them to do multiple things at once. So, whether you are looking to listen to news and analysis without the break of songs and ads during a daily commute, or want to listen to audio dramas and interviews while cooking or working out, or simply hear to calming poetry as you wind down for the night – podcasts provide an attractive solution to people’s multitasking needs, unlike video formats, which require undivided attention.

The podcast industry in India has reported significant growth in listenership over the years. As per PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Media and Entertainment Outlook 2020 report, with over 57.6 million listeners, India has emerged as the third-largest podcast listening market after China and the US. 

And podcasts aren’t just growing among listeners, but creators too are turning to the medium due to many lucrative options compared to other formats – lower cost of production, lesser censorship, remote working, and an exciting medium that allows you a blend of immersive storytelling without compromising anonymity, if need be.

The appeal of podcasts

The growing popularity of podcasts is somewhat surprising too. At a time when marketing plans and strategies are devised to make content brief and concise  to suit audiences’ decreasing attention spans, as pointed out by several reports, we are also witnessing an increase in listenership for long-form podcasts that are nuanced, detailed and immersive in nature.   

Speaking to TNM, Padma Priya, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Suno India, a multilingual podcast platform that reports journalistic stories via audio shows, shares that they did not have second thoughts about choosing audio over other mediums when Suno India was started in 2018. “We felt like audio was a more intimate space. The kind of topics we wanted to cover were sensitive, and would require some amount of anonymity. The video space seemed saturated. Besides, even at present, there are very few players in the audio journalism space or the reported narrative that Suno India specializes in. Financially speaking, audio shows could be considered a low-entry medium and it also enables us to work with different people remotely. The advantages are aplenty,” she states.   

Many have been on the fence about the reach of podcasts beyond the English-speaking listeners from metro cities. But the proliferation of podcasts in regional languages is being seen as the step in the right direction. Public policy researcher Pavan Srinath, who hosts popular podcasts such as The Pragati Podcast and Kannada podcast Thale-Harate, and helms podcasting network IVM Podcasts' Indian language programming, shares: “When we started Thale-Harate, we wanted to change how some discussions such as the ones about technology, policy and international relations happen only in English, while topics such as culture, film and literature and entertainment are left for Kannada.” Thale-Harate covers global trends in technology, economics and geopolitics as well as issues that are closer home like Bengaluru’s governance and public affairs in its episodes, while The Pragati Podcast focuses on public policy, economics and international relations.   

Spoken word poet and writer Megha Rao, the host of Poems to Calm Down To, shares that she had an entirely different idea in mind before the poetry podcast took shape during the pandemic. “I wanted to interview poets and performers. However, we couldn’t go ahead with it during the pandemic and decided to make the podcast with a bunch of poems I had written during the pandemic, instead. Even now, there are times when I upload only one episode per month,” Megha says. Interestingly, she also adds that the topics discussed in the poems, which were based on positivity and catharsis, resonated with listeners during the pandemic.  

On the other hand, Balaji, who is better known as RJ Balaji, tells TNM that with Naallanaa Murukku, the first Tamil Spotify original podcast, the aim was to do it on a long-term basis. “Upon realising that radio is no longer a medium that audiences are tuning in to, I wanted to focus on hosting podcasts that the next generation of listeners would grow up with, much like how many have grown up listening to radio. We want listeners to come back to the podcast every Monday when they are starting their week. The collaboration with Spotify did not happen overnight. I have been in talks with them for a couple of years now. I am confident that Spotify, a global leader in the market, knows the medium well and hence can sustain and promote the show in the right manner,” Balaji says.  

Further, podcasts have opened new professional avenues for voice artists, dubbing artists as well. Narrative podcasts such as Kadhai Podcast’s Ponniyin Selvan by Kavitha Jeeva, as well as the rising popularity of audiobook and podcast services such as Audible in India, indicate how audio-based mediums are presenting new avenues for RJs, voice artists and other professionals in the field to explore.  

Radio vs Podcast: Why RJs switch to podcasting?  

The trend of Radio Jockeys shifting to podcasting has left many wondering what this means for the radio industry. A number of Radio Jockeys such as Balaji, Ananthi, Salil Acharya, Yogi and Kabeer, among others have their own podcasts that are popular among listeners.  

To trace the reasons behind this, Pavan looks back to the 2000s, when licenses for private FM radio were issued and the restrictions that came around that time. "Since then, private radio stations were restricted from discussing news or political content. The cost of production as well as programming of content could be viewed as reasons why we have failed to witness the emergence of talk radio in India.” Elaborating further, he says, “With jingles and advertisements, the amount of time left for discussions and talk shows held by RJs is very less. Not being able to discuss content that is popular among listeners is an added factor too.”

However, RJ Balaji disagrees that censorship could be behind more RJs turning to podcasts. “RJs enjoy going live so it is not restricted. As for censorship, although these rules exist in radio, RJs find a way to circumvent the limitations and put across our content. I am not sure if RJs are increasingly getting into podcasting because of censorship in radio.” He adds though, that the reason could be economic. “Radio Jockeys are overworked and underpaid. Radio no longer has the same momentum it once did. Hence, they are hence branching out to other mediums such as YouTube. But when that happens, Radio Jockeys are expected to, let’s say, dance and partake in social media trends, that they are simply not equipped to do or tasks that do not match their skillsets.  The switch to podcasting was prone to happen.”  

Delving deeper into the case in hand, RJ Balaji explains: “Even 10 years ago, one could see how the internet might take over the radio or have a huge impact on listenership. It is only in recent times that the industry came to terms with the internet's potential. The programming followed in private FMs is too rigid such as putting out news shows in the morning and sticking to shows discussing romantic relationships at nights. Audience would rather prefer streaming content across genres.”

Meanwhile, Padma Priya observes how repurposing their content for podcasts is also among the most feasible options for radio stations. Some, like Delhi-based 104 Ishq FM, launched ISHQPOD earlier this year, under which 10 new podcasts were launched, hosted by radio jockeys themselves. Radio City Tamil’s Love Guru which is well-liked by listeners across age groups, is also available as a podcast in audio streaming platforms.

Viability and business models   

Like any other fast-growing industry, has podcasting opened its doors to business models such as advertising, brand integrations and paywall system, among others to utilize the remunerative opportunities available for creators? “In terms of monetisation, podcasting in India has a long way to go. Sponsors, ads or getting support for original shows are options but it isn't a cakewalk,” Padma Priya says. “For Suno India, we received a couple of grants for our reporting including the one from Google News initiative. We have also been supported by an angel investor, as well as the contributions made by listeners.”  

With an increase in monetary avenues available, creators have also started exploring if taking up podcasting as a full-time profession would be viable. Apart from being a podcaster, Megha Rao also puts out her own newsletters, content on her social media profiles, works along with brands, performs in live shows, conducts workshops and is working on her upcoming book in association with Harper Collins titled Teething. She shares that fiscal opportunities will widen as we move ahead. “I am a full-time poet now but a lot of well-known poets pursued writing part-time. They all had different day jobs, but now, I have the option of doing this for a living. Similarly, creators might be able to pursue podcasting as their day job in future.”   

Echoing Megha’s thoughts, Pavan states, “Apart from podcasters who are hired by news organizations, think tanks or other companies that are opening it up as a role, I don’t think podcasters are pursuing this full-time at this point but things will look up down the line.” Sharing insights about the performance of IVM’s shows, Pavan observes that technology and finance podcasts are doing better when it comes to the sponsorship, branding and advertising, as opposed to podcasts in other genres. 

From a creative-centric perspective, RJ Balaji, who is also a filmmaker, actor, cricket commentator, turns the spotlight on the quality of content. “Advertising and sponsorship as well as opportunities to pursue it full-time will come along the way, but creators need to focus on putting out good content in a consistent manner. Similarly, it does not matter whether they are recording on their mobile phones or whether they are doing it in a studio. There are times when I have recorded and edited the podcast on my mobile,” he says.   

What lies ahead?  

Differences in opportunities and resources available to creators due to the north-south divide are commonplace in several industries. Is that a challenge south Indian podcasters deal with?

“When it comes to finances, after English, people will go to Hindi since they might look at it as the second largest single market. But Tamil and Telugu podcasts are also very popular,” Pavan points out as he explains how disparities between south versus other parts of the country aren't quite prevalent at this point.   

On the contrary, Padma Priya remarks, “There aren’t differences in terms of the resources, but it is noticeable when it comes to the push that podcasting giants would give for Hindi podcasts versus say, a Telugu podcast.  A bit of Delhi-Bombay-centric attitude is there in podcasting too. However, I think there is scope and I do hope that more podcasts come up in south.”  

“Since major storytelling and poetry collectives are located in Mumbai and Delhi, it might restrict the opportunities available for regional language podcasts in the same genre. I also think we could be doing more to include more voices from marginalised and underrepresented communities, and be inclusive,” Megha Rao says.

RJ Balaji believes that despite the disparity, the change in the attitude of streaming giants is visible. “Earlier, these labels located in Bombay and Delhi, would decide what a listener from Chennai would stream without due research. In recent times, they have been keen on collaborating with creators and people from the part of the country the show is from, which shows that the gap is being bridged,” Balaji tells TNM.   

Apart from growth of regional language podcasts, the limelight is also on new features and advancements in the industry. On the technological front, several podcasts are embracing interactive features to make it more user-friendly. The Pragati Podcast, for instance teamed up with Bengaluru-based firm Adori Labs for a few episodes to include Illustrations, hyperlinks, footnotes and names of the book, among other things. “Apart from being helpful to listeners, interactivity is also good for commercial reasons such as placement of advertisements and brand integrations,” Pavan shares. He also points out that the difference between analytics and performance metrics available for video platforms is different from podcasts but is optimistic about the growth trajectory. 

Although experts observe that the focus at large is still on improving the reach, familiarising users with the medium and inculcating the habit of listening to podcasts, rollout of new features and other technological advancements are also increasing simultaneously. “It would be really great to include audiences in the storytelling process through interactive features.  For instance, listeners could choose how they want a character to go and then based on their choice, they could be redirected to the next part of the show,” Megha Rao speculates.   

Other features such as Spotify Greenroom and Integration with voice assistance tools such as Google home and Alexa, have also helped creators as well as listeners.  

READ: Looking for engaging podcasts? Here’s a detailed list across genres