The culture of listening has always been part of India’s entertainment consumption habit. But the business of engaging the customer with audio became real with the advent of commercial FM radio in 2001.
I remember the day distinctly; it was 4 July 2001, and my slot on air was at 11 am with the Matinee Show. At the time we were the only operational radio station in all of India. A sizeable number of the On-Air Talent was unknown, plucked out of anonymity. Cut to 2020, there are over 380 private FM stations in India, radio jockeys (RJs) are celebrities and celebrities are RJs, and a new medium has emerged to grab ears and attention – the podcast. The leap from 2001 to 2020 was punctuated with audio content romancing, even if briefly, platforms like mobile, internet, DTH and satellite radio.
With FM radio, we cast a wide net. Radio City, for example, began with an unlikely yet oddly delightful mix of Hindi, English and Kannada music. The atomisation of audiences based on preferences was yet to come because there were just not that many choices on offer. And when the choices did come, they reflected across media. That explains Netflix now. That explained to an extent WorldSpace then.
In many ways, I see our work at WorldSpace Satellite Radio as the precursor to the modern podcasting boom in India. Why so? A podcast is a niche and intimate experience that caters to specific audiences with specific interests. What WorldSpace did was pretty much that – cater to people with niche tastes. You liked country music and commentary about it, there was UpCountry. You liked all things old Hindi film music? There was Farishta.
For lovers of Urdu there was Falak, for wellness and lifestyle there was Moksha. All 40-plus stations essentially 24-hour podcasts with music and with blocks of talk content considered incompatible with commercial FM radio. In many ways, this was the beginning of talk radio in the commercial radio space in India.
I recall early conversations from my FM days about the viability (or lack thereof) of talk radio. No one really wanted to test commercial waters with audio content that wasn’t music or (a few years later) at best a saas-bahu serial. However, WorldSpace’s subscription model perhaps emboldened our efforts in that regard. We had a loyal, paying (in advance) audience clearly enjoying huge blocks of talk radio with little if no complaint. That WorldSpace did not ultimately work was not for lack of an eager audience – technology, regulatory constraints and corporate restructuring were the reasons but that story is old. What we did learn, however, was that there was still a strong business case for customised content in audio, even if it involved lots of talks.
We did not call it that, but we hit upon what was essentially internal corporate podcasting. This learning from WorldSpace – that talk radio could be customised for niche audiences – was carried forward in our venture Timbre Media, founded in 2010 by erstwhile employees of WorldSpace India, when we proposed to India Inc that communicating with their employees could be better served by voice. Demonstrating extraordinary foresight in understanding the power of the spoken word, Infosys reposed their faith in Timbre to present to India Inc the first-ever internal radio service, or what you would now call an internal podcast. This was nine years ago; they remain our oldest client to this day.
In 2011, unbeknownst to us, what we had created was the blueprint for internal podcasting as a communications tool. That blueprint has since led us to work with companies like TCS, Wipro, Accenture, Flipkart, Amazon, Microsoft, HDFC Bank, HPCL, BPCL and GE India, to name some.
Over time, internal radio at Infosys has given way to internal podcasts, also from us. Today, over a million working professionals spread across the world listen to internal corporate podcasts, a tool that is the voice of the organisation and its people.
Am I saying then that podcasts are just old wine in a new bottle? Not necessarily. The tradition of listening to things has always existed. What is new is how we can listen to the niche things that we want to at any time and place we want to – in traffic, on our commute, before bed, what have you. In that sense, it is old wine, but the many new bottles now make for more exciting, and more personal, drinking. You now know your favourite bottle, the vineyard, the year, and you get to carry it around with you at all times in your own hip flask. In that sense, the smartphone is up there with the microphone as the biggest technology enabler in this revival of interest in podcasts.
I see the challenges for the podcast industry as no different from those faced by early FM players and I am not talking about how podcasts can be monetised. Advertisers have been chasing eyeballs for long; it is only a matter of time before they began chasing ears. It bodes well that Spotify ‘s revenues have seen a 29 percent rise in recent times and podcast listenership during the same time has also shot up by 39 percent. Even the Obamas want to make podcasts!
The podcast industry in India, however, would do well to remember those old rules from the audio game, dynamic digital transformations notwithstanding.
1) Radio jockeys didn’t drop from the heavens, neither will podcasters you want to listen to.
2) Skills required of RJs, MCs, domain experts, influencers and podcasters are not always the same.
3) Gestation periods for both talent and formats will need to be built into product and service roadmaps.
4) Technology may allow for snackable user-generated podcasts, but quality offerings take time, resources and effort from all stakeholders involved.
The direction the podcast industry will now take will largely depend on skin in the game and I daresay pain thresholds.
As I look back on our own two decades worth of experiments with audio, I find we’ve been really busy. We seem to have tried it all - from interesting but ill-fated attempts at offering radio stations on IVR for telecom operators and DTH platforms, successful and encouraging experiences creating audio content for our equity partner and India’s oldest record label Saregama, managing a Dubai FM station from our studios in Bangalore, partnering with Radio One to deliver Business One, India’s first and only business web radio station, putting out over 500 podcasts in about a year for the Network18 group, in-store radio and of course what we’re most proud of – our podcasts for India Inc.
It is quite easy to gloss over experiences that come at you fast and hard. But a practice I follow at the start of every year is to go through old emails and the Timbre content database. On one such exploration, I found a podcast demo for Durex condoms from 2012 – clearly an idea that didn’t yield fruit.
But yes, this quick yearly scan keeps me realistic.
I know one cannot say with certainty we know where podcasts in India are headed. We do know, however, as we said at WorldSpace, that there’s still so much to hear.
(The writer is the co-founder and Head of Content of Timbre Media, a 10-year-old audio and podcasting company. She was Group Programme Director at WorldSpace India and part of the first batch of On Air Talent on Radio City Bangalore, India’s first private FM station.)
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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2020 16:24:13 IST