When we think about aural entertainment the first thing that pops into our head is the radio. 104.8 FM was one of my favourites before I got a smartphone but our generation is so used to fast-forwarding through on-demand content that live shows are just not something we indulge in anymore. And while a lot of us still listen to old fashioned radio, some of us are listening to the next-gen version of it, the podcast.
‘Serial’ was the first podcast that introduced the medium to most people’s ears. It went so viral that people gave in and subscribed. Slowly an obsession began, the world over people were coming back to the radio show podcast and new, exciting genres were emerging. Starting a podcast became so common that there was now a meme about it. You’ve definitely seen it; it goes a group of two or more white men is called a podcast or something to that effect.
But what about Indian guys? Or girls? Were we starting podcasts? We are the third-largest podcast consumers in the market, after China and the US but listeners seemed to prefer international content with NPR showing some of the most downloads from India. While international podcasters were raking in millions we were nowhere close to putting out regular content. I desperately wanted to listen but podfading was starting to turn me off my quest and it looked like Make in India had not touched the podcast industry.
Then one day, as I was casually browsing, Indian Noir popped up on my timeline and I was reintroduced to the fresh new world of Indian podcasts. Indian Noir, started by Nikesh Murali, is a one-man audio drama of the thrilling kind. He is one of the most successful podcasters in the Indian ecosystem. So much so that he has a story running with Audible called Meru which he started because there were no Indian voices and characters in genre fiction. With 20 plus years of experience writing and multiple awards in his kitty, it isn’t any surprise that Meru is a hit as well.
“The market is skewed towards a certain race and a certain socio-economic class. But that isn’t the case in India. There is an open demand for stories with people who look like us, who sound like us and there is no one fulfilling that demand. This is why I started Indian Noir. I was a spoken word poet and a writer, I had just never thought about combining talent A with talent B to create something that might just become a hit!” he says, taking a break from recording to speak with me.
“If you look hard you might notice a Sri Lakshmi Tea Stall somewhere in the background on Mars but all the main characters would be white. Maybe one or two people of colour but hardly any Indians. Doing Indian Noir the way I do in genre fiction is to show Indians as mainstream relatable people. We have LGBT characters, the captain in Meru is a woman, we are the same as everyone else, we aren’t background fillers, we are main characters!”
“Indian Noir may be one of the most popular podcasts but that doesn’t mean it is about to pop up on a Forbes list,” he laughs when I ask him if he is now a millionaire. “There is hardly any ad revenue in the market. Advertisers want a certain number of listeners every month and it is hard to get them to invest when the industry is only just picking up. The way forward is to tie up with giants like Audible. ”
Padma, one of the three founders of the Suno India podcast network says something along the same lines. “It is still a new medium and even though giants like Jio Saavn, Spotify, Gaana and others are investing in the field, there is a long way to go before we reach the level that international podcasts are at.”
Being a podcast network I expected to hear more about how people earn with podcasts but she says that the three founders, Tharun, Rakesh and herself, were doing this out of pocket, with a grant and with the support of their audiences. “Hopefully with time we will have advertisers, but till then we will focus on making stories that are impactful.
And impactful they are! The network boasts of shows that others won’t touch and Padma says that it’s because the audio industry is still unregulated. “People are free to talk about anything without worrying about social taboos. For example, we have a show called Dear Pari which we started based on our experiences in adoption. We felt that no one was talking about it and if they were, it was either with pity or as if we were doing something great. It needed to be discussed and that is how Suno India was born.”
They do have a wide variety of shows perfect for today’s climate. Fat…so is one of my favourites hosted by Pallavi and Ameya discussing the specific Indian experience of being… fat. 1 in 20000 is about rare documented conditions that exist in the world, Cyber Democracy is perfect for the modern gen to worry about and Climate Emergency talks about climate change specific to India. These are shows that bring fresh new eyes to problems that we all know exist but that no one wants to talk about.
To add to this impressive list they also have shows in regional languages, “Suno India considers language an opportunity, not a hindrance. Soon there will be something for everyone,” Padma signs off cheerfully.
Naga, from The Passion People Podcast, does something similar but instead of focusing on topics he shines the limelight on people. People who are dedicated to living and breathing their passion. Who, instead of working a desk job because that is what is expected of them, do what they want to do, even if it means a harder time.
The long-term aim of his podcast, he tells me, is to be able to create a space where creative people can support themselves. Right now he does this by connecting the people he interviews with others who are interested in what they do. “Sustainability is the big problem of our times and podcasts have a way to go before they can provide their creators with commercial returns. This is where platforms like Patreon and Tartl help. In the long run, we might be able to start looking at ad revenue in the Indian market but currently, advertisers find it cheaper to invest in a YouTube channel than on a podcast which isn’t a visual medium.”
He is very particular about being consistent with releasing episodes just like Nikesh and Padma. “Podcasts are a long term investment; you cannot put out two episodes and expect to start making money, that isn’t how it works. If you aren’t doing something you are passionate about better stop now because satisfaction will be your only returns for a while. Unlike a movie where you buy a ticket before watching, here you have already consumed the content. You now have to like it enough to support the creator.”
Most business reports are hopeful and the light at the end of the tunnel looks brighter with industry behemoths like Audible and Spotify supporting creators and national companies like Saavn and Gaana jumping into the game. Not to mention the indie networks like Suno India whose mantra seems to be ‘content is king’ or in some cases ‘queen’.
The tide is indeed turning and Indian podcasts will hopefully gather an audience as big and diverse as the content they put out.
As I said before, podcasts aren’t a new medium, the radio has been there for ages but it is fresh content in shiny new packaging and I am here for it.
If you’re interested in beginning your pod journey, I recommend starting with any of the shows mentioned above. But if you prefer a familiar voice, My Indian Life by Kalki Koechlin is a darn good starting point.