Two to three decades ago, life, still uninterrupted by the technology boom, was slow but steady. One would tune into the radio to listen to the happenings of the day on the way to work or at home in the evening. Vividh Bharti would lighten up homes as melodious tunes would be presented along with mild commentary from renowned anchors. Gradually, as the radio underwent a 21st-century makeover, so did the shows. Storytelling became better and radio channels strengthened their portfolios through radio jockeys. The era of Neelesh Misra began. The radio storyteller, author and lyricist would charm the listeners with his voice and touching stories of life as it unfolds. ‘Suhana Safar with Annu Kapoor’, prank calls hosted by the likes of RJ Naved and ‘Love Guru’ hosted by Kartik Kalla became some of the most liked shows of the first two decades of the 21st century.

However, the digital explosion completely revolutionised the way we listened to audio. Podcasts were born and they were not just limited to radio. It was around 2004 that Dead End Days, known to be the first video podcast on zombies, was telecast. After having a successful run as music streaming platforms, companies crossed the music-only trajectory to add podcasts to their portfolios.

The pandemic further propelled the audio streaming industry giving more room for fresher content and new content creators. Cut to 2022, the audio industry has equipped the listener with podcasts on diverse content—from sexual gratification to education and mythology to mind-stirring conversations, and platforms like Audible and Spotify are only expanding.

Dhruvank Vaidya, head of podcasts, Spotify India, says audio has always been an important part of our lives and while the power of music is known, we are now witnessing an increasing popularity of podcasts in India. “Listeners are engaging with the spoken word through podcasts, audiobooks and poetry, among others, across a wide range of genres and in most major local languages,” he says. Vaidya adds that on Spotify, audio shows and series centred around motivation, inspiration, self-help, skill development and mythology are favourites among Indian listeners. Fiction is another format that is surging, he says.

Choices aplenty

From motivation to financial advice, from lessons of life to mythology, podcasts have strung together a series of topics for the listeners. Even though the shift from the video-loving audience to the audio-loving listeners is evident, creators believe that the evolution has just begun.

Ranveer Allahbadia, social media entrepreneur, YouTuber, motivational speaker, leadership coach, and podcast host of ‘The Ranveer Show’ on Spotify, agrees that streaming platforms have really taken off since the pandemic began. “I won’t say it’s lucrative just yet. People are still heavily reliant on video. Audio podcasts are being preferred by very specific types of listeners, particularly those interested in self-improvement, motivational talks, and mindfulness,” he says.

Allahbadia believes that for things to really take off, the content has to be done effectively on audio. “The assumption of the audio segment is that it will increase if the content is of high quality, if it meets international standards, and if it deals with intriguing issues. People romanticise the idea that audio doesn’t compete with video, yet audio does compete with video,” he adds.

Raj Shamani, a digital content creator, entrepreneur, podcaster and investor, shares the benefits of audio platforms. “For a producer, it is very easy to turn on the phone and start speaking. They can easily shoot the content and be completely candid and free. So, the level of production, time, effort, and money, which you need in order to produce a content piece, is very low, while for a consumer, audio saves time. One can do multiple other things and at the same time listen to audio.”

Shamani, who hosts the podcast ‘Figuring Out’ on Spotify, believes that audio platforms are growing extensively as there is a trend of consuming rather than downloading. “Audio is just getting started because the majority of people haven’t experienced it in its true manner. There is a lot of room for creators and consumers to explore,” he says. For him, podcasts are the OTT for radio. “What OTT did to cinema, I think podcasts are going to do the same to radio shows as well,” he says.

Apart from podcasts, the availability of audiobooks on audio streaming platforms has added to their popularity. During an interview with FE last year, author Durjoy Datta shared that he had listened to as many as 68 audiobooks in the lockdown alone. The comfort of listening to books while multitasking is what is drawing readers to the platform. For children, audiobooks prove to be storytellers.

According to Audible, in 2021, people worldwide engaged for over 3.4 billion hours listening to varied content on Audible. Actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ memoir Unfinished, which was released in February 2021, became the ‘most played new release’ on Audible in India and Chris Bailey’s How to Train Your Mind, an Audible Original release, topped the list too. The company shares that the top audiobook of 2021 was James Clear’s Atomic Habits, while Rujuta Diwekar’s Secrets of Good Health was the top original. One of the most listened to Hindi audiobooks included Acharya Chanakya’s Chanakya Neeti and the top mythology titles included Anand Neelakantan’s Many Ramayanas, Many Lessons and Devdutt Pattanaik’s Suno Mahabharat Devdutt Pattanaik ke Saath.

The growth has also prompted a number of new audio streaming ventures to come up. Gurpreet Singh, co-founder of PodOne, a One Digital Entertainment Venture, says the popularity among listeners due to its non-intrusive way of entertainment has gained a lot of momentum. “We aim to go beyond the existing podcast formats of monologue storytelling or conversational interviews and also build sustainable business models for creators by closely working with brands and platforms. We are targeting to launch about 1,000 creator podcasts by the end of this year. We are also working with creators remotely in various other cities to help them produce their podcast series and curate podcasts across multiple languages across genres,” he says.

According to Singh, India’s diverse culture means a large audience for even niche content genres. “With the investments being made in the podcast sector during 2022-2023 and some of the finest and talented content creators focusing towards building their audiences on these platforms, I am pretty sure India will be one of the biggest podcast-consuming markets over the next 18-24 months,” he adds.

With the audio industry booming, money not only in terms of acquisitions but advertisements as well is flowing in. Garima Surana, co-founder and chief business officer of Sochcast, an immersive on-demand audio content hub, had started her own venture Podcash early during the pandemic. It later got acquired by Sochcast, an audio content hub. As a creator and having successfully monetised multiple episodes with multiple brands, she says that India is still in the early innings of audio monetisation. “Advertisers are starting to leverage the power of the spoken word to drive communities and retain a strong brand recall value through audio,” she says. On being asked about how she ventured into podcasts, Surana says that coming from a conservative Marwari family from the interiors in Rajasthan, she was a rebellious child and fell in love with the ‘mike’ in the sixth standard. “Since then, I’ve used the power of my voice through platforms like Community Radio and now digital audio,” she says.

Rohan Nayak, CEO and co-founder of Pocket FM, says that when he and his co-founders were starting up around three to four years ago, audio innovation was not happening at a global scale. “There were video first platforms providing users with high-quality content, but audio was restricted to a very niche set of users globally. Audiobooks and podcasts had scratched only a tiny surface. I feel content platforms democratise the creation of art. That inspired me to build or contribute to bringing new art forms to life,” he says.

Nayak observed some YouTubers creating audio videos with one thumbnail in place and audio playing in the background initially. “They had a lot of subscribers. So, those were early signs that an audio-only platform was needed,” he says. The start-up saw exponential growth in 2021 when they scaled 15x.

Currently, Pocket FM is available in India, but the team is planning to expand across boundaries as they believe their product has a global appeal. “We will be one of the few start-ups to build from India for the world, especially in content,” says Nayak. Their major sources of revenue are from advertisements and micro payments. The platform provides one to two free episodes of podcasts every 24 hours. If the user wants to listen to more episodes, they can purchase them.

Hushed voices

The audio industry has also been filling the gap when it comes to addressing the taboo topics like sex and sexual gratification. A number of podcasts has been stirring conversations around sex for listeners. In January this year, a new podcast ‘The-Incog-Teen-O-Mode’ by, an online portal that provides comprehensive life skills resources for teenagers, was launched on Spotify. The first sex-education podcast for teens in a mix of Hindi and English addresses topics like pimples, periods, body hair, crushes, exam anxiety, bullying and fashion—making it the go-to haven for teens and familiarising them to many sensitive topics.

Both Spotify and Audible have a host of erotic podcasts and stories that provide sexual gratification or sex education. Spotify has also curated a playlist of music for sex, erotic audio, female orgasm and shows like ‘116 Jerk Off Instructions—Talking Dirty with Rebecca Love’, ‘Meditate and Masturbate: Dream Date Sex Erotic Self-Hypnosis Guided Meditation’ and so on.

Seema Anand, author of The Arts of Seduction and a mythologist who hosts the podcast ‘Storytelling: The 3000 Step Stories’ on Spotify, says that she always felt that podcasts were going to be the next big thing and the pandemic just hastened the process. “When I was asked during the lockdown to create an exercise tool for the elderly, I automatically turned to podcasts. It was a new initiative called The 3000 Step Stories. I tell the stories with regular reminders to stretch, breathe, etc. There’s music by Merlin D’Souza to keep the pace going and all you have to do is plug them into your ears and get moving,” she adds.

As for an array of erotic podcasts being made available to the public, she feels that for a lot of people for whom porn has become a way of life, an audio podcast is less harmful, both mentally and emotionally, because so many of the problem areas —body image issues, the male gaze, etc— are removed. “The content, per force, has to be more creative in how it presents itself. OTTs are the next game changers, particularly for content that has been considered taboo till now and a great new platform for creators. However, it’s also a double-edged sword because the lack of censorship/regulations means that it can be a real fight to keep the show true to the story,” she adds.

Gurpreet Singh of PodOne, which recently launched a podcast on sex education by Leeza Mangaldas, shares that ‘The Sex Podcast’ is the holistic series on sex education and has been curated keeping all the perspectives in the loop including sexuality, gender, identity, love, consent, communication and many more. “This fun, entertaining and well-informed series aims to live up to the promise of delivering unmatched audio content,” he says.

That’s a deal

The year 2020 proved to be a time when major podcast deals were signed, and several streaming platforms shifted their focus to podcasts. It was the year when Spotify acquired rights for The Joe Rogan Experience, invested in podcast ad platform Megaphone and acquired Podz, a podcast delivery start-up, and Amazon announced adding podcasts to Amazon Music and further established Audible. Amazon also acquired Wondery, the podcast company for $300. Apple purchased Scout FM, SiriusXM purchased Simplecast and so on. bought exclusive rights to podcast ‘Smartless’, the celebrity interview programme. Rainshine Entertainment entered the podcast segment through new shows on Audible Suno.

Expanding its podcast acquisition portfolio, Spotify in 2021 acquired Whooshkaa, another podcast technology company, which is a platform for managing, hosting, distributing, promoting, monetising and measuring podcasts and digital audiobook distribution leader Findaway.

India, too, saw audio apps emerging and growing in popularity like Khabri that provides content in regional language, Headfone that specialises in vernacular podcasts, audio on-demand platform, multilingual and multi-generational audio platform Suno India, Hubhopper and Castbox.

One such Indian startup, Pocket FM, recently rose to global fame after receiving funding of $22.4 million in December 2021. It joined the list of audio start-ups that have recently raised funding like Khabri (raised $2.1 million in 2021) and Suno India (that saw an investment of an undisclosed amount from Shobu Yarlagadda, the producer of Baahubali).

Rohan Nayak of Pocket FM shares that they plan to use the funding to expand operations across multiple languages and geographies, invest in building creator community and exclusive content. The team also plans to invest in long-term capability building like better recommendation technologies. Rohan shares that with the right ecosystem, mentorship and government support in place, it is one of the best times for entrepreneurs to begin their startup journey.

Audio streaming platforms have also been inking deals with celebrities for podcasts to benefit from their popularity and fanbase. In January 2022, Kerry Washington signed a deal with Audible for three scripted podcast series. At the same time, Raedio, an audio company founded by American actor Issa Rae signed a multi-project deal for podcasts and developing content across genres with Audible.

Streaming platform HBO Max too ventured into podcasts and in 2021, announced Batman: The Audio Adventures, an original starring Jeffrey Wright as Batman, as it expands its list of podcasts.

The way forward

With the current figures in place, the future of the audio streaming industry looks promising. According to industry observers, social media takes up the most time, followed by messaging, OTT video, news aggregation, and short-form app.

In the first year of the pandemic, KPMG’s ‘India’s Media and Entertainment Report 2020’ noted a 29.3% increase in podcast consumption even as other sectors shrunk. A report by business data provider Statista suggests that the forecast size of the audio OTT market in India is expected to grow from $0.6 billion in FY2021 to $1.1 billion in the next four years and up to $2.5 billion by the end of FY2030.

The ad revenue from audio streaming platforms is also set to rise. Nielsen’s ‘Podcasts are Resonating with Diverse Audiences’ report of December 2021 states that the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is predicting that ad revenue will hit $2 billion by 2023, well above the $842 million generated last year.

Apart from spending time on OTTs and social media, audio streaming has also become a part of the day for many. Market research firm RedSeer shared in December 2021 that podcasts have picked up in India and already constitute 1% of the total time spent.

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