(Pod)casting a spell on the young in Delhi

  • Vidya S, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 23, 2016 10:56 IST
Podcasters are tailoring content to suit the tastes of Indian audience. With shows on a host of issues, podcasts seem to fill a void for listeners created by the lack of quality infotainment. (Reuben Singh/HT Photo)

The incessant honking is making their ears ring. Sharp morning rays filter through their car windows, hitting them on the face. The jets of cool air from the AC ducts are not enough to soothe rising tempers as minutes tick away. With its never-ending line of bumper-to-bumper traffic, most commuters would trade an arm and a leg to avoid the Yamuna-Kalindi Kunj bridge. But not 25-year-old Shashank Bhargava.

He looks forward to the drive. He even hopes to find traffic.

As a dulcet voice fills his car with the tale of a high-school student’s mysterious killing, Shashank is transported to USA’s Baltimore of 1999 when it happened, unmindful of the traffic around him.

“Listening to the first episode of Serial was an experience of profound wonderment. It is one of the best audio experiences you can possibly have, including music,” says the publicist with a private firm, who takes the route to work.

Shashank is part of a niche and growing group of enthusiasts in Delhi who are discovering podcasts, taken in by host Sarah Koenig’s episodic revisiting of a murder case.

Nidhi Srivastava (26), a freelance writer, usually listens to podcasts on the Metro. “I also listen while doing everyday work like ironing clothes,” she says.

With podcasts’ ability to fill gaps during mundane tasks, and Delhiites being stuck for longer in traffic, a communion between the two is only natural.

“Audio is the only format compared to text or video where a person can truly multitask. Combined with growing accessibility and targeted audience, podcasts are slowly but clearly coming out to be the winner,” says Tushar Sharma (29), a listener-turned-podcaster.

He noticed a gap in the market for Indian podcasts and wanted to start something that intersects his own interest as well as caters to the Indian audience. The result is the talk show — Rocking Entrepreneur.

In the past six months, he says, his audience increased by over 100%. “I would attribute it to the rapidly growing number of podcast followers in India,” he says.

FM radio earlier plugged the holes that podcasts do now. Yet, in what is being described as podcasts’ resurgence, it appears to be replacing radio for the youth.

Indian private radio channels are not permitted to relay news and related information. “Other than music, FM really doesn’t provide any value add. The music too, depends on the RJs and I prefer my own music,” says Sharninder Khera (35), a software architect.

Since a podcast is an on-demand, ad-free resource, produced solely because they have content, they win over live airwaves, says Anindita Chawla (25), culinary and creative director at Getafix Café in Greater Kailash.

Cyrus Broacha, former VJ and host of Cyrus Says, agrees: “Radio is evolving into podcasts like test cricket evolved into T20.” He says the medium has its conveniences, even for presenters. “Podcasts can be intimate, can go beyond the lakshman rekha in terms of topics. People open up on podcasts, which they don’t when on TV.” However, he says it’s too early to call the “hype” a trend.

With shows on news and commentary, sports, science, technology, politics, economics and even the latest buzzword of entrepreneurship, they seem to fill a void for listeners created by the lack of quality infotainment.

Vipul Yadav (31), a fan of The Tennis Podcast and No Challenges Remaining, says these shows make up for media’s poor tennis coverage. They are not afraid to push the envelope with the content, says Dr Nimish Shirish Meshram (28), a fan of Newslaundry’s Hafta.

A typical Hafta episode is a freewheeling critical analysis of the week’s developments by hosts Madhu Trehan, Abhinandan Sekhri and other Newslaundry journalists. The show, which often has guests, also analyses how mainstream media covered the issue. In one episode, the hosts discussed with NDTV’s Hindi anchor Ravish Kumar the issue of journalists being referred to as ‘presstitutes’.

American show 99% Invisible, on the other hand, weaves narratives about lesser noticed aspects of something as visual as design and art. For instance, an episode has host Roman Mars delve into the history of Ouija, a talking board believed to help communicate with spirits. Replete with shrieks, rattling doors and spooky ambience, the episode uses interviews with experts to reconstruct how the game’s look and feel influences the psychology behind how it is played.

“Like Audiomatic’s shows, almost any genre can work as a podcast... What matters is the content and the production. Nothing is more boring than a voice that drones on and on but also nothing is as thrilling as just a voice guiding you through a story,” says Padmaparna Ghosh who hosts science and history show The Intersection.

With podcasts, like reading a book, the focus is on personal experience. The age of smartphones — primary medium of choice for most listeners with its download-plug in-listen routine — only enables the wave.

India is estimated to have 200 million smartphones. With 16.96% user concentration, Delhi ranks second in the country, shows a study by UCWeb.

“One of the reasons podcasting is on the rise is because it is easier to access shows from smartphones using some basic apps... A third of all our downloads come from smartphones,” says Abhishek Kumar of Indicast, the country’s longest running podcast.

The past year or so has had a handful of new Indian shows —Audiomatic’s Real Food Podcast and The Intersection, IndusVoxMedia’s Cyrus Says and music show Maed In India, to name a few.

Regional languages are yet to catch up with the medium. Tushar Sharma of Rocking Entrepreneur says, “Majority of the listeners are 40 or younger, live in major cities, are tech savvy, educated and can understand English. There needs to be reasonable growth and recognition of podcasts as a medium in India before regional language-based podcasts gain popularity.”

New York-based music app Saavn also started a long-from audio show that will dissect the sensational Aarushi murder case, apparently in line with Serial’s success. Trial by Error hosted by Delhi-based journalist Nishita Jha debuted on the app on May 1.

“The value of something being told is in it being heard…for a case as important and critical as this, the more people know about it, the faster we may move towards justice and truth… We believe our huge active user base is hungry for audio content beyond music,” says Saavn vice-president (entertainment and original content) Gaurav Wadhwa.

But listeners feel Indian shows lack well-edited content. “A finely scripted podcast works better and holds better production value than your average ‘bunch of people conversing and laughing’ format,” says Anindita.

This is where the American and British seem to score over Indian ones. “They know how to keep their listeners engaged for up to 60 minutes when audience is accused of having short attention span,” says Shashank. The lack of focus on sound mixing makes the Indian audio experience dull and no different from downloading a live radio show, he says. “Intersection is still a lot better, but when I have the option to listen to something a lot better, I do.”

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