(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)
(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)

Hear and now: Inside India’s podcast boom

There are thousands of new podcasts, and millions more are listening. Audio entertainment has seen a surge in the pandemic. Meet the people behind some of India’s top shows.
By Natasha Rego
UPDATED ON MAY 30, 2021 02:20 PM IST

Everyone’s listened to a podcast by this point. Some in relative confusion — what is this and why can’t it be a story or a video. Others with glee (which are the best ones, where can I find more?). In the pandemic, as with most streaming entertainment options, demand has boomed and content has grown.

KPMG’s Media and Entertainment Report 2020 found that India recorded a 29.3 % increase in podcast consumption in the first year of the pandemic. According to PwC’s Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020 report, India is the third largest consumer of podcasts (after the US and China), with 57.6 million monthly listeners.

HT Smartcast, the podcasting wing of HT Media, saw its listenership jump to over 1 million monthly listens in March 2020. By March 2021, that number had grown to 6 million monthly listens.

The way people were listening to podcasts also changed. “There used to be high consumption during workouts, commutes and chores, with commutes being the largest vector,” says Amit Doshi, founder of podcast production company IVM. “Chores have become a much larger part of the mix, while the commute has, of course, come down.”

In the restricted lifestyles of the pandemic, the podcast offers a screen-free way to consume stories and news, attend discussions and interviews. Those who have grown to love the format are tuning in every day, like Anshul Kumar Akhoury, 32, a content creator from Patna who says he listened to about an episode a week before March 2020, and now listens to shows for at least half an hour before bedtime every day.

“Because of the availability of more and more local content across languages, such podcasts have started to show up more in the charts, where it was predominantly global content in the previous years,” says Amarjit Singh Batra, managing director of Spotify India.

Spotify’s podcast hosting tool, Anchor, hosts nearly 40,000 shows from India, with over half of those launched in 2020. Worldwide, over 1 million shows were added on Spotify last year.

2020 was also a time for experimentation and improvisation. Spoken-word poet Rakesh Tiwari, who launched his show Millennial Kavi, a JioSaavn production, in January 2020, found that the best way to simulate studio conditions at his little apartment in Mumbai was to record his bits in his bedroom under the blanket, in the middle of the night, using a chai strainer as a pop filter.

Most podcasts stream free across platforms. The exceptions tend to be original content created by and exclusively for one platform. Free-to-access production platforms such as Spotify’s Anchor, Audioboom, Buzzsprout and Podbean also let individuals independently create their own podcasts. Prominent podcast production companies include IVM (Indus Vox Media), Suno India and MnM Talkies. Shows could be just one person and a mic, or a whole cast and crew, complete with sound effects and original background score.

Among the most-streamed categories are sport, entertainment, personal finance, spirituality and self-improvement, and trivia, current affairs and general knowledge.

So what do the top podcasts have in common? “Nothing,” says Doshi. “Most successful shows have their own voice, and that’s what makes them good. Our three most popular shows last year were in current affairs/humour, wellness and storytelling. Other than great hosts who work hard at their shows, they have minimal commonality.”

What’s next? A boom in podcasts you can use, says Ishani Dasgupta, head of podcast partnerships at JioSaavn. “In 2021, we are likely to see people turning to podcasts for hyper specific reasons – to learn something or for self-improvement.”

HT Smartcast’s podcast producer Deepti Ahuja estimates that plenty of new formats will emerge too. “Currently the podcasting world is exploring video, chatrooms, trying to balance intimacy and engagement,” she says. “So far, we’ve successfully intertwined audio with video, live interactions on social media, etc. Our news wraps are among the first AI-based podcasts (it’s read by AI) in India. Next, we’re looking to discover what we can do with drop-in audio / video chatroom-based apps.”

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I Hear You features actor Aahana Kumra voicing detective Priyamvada, who can hear the thoughts of the dead.
I Hear You features actor Aahana Kumra voicing detective Priyamvada, who can hear the thoughts of the dead.

ENTERTAINMENT: Of places, poetry and paranormal activity

Detective shows are a hot favourite, as are podcasts on movies and travel. A current chart-topper is the Spotify Original I Hear You with Aahana Kumra, about a woman police detective who can hear the thoughts of the dead. On JioSaavn, Raapchik Bhai rules. His Bhai ke Raapchik Reviews, each a few minutes long, all of them funny, has had 6.3 million streams since it launched in January 2017.

The independently produced travel show Musafir Stories is popular across platforms. IT professionals Saif Omar, 37, and Faiza Khan, 32, tour India and talk about hidden gems such as Mechuka Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, and the ghost town of Dhanushkodi, on the southern tip of Pamban island in Tamil Nadu. Every few episodes, they invite local residents to join them and offer travellers tips on things they simply shouldn’t miss.

Two things an entertainment podcast needs are a unique concept, and really good production values. Actor Aahana Kumra and a slew of voice actors bring drama and jump scares to I Hear You, which is three months old and at #10 on the Spotify India chart. “We work with music directors and sound designers. We use special microphones that record binaural sound, which gives a 3D effect,” says Mantra, a veteran radio producer and presenter and head of MnM Talkies, which produces this show. Each episode is under 20 minutes long and takes about three weeks to produce.

Listeners get really involved, Mantra adds. “They post on social media to say they want Priyamvada and her colleague inspector Viraj (voiced by Hitesh Bhojraj) to get together.”

Kirthi Shetty, 41, creator of Bhai ke Raapchik Reviews, uses sarcastic rhyme and pop culture puns to make his podcast stand out. “It’s a review crunched into a couple of minutes that we put out on the evening of a film’s first show,” Shetty says. “The tough part is that 90% of the films are actually quite rubbish.”

Reviewing Salman Khan’s Radhe, he said: “Pichchur aise lagi, jaise Hero har cheez mein aage aur Heroine sirf usske peeche peeche bhaage! (The film felt like the hero was ahead in every way, and the heroine was meant to just run along behind him.)”

Also using rhyme, but very differently, is Rakesh Tiwari aka Millennial Kavi, 34. He quit his job at a BPO in 2019 to become a podcaster and spoken word artist.

“I was discovered when one of the producers at JioSaavn heard a poem that I had written on the samosa,” Tiwari says. “It was the perfect example of what we are doing with Millennial Kavi.” The show has been streamed 2.3 million times since it first aired in January 2020.

It’s a commentary on daily life, written in rhyme, and delivered in Hinglish. Each episode is three minutes long, and answers pressing questions such as how to cope when an ex gets married, how to tackle client meetings, and can one live without a mobile phone?

“Aisa bhi waqt aayega who would have ever thought / Ke tatkal se train ticket mil jaayegi… But you won’t get vaccine slot (That there would come such a time, who would have ever thought / When you would get a tatkal train ticket, but not a vaccine slot),” he rued, in a recent episode titled Getting Vaccinated.

Navaz Dordi, 20, a law student from Mumbai, was a fan of Tiwari’s spoken-word work and has been listening to the podcast since it was launched. “He makes simple daily things so eventful, something you might not have noticed gains a new perspective,” she says. “One of my favourite episodes is Breakup Ki Baad Waali Kahani. I have heard it countless times and even introduced it to my family.”

Mae Mariyam Thomas at the studio with indie artist Jordan Johnson, recording episode 143 of Maed in India. The podcast, now in its sixth year, features interviews with and live performances by independent musicians.
Mae Mariyam Thomas at the studio with indie artist Jordan Johnson, recording episode 143 of Maed in India. The podcast, now in its sixth year, features interviews with and live performances by independent musicians.

Honourable mentions: Indian Noir, by author Nikesh Murali. A crime, horror and dark fantasy fiction show that he writes, narrates and produces. The stories and sound effects will give you goosebumps. A sample story is about a man whose childhood bully Ravi becomes his brother-in-law. He wants to kill this nemesis anyway, but his investigation leads him into a world of midnight transformations and witchcraft.

Maed in India, by former radio presenter Mae Mariyam Thomas. In the pandemic, Thomas has been putting together killer playlists of indie music created in the lockdown around the world. “There’s so much of it,” she says.

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SPORT: Tales from the field

The most popular sports podcasts are, not surprisingly, about cricket. What is surprising is that one of the most popular doesn’t really focus on the game. Spotify’s 22 Yarns with cricket commentator and former VJ Gaurav Kapur stands out for its timeless, heartwarming stories about cricketers and landmark games. Launched in late 2019, it was on Spotify’s most streamed podcasts in India in 2020.

In episodes that range from 30 to 50 minutes long, Kapur, 40, holds nostalgia-filled chats with people like PR Man Singh, manager of the India team that won the ’83 World Cup. “The daily allowance for players at that time was 25 pounds (about 375 then), which had to cover lunch, dinner, laundry, telephone and any other expense. We were only provided bed and breakfast,” Singh said on the show in February. Similarly, Ajit Agarkar comes on not to talk about his career, but about the history of Bombay’s cricket clubs.

‘Sports content is usually about analysis, numbers, performances, statistics, but I am looking for what stories the sport tells. The human angle exists — the triumphs, the resilience, the success and the failures. I think that’s what people need to hear,’ says cricket commentator and former VJ Gaurav Kapur.
‘Sports content is usually about analysis, numbers, performances, statistics, but I am looking for what stories the sport tells. The human angle exists — the triumphs, the resilience, the success and the failures. I think that’s what people need to hear,’ says cricket commentator and former VJ Gaurav Kapur.

“Sports content is usually about analysis, numbers, performances, statistics, but I am looking for what stories the sport tells,” Kapur says. “The human angle exists — the triumphs, the resilience, the success and the failures. I think that’s what people need to hear.”

In the podcast format, Kapur finds that he has more freedom to explore a story than he would on television. “We want to make timeless content, something that you can listen to at any time, and is not event-specific,” Kapur says. “One of my main objectives with this show is also to archive these first-hand accounts. As Indians we’re horrible at that, so this is my small attempt.”

In the last season, Kapur did try something contextual. After India beat Australia with its epic win in Australia, making a brave comeback after a paltry 36 runs in the first Test, led by stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane, he did an episode called The Australian Conquest with sports writer Joy Bhattacharjya.

“We discussed things like the attitude, emotion and psychology of the team and exchanged notes on our observations,” says Kapur. “It turns out people liked that episode, so we may do more of that kind of thing in coming seasons.”

Honourable mentions: Running and Fitness with Raj (Rajagopal Anapuzha, runner and coach). He interviews elite runners and athletes from around the world, coaches, nutritionists and psychologists, with the hope that their insight can improve your running routine.

IVM’s Football Shootball, hosted by three football fans – Gaurav Sapre, Sivaram Parameswaramand Karthik Iyer. The friends analyse and review games, make predictions and offer interesting trivia. They also dabble in some fantasy football.

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Jaya Row, host of Gita for the Young and Restless.
Jaya Row, host of Gita for the Young and Restless.

SPIRITUALITY AND SELF-HELP: Faith, fate and you

Are you in control of your destiny, asks one episode of Gita for the Young and Restless. Hosted by Vedanta proponent, corporate guru and life coach Jaya Row, the Hindi show is one of the fastest growing podcasts on Spotify India, and is currently at #4.

There’s a range of approaches in the self-help and spirituality section of the podcast world. On Purpose with Jay Shetty and the Sadhguru Official podcast often feature on Spotify’s Top 25 for India. In fact, 6 of the 25 on that list relate to self-help and motivation, eight if you include spirituality and lessons from the scriptures.

It’s not the older people tuning in either. Row’s show is reportedly listened to largely by people aged 18 to 27. “We wanted to create a show that takes lessons from Indian scripture and applies them to a more modern view and circumstances, making it relevant to young people, and it seems to have worked,” says Rajesh Tahil, producer of Gita for the Young and Restless.

Episodes include Relationships Without Attachments, When Is It Okay To Lie?, and the show’s most-streamed, Coping with Anxiety. Row has delivered lectures on the Bhagavad Gita for decades, but says she opted for a podcast in June 2020 because she wanted to reach newer and younger audiences.

“She has a way of communicating which is friendly and accessible. So it doesn’t feel like you’re being preached to,” Tahil says. Each episode is under 10 minutes long. “I was exposed to the Gita from early childhood exactly as I present it to the young now, Row says. “Only the method of presenting is more modern, yet with the foundation of the ancient text.”

In IVM’s The Habit Coach, Ashdin Doctor uses events from history to illustrate the importance of developing the right habits.
In IVM’s The Habit Coach, Ashdin Doctor uses events from history to illustrate the importance of developing the right habits.

Someone else who knows how to keep it short is Ashdin Doctor. On his show The Habit Coach, an IVM production, he uses stories to discuss motivation, life hacks, inspiration. One episode focused on Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, where horse-borne men aim to get a goat carcass into a goal. It’s a dangerous but thrilling sport that repurposes wartime skills for times of peace.

Doctor, 37, likes to call himself an anti-motivation speaker. He doesn’t believe in inspired bursts True change comes slowly, he says. “By changing small habits, things we do every day.” A former market research consultant, Doctor is now 150 episodes in and says the best part is finding the stories.

For example, did you know that the iconic Keep Calm and Carry On poster was created in 1939 by the British government, during the Blitz? Or that the oldest piece of jewellery ever discovered were shell beads in Israel, dating back 100,000 years? Or that anger is a predominantly physical reaction? And what do all these funfacts have to teach us about how to live life? Like the Buzkashi example, there are lessons in each.

Pooja Gandhi, 35, a businesswoman from Mumbai, says she first came upon Ashdin’s podcast when she was “a little lost”. “The habits he discusses are really simple and can be easily applied in our daily lives,” she adds. “I keep coming back because they are 7 to 8-minute podcasts, convenient to listen to anytime and gain knowledge in a short span of time.”

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PERSONAL FINANCE: Bang for your buck

There’s equity trading and commodities trading, currency trading and trading in crypto. To the uninitiated, it’s all money. It rules the real world, and has quite a presence in the podcasting world as well. With more options for retails investors, more complication, changing norms and volatile markets, business-finance-tech is a popular group of categories across platforms in India.

Among IVM’s most popular podcasts is Paisa Vaisa with Anupam Gupta, which aired its first episode in 2017. It slowly built up an audience that has come to depend on it for advice and insight. Baibhav Mishra, 25, from Bhubaneswar, was already listening to Paisa Vaisa when he received his first paycheck in January 2020. “Because of the show, I felt like I knew exactly how to utilise my money,” he says.

Investment research consultant Anupam Gupta, host of Paisa Vaisa, interviews financial advisers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and other industry experts.
Investment research consultant Anupam Gupta, host of Paisa Vaisa, interviews financial advisers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and other industry experts.

Gupta, 49, a chartered accountant and investment research consultant, may not have all the answers, but he invites a host of guests who do. His interviews with financial advisers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and other industry experts reveal how financial and economic systems work, and the parts you can tap into.

The show started off with Gupta picking a different financial term each week, and just explaining it. “We were working on the premise that attention spans were really short,” he says. The feedback, though, was that longer episodes would be welcome. A few months in, they switched to the host-guest format.

Guests have included M Pattabiraman, a professor at IIT Madras and exponent of financial freedom, the idea of having enough income to pay your expenses and spending the rest of you time on doing the things you like. Zerodha’s young founders Nikhil and Nithin Kamath have been guests. Cred founder Kunal Shah appears in a two part special.

Members of traditional mainstream financial institutions are rare guests. “I haven’t had a single rep from a credit card company. I’ve had maybe two health insurance companies, and recently interviewed a representative of one of India’s large banks. My first bank,” Gupta says.

What he wants is to help first-time investors, whether in the stock market or other financial instruments. Mishra remains a regular listener. Lessons he learnt on Paisa Vaisa helped him when he was buying health insurance for his parents, he says. “I like the fact that Paisa Vaisa doesn’t sell or promote any product but it enables us to make a better financial decision,” Mishra says.

Honourable mention: Finshots Daily, popular for its succinct delivery of financial news in the form of short stories. Produced by Finception, a finance storytelling platform, the podcast’s motto is to make things less complex for the potential investor. They release a five-minute episode daily. Episodes include Why Musk Denounced Bitcoin, Will Cairn Really Seize and Sell Air India’s Planes Abroad? and A Rebound in the Cards For DMart?

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KNOWLEDGE & CURRENT AFFAIRS: Diving into the past, present and future

Current affairs, science, history, the social sciences and plain old trivia populate this popular genre. Spotify’s Maha Bharat with Dhruv Rathee was among the top five most streamed podcasts on Spotify India in 2020, and is currently at #1 on the charts. Spotify’s Mission ISRO with Harsha Bhogle, the unlikely story of India’s space programme, was among the most popular new shows in 2020.

This is the dramatic story of how a young India went to space, on the backs of bicycles and bullock carts, great scientists and leaders, and against all odds. It’s cricket commentator Bhogle’s first podcast. “When I read the script, I thought these are just the types of stories we should be telling,” says Bhogle, 59. “Stories that showcase the pursuit of science as an act of patriotism. It was a story from my father’s time, when science was respected, when institutions that make all these great feats possible today were set up.”

‘When I read the script, I thought these are just the types of stories we should be telling, stories that showcase the pursuit of science as an act of patriotism,’ says cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle. Mission ISRO is his first podcast.
‘When I read the script, I thought these are just the types of stories we should be telling, stories that showcase the pursuit of science as an act of patriotism,’ says cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle. Mission ISRO is his first podcast.

Elsewhere, on IVM’s The Origin of Things, which is two seasons and 50 episodes old, host Deepak Gopalakrishnan, 36, tells stories about how the world’s great brands came to be, with all the twists and turns, revealing the brand only at the end. Each episode is under seven minutes long.

Sample this. In the episode, We Have A Dog To Thank For This, he speaks about a club, then called Newton Heath LYR, started by a group of young men in the 1870s, during the industrial revolution in England. It didn’t do too well, was in debt by the early 1900s, held a fundraiser by sending a St Bernard around with a collection tub, lost the dog, found the dog, but now the dog was in the possession of a rich man who wanted to give it to his daughter. This unique situation resulted in a trade, the dog for clearing the debt and managing the company. The exchange worked, the company grew and grew, and the 150-year-old company is the football club Manchester United.

“I am a big fan of a podcast called The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe,” says Gopalakrishnan, a content and marketing specialist. “He narrates a story about a famous person, but only reveals who he’s talking about in the end. I wanted to do the same thing for brands, and from the next season, due to start in a few months, I will be moving on to inventions too.”

Nanditha Shankar, 28, a project manager at a tech startup, who lives in Thiruvananthapuram, has been hooked since she first heard an episode on the origins of the Nike sportswear company in 2019. “I’m a quizzer, and have a penchant for trivia. Also, it benefits my work to learn about brands and their stories,” she says. “TOOT is packed with drama, mystery and a great climax where the brand is revealed. Deepak’s narrative style keeps one guessing and if I guess the brand right, I feel a thrill. It’s also changed the way I look at brand stories.”

Maha Bharat with Dhruv Rathee, 26, started as a way of educating Indian audiences about the nitty-gritty of the massive country they inhabit. The show’s first episode, Why Is India a Republic?, was the most streamed episode on Spotify India in 2020.

Other episodes include Why Does India Have Reservations, Why Does the Government Conduct a Census, and Why Do Inter-State Check Posts Exist?

“When we started we tried to address these overarching big ideas, like what is colonialism, and what is communism,” says show creator Gaurav Vaz, 39. “But as the show went on, we started breaking down the topics into more intricate things that people were asking us to speak about.”

Honourable mentions: IVM’s Yuddha, hosted by history enthusiasts Anirudh Kanisetti and Aditya Ramanathan, delves into the dramatic, violent history of the Indian subcontinent.

The Elephant Tails by Wildlife SOS, a conservation non-profit. It’s 14 episodes old and, in less than 30 minutes, offers intimate stories from people who work to rescue and rehabilitate elephants, sloth bears and leopards, among other animals.

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