Technology to play a big role in the direction of the podcast industry

Travel now is the biggest driver of audio consumption.


Mumbai: In the coming three years, technology will play a big role in the direction of the podcast industry. Personalisation will come to the fore. A podcast could be created for just one person. Artificial intelligence (AI) will play a big role. The way we know podcasts now may not be the same in a couple of years. Right now, the surface has not even been scratched in terms of podcast formats. While podcast listenership is not what it was in 2020, when covid was released, the format is not going away. There are various formats available, such as audio books and audio videos.

But money currently is a constraint when it comes to growing podcast formats. Travel now is the biggest driver of audio consumption. There are a lot of moments for audio consumption in the day when one is driving, cooking, cleaning, etc. Educating people about the podcast space is important and is also an opportunity. People should be given the tools to understand how to make better shows and how to write for audio. After all, the written work and the spoken word are not the same. Creators should also understand the variety of audio formats.

In 2020, this was not the case as people were at home. For subscriptions to work, it is important to spend a lot of time listening to what consumers want and feeling their pulse. On the music front, independent music consumption is growing. Radio stations are playing more of this music than earlier. Independent musicians are also able to sell tickets to events. Moreover, music can play an integral role in podcasts and help move the narrative forward.

These points were made at a panel discussion at the Indian Audio Summit & Awards event organised by radioandmusic.com. The speakers were 92.7 Big FM COO Sunil Kumaran; podcast creator, presenter, journalist, and writer Mae Mariyam Thomas; Song Dew founder Sunil Khanna; Aawaz co-founder & CEO Sreeraman Thiagarajan; MnM Talkies Podcast founder Mantra Mugdh; and Audstory Podcast Production founder Neeti Sansare. The session was moderated by Indiantelevision.com founder & editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari.

Thomas said that 2020 saw a huge podcast explosion. But from 2020 to 2022, there has been a massive drop in the number of new podcasts launched. This, she said, is a given, but the trends around what that means are that there is a slowdown in listenership compared to 2020. There are questions about whether people will listen to shows that are released daily or seasonally. "I cannot predict the future."

Khanna noted that the number of videos uploaded on Spotify is rising well and the cost of production is going down. In technology, new tools are coming. So it is growing at a mind boggling pace the kind of content being created. It is not about what the masses want because it is a non-linear broadcast. There is a long tail of content creation happening. It is just that the revolution happening is on the side of the younger generation and not on the part of the decision-makers. It is obvious what is happening, and he feels optimistic.

Sansare shared his optimism. Earlier, people were trying podcasting and listening to a few episodes. "Now, serious people are stepping into this space, and when they create content, it is long-term. I work with a lot of creators and influencers. When they think about stepping into this space it will make the space more massy and others will also enter."

Kumaran said that a legacy business has been built over the years with solid strengths in the radio industry. Now 2023–2024 will mark an opportunity to pivot on trends. For him, the challenge is measurability. Then pivoting quickly is another challenge. The opportunities are galore. For most radio, businesses will come from technology. The intersection of content within technology will provide a lot of opportunity. "That is where a lot of our focus is."

Thiagarajan noted that traditional players in news and radio are getting bigger on digital. All these players have a digital app and the challenge for Aawaz.com is that the head start that the company had will run out. But this is good news for the category, as the boundaries are being pushed further. "We need to up our game at this point. We need to create fresh content. There is both good news and bad news for us." 

Mugdh noted that the podcast industry is following other industries in hitting a vertical high and then stagnating. This is when the strength of the industry is about first maintaining and then growing. Listeners are diversifying their interests. They are going to newer forums.

Kumaran noted that doomsday predictions for the audio industry are overstated. There was a lot of learning and grappling during covid. "As with any business we all evolved very rapidly. This is a phase of consolidation. You cannot leapfrog it. This is a time when you sharpen your tool. We will pivot as a whole lot of digital opportunities come our way. Radio pays the bills. The point is, how do you balance the pace of growth? Where do you kind of find the tipping point? How do you invest your time in newer initiatives? This is the call that we all have to take, and it is now downward. You have to see what your strengths are and what can you leverage."

He feels that the problems abroad, like layoffs, will not happen here because the industry knows where to pivot and what to pivot on. Over two years a lot of work has been done on what digital opportunities can a radio player leverage. He said that RJs can go into the space of influencer marketing. "I have built an expertise in the last 15 years of what works and what does not. Does not that give me a huge advantage in areas like podcasts? This is where the opportunity lies. It is about pivoting at the right time. It is not about being unduly worried about a doomsday prediction."

The discussion shifted to advertising and subscription revenue, and the session noted that there is pressure on how much ad revenue one can get. It is a challenge that users do not like to be interrupted by advertising during a podcast. Sansare noted that podcasts build smaller communities than radio, but these communities are stronger. The listeners feel that the host is his/her friend. So the host can talk about a product that the listener can use, and this strategy will work. Podcasters have smaller but closer-knit communities.

"So brands approach them." Thomas said that there are people who are willing to not pay. They will listen to ads. Podcasting allows brands to have a far more nuanced conversation. It allows for brands to experiment. Brands can do things they have never done before in any other medium. Her hope is that brands can invest in creating audio content or ads within shows.

The session did note, however, that average podcast content has a long way to go before it reaches the critical mass that ensures subscriptions. Good content creation is sporadic. It is about putting out great quality content out there. One has to get the content right. One cannot create content with a myopic lens. One has to be out there listening to what the audience wants. It is very important for the audio industry to be relevant to the audience that it serves. Thomas said that in terms of formats, the podcast industry has a lot of exploring to do. Her company is talking about documentary formats and better storytelling. It is about exploring different experiences within audio. "We have not hit the tip of the iceberg. The challenge is money."

The session noted that in the podcast fiction space, it is about having a screenplay, actors, and background music. There is a cinematic approach happening. People are now enjoying audio cinema. So podcast fiction is seeing good growth. Actors are coming in and enjoying working in the podcast format.

The purchasing power of the youth is increasing, and if one can deliver content that people are willing to pay for, there is a significant opportunity. The example of independent musicians selling tickets today for Rs 1000 was given. This was not imaginable a few years back. If one can create content that consumers are willing to pay for, one does not have to rely too much on ad revenue.

Thomas said that she can see the kind of people who approach her company to handle production for them. There are more creators. People get the experience of creating their own show, and there is a critical point reached when people realise that they need to create content that is a little better. So they approach her company as it is able to streamline production processes and be more innovative in terms of formats. In the past three months, three projects have come to her from outside the country. The creators are based in the US, UK, and Europe. People still want to make shows.

Mugdh noted that audio fiction is coming in. He is excited to see adaptations coming to the country from places like DC Comics, which want to create Batman. This was a big move for the Indian fiction market. More such projects will come up this year. "There is clearly more indication of many such projects coming our way in 2023. So when you have international collaborations and adaptations of 'Super It' podcasts that have taken place all over the world this shows that the world is not just looking at India as a consumer market. It is also where they are getting the maximum hits now that we are the most populated country in the world. More listeners are getting generated everyday. The market for audio listeners will always remain.

"Of course, we cannot compare today with 2020. That year was a very tough year for the world. But when it came to consumption, audio content skyrocketed. Now people have moved on to living their life but it is not that they have moved off audio completely."

Sansare noted that podcasts are now reaching tier two and tier three cities and towns. Penetrating there faster is a challenge. Podcasting so far has been a tier one phenomenon. Money is a problem. Having said that, there are solutions. It is not just about interview podcasts. It is about working on content like audio dramas. There are so many stories to share. D2C brands are story-heavy. They can use the power of audio. It might take time for them to understand how to use it. The industry must work together for growth to happen in this area. The session also noted that marketers need to invest in audio content and create content natively. The shortcut and lazy approach will not benefit anyone.

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