India’s podcasting moment is coming — and it will be unlike anywhere else in the world

India is rediscovering the pleasure of listening to conversations, writes Amit Doshi, and podcasts are ready to fill the need for nuanced discussion.

IVM Podcasts is based in Mumbai.

Editor’s Note: Amit Doshi is the founder and CEO of IVM Podcasts, a digital media production company based in Mumbai. He’s also the co-chair of the Advisory Committee for the Google Podcasts creator program. Below, he shares his perspective on the state of podcasting in India, a place where, he writes, there’s a potential audience of hundreds of millions–even, thanks to the country’s large population, for topics considered niche.

If you’re a podcaster (or aspiring podcaster) eager to help grow podcasting in South Asia or in another region or community hungry for local audio content, consider applying for a spot in the next round of the program. Selected teams will receive intensive training, mentorship and funding to develop their shows.

Amit Doshi: When I lived in the US in the 1990s, I always loved talk radio: Howard Stern, Don Imus, Sports Radio, NPR — I was a fan of it all. In 1998, when I moved back to India, I realized we didn’t have that and I missed it — a lot. Even when podcasting started in the mid 2000s, we still had minimal amounts of Indian content being created. This seemed like an opportunity for me to do something I was sure I would enjoy, and to be the first person to work on this type of content in India at any kind of scale.

India is just rediscovering the pleasure of listening to conversations.

I am a big believer in the power of podcasting in a country like India, but there are several challenges that will need to be addressed before we get to unleash podcasting’s potential. Let me first set the table by providing some historical context:

History of Media

The advent of privately owned and operated electronic media is a relatively new phenomenon in India. We do have a long and vibrant history of print newspapers in this country. There are well over a 100,000 privately owned newspaper publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India. Online news has been slow to penetrate, although we are seeing a lot more acceleration now.

India’s first privately owned TV channels appeared in the 1990s. Prior to that, the only available option was the Indian government’s owned and operated Doordarshan channel.

Even Internet access initially launched as a government-owned monopoly, though this changed rapidly with faster connections and a variety of providers.

History of Radio

Before 1993 the government of India owned both the content and the radio channels. Then, in 1993, blocks of time started to be sold to various media houses and agencies–but still on government-operated frequencies.

The next big change took place in June 2001, when privately-owned FM stations were allowed to start operating, although not without some significant barriers, including:

  1. FM licenses are expensive, especially in big cities. In the latest auctions in 2017, the cost of a license in the three largest cities — Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore — cost between Rs. 1,500,000,000 and Rs. 1,800,000,000 (somewhere between $20 and $30 million USD). This means only large media houses can afford to participate.
  2. Operating costs are high. In addition to the one-time fee for a frequency, there are annual license fees, programming, transmission costs, and high salaries in the media generally.
  3. Originally produced news and current affairs content is not allowed. This limits the types of programming that’s possible and pushes stations to music as the only format capable of attracting audiences. Music is also much more expensive to program than talk (due mostly to licensing costs), further exacerbating operating costs.

Podcasting as the natural next step

Broadcasters who want to reach an audience see the limitations of radio as an opportunity for podcasting. Currently, I’d guess there are a couple hundred podcasts in the country, although most are not released regularly. A significant early challenge is getting people to learn what podcasts are; once we do, the potential audience is in the hundreds of millions, across all demographics. It will probably take a decade to get there, but I see the medium becoming almost as ubiquitous as YouTube.

The potential audience is in the hundreds of millions, across all demographics.

India is a complex country with a lot of issues that demand attention. Unfortunately, it’s been tough to find nuanced discussions around important subjects, especially where audiences might be more niche. Yet, in a country of 1.3 billion people, even a small niche podcast has the potential to find a sizable audience. India’s culture of discourse means opinions here matter. By their nature, conversations on television tend to be reduced to the most basic points. For complex issues, particularly around politics and culture, podcasting offers time and space for people to really talk.

Because India has a long tradition of oral storytelling, which translates naturally to podcasting, fiction is a particularly exciting step as well.

Why Now

While podcasting globally has had many “moments” in the past, this moment in India feels different to me, for several reasons:

  • At IVM, we have seen listener growth accelerate significantly in the last two quarters.
  • The number of projects we are working on for advertisers has accelerated dramatically in the last few months. The general interest in the space is much higher.
  • Major music platforms, both worldwide and India-specific, have started to figure out their podcasting strategies and see the potential value to be created.

India is just rediscovering the pleasure of listening to conversations. India is also a unique market, in terms of size, diversity, languages, demographics, income levels, attitudes around speech and conformity and so many other variables. I think this will lead to the creation of a distinctive podcasting culture, where the kind of content that works will be very different from what we are seeing in other parts of the world.

By providing much-needed funding and training, the Google Podcasts creator program is one opportunity to boost podcasting in India. I’m very excited to see applicants from India who are ready to be part of this transformative moment, and to see where we go from here.