#VoicesOfIndia — Digging Deep with Padma and Rakesh

Rakesh Kamal, an environmentalist, and a consultant and Padma Priya, an independent journalist- two of the co-founders of Suno India, talk about ‘issues that matter’, their podcasting journey and more.

Suno India is a podcast platform for issues that matter — issues that impact individuals at large.

Rakesh, Padma, and Tarun came together to start Suno India with a simple idea — to use the power of storytelling and talk about issues that matter.

Padma Priya, Rakesh Kamal, and Tarun Nirwan — Founding team of Suno India

Started last year, they are now hosting six shows on issues like adoption, current affairs, rare diseases, and voter awareness.

In this interview, Padma and Rakesh talk about their inspiration to create such a platform, the issues they are tackling, the milestones they have achieved, the challenges they faced and more.

Excerpts from the interview-

We see that both of you have a background in journalism and development sectors. Why did such a career appeal to you? And, how did podcasting happen?

Padma:- Talking about my career in journalism, I worked for The Hindu for two years after I graduated from Asian College of Journalism. For my next stint, I worked with the US Consulate in Hyderabad for about two years, again.

Throughout my ten to eleven years of career, I have switched between journalism and media management, and have also been in strategic communications roles.

My last gig was with Doctors Without Borders which lasted for almost four years. This was one of my best work experiences- job satisfaction was really immense and it required a multitude of skills- from writing and research to working with some of the best journalists.

There have been bits in my career where I worked as a freelance journalist. That gave me more freedom to explore a range of topics which I couldn’t, working full-time with a newspaper.

So, last year I decided to switch back to journalism but as an independent journalist. During this time, we worked on the idea of Suno India- we wanted to give audio-journalism a shot. This is how the confluence happened between journalism and podcasting.

Source- The Hindu

Rakesh:- I was a radio jockey for a year while doing my Masters in the US.

I had a show called the Green Indian Show where I played Indian music and talked about environmental issues, community events and things like that. It has been ten years since this gig and the thought of doing a podcast show had been there ever since.

Finally, everything fell in place and we started out.

Tarun brought in the technology aspect of it & is the one who is enabling our storytelling looks great online. He also helps a lot behind-the-scenes in terms of brainstorming and ways to maximize our reach online.

Why did you choose narrative-storytelling as a format for most of your shows with Suno India?

Padma- When we decided to do Dear Pari, we had different ideas on how to go about the podcast. We tried to do a podcast featuring conversations between me and Rakesh but it sounded very forced and artificial. We didn’t want a conventional interview-based show.

Also, around the same time, I attended a digital storytelling workshop. We had a very brief session on podcasting and one of the formats presented was narrative storytelling. So, when we were building the story arc for Dear Pari, as in the themes we want to cover, we decided to give this format a shot.

Frankly, it feels like a really good format to use because it helps to take the audience on a journey and it gives you the scope to use the most impactful bits from the interview. Thinking from the perspective of a listener, we felt that hour-long interviews are not always as compelling and impactful. We tried a couple of podcasts in these formats, ran it through our friends who weren’t into podcasting and this felt better to them too.

Rakesh- I feel that Priya being a journalist and an editor, it really helps a lot. This is because she can figure out what is the interesting element and what’s not, what to keep out, how to edit and keep the content short, chucking out the repetitive content. These are some bits where a lot of podcasters do not do a great job and this is especially important in the narrative storytelling format.

Suno India is a platform for raising a voice on issues that matter. How did you end up picking up the issues that you want to talk about?

Padma- When we launched Suno India, we had a set of themes that we felt were under-reported which could come out well in an audio format. We were very clear that we only want to deal with issues that really matter, basically social issues.

This, I believe stems from the fact that all three of us who founded Suno India have worked in NGOs and have had a developmental background. I personally felt that there’s so much to write and talk about with respect to these issues but we often get distracted. So, essentially this was the entire idea of Suno India- to create a platform for issues that really matter.

In terms of selecting the kind of shows we have, Dear Pari was inspired both by our personal journey and the need to have real conversations about adoption. You see, people who adopt kids often get to hear others talk about what a noble deed have they done, and that how great they are or you see people pity adopted kids. So either there’s severe sympathy or exalting appreciation- there’s no middle ground. We felt that adoption as an issue needs to be dealt with in a way more serious fashion. If you listen to Dear Pari, you’ll see that we not only talk about the jolly of adopting a kid but also the good, bad, ugly of it- child trafficking and things like that.

With regards to our second show which is ‘Every Vote Matters’ with Factly, we wanted to build on voter awareness and simplify the electoral process for listeners. This is because we noticed that there’s a lot of voter apathy amongst us- the well-educated English-speaking folk, especially urban Indians. There has to be this constant push from the Election Commission for people to just go and sign up to become voters and to vote. We wanted a show that would make people realize why this vote really matters- the history of how the voting process came on, the struggles, what a model code of conduct means, women representation and things like that.

Listen to Every Vote Matters on Storiyoh

We have another show called ‘1 in 20000’ which happens to be India’s first show on rare diseases. That idea came from the host herself, Avantika, who suffers a rare disease and felt the need to have conversations about diseases we don’t know about. When she reached out to us, we really liked the idea and decided to do this together. We’re really happy to have her on board and with the overwhelming response, this show has received.

Talking about our Telugu podcast ‘Eshwari Stories’, the inspiration for that was to create contemporary and education stories for kids in vernacular language. So, this podcast features our contemporary take on environmental issues. For instance, we have a show where a fish talks about how excessive usage of plastic is affecting sea life.

The Suno India show is a weekly show to cover the news cycle where I have conversations with people who are part of that news or have covered the news, basically people who can offer a deeper analysis of the issue. This show again is doing pretty well.

Listen to the Suno India Show on Storiyoh

The other two shows are also election shows that we’ve launched- one is the Election Nama (Hindi/ Urdu) with Wire, a collaboration we’re very excited about.

The other is the Tamil podcast Thaeruthal along with the Curry Podcast. This was launched because Tamil Nadu is going to face one of its most historic elections this year with two of their big leaders being passed away- Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. The state is basically an open game right now, so we see the show as a very interesting medium to have interesting conversations around Tamil Nadu politics.

This covers the length and breadth of our shows. Essentially, you see, we cover current affairs but also have series that provide a deep dive into subjects.

On World Tuberculosis Day, we announced another podcast, ‘Gasping for Breath’ which is India’s first podcast on TB which will be led by a senior health journalist, Menaka Rao. India has one of the highest numbers of TB patients in the world and the Indian Government has a very ambitious deadline to eliminate TB, which is by 2025. Frankly, I don’t see that happening given the present conditions. What inspired this podcast is that I’ve worked in public health and TB space and I feel the need for more compelling content on these issues to be out there, and we are very excited to have Menaka on board for this.

Those are quite a lot of shows. How do you go about controlling and managing all of them on a day-to-day basis?

Padma- With the podcasts that we create with partners, we have a sort of agreement as to these are the topics and this is what we want to cover.

Factly, for Every Vote Matters, supports us with content, identifying resource people and reaching out to them. The recording and production bit is with us.

For Election Nama with The Wire, we have a plan that this is the number of podcasts we can bring out, these are the topics we want to cover and this should be the show flow. Election Nama is with a senior journalist, Mahtab Alam who scripts his own shows- and we support with brainstorming, production, and distribution.

Again, with Curry Podcast, we have a similar arrangement. So there we help with planning, editorial support, identifying resource people among other things. Naveen Haldorai himself hosts, scripts and produces the show.

For other shows, we have an outline that’s made in collaboration with the host. So before we get into recording, we discuss and brainstorm to come up with the topics we want to feature, people we can reach out to, questions we can cover, and so on.

For instance, for Gasping for Breath, we have created an outline as to what we want to talk about and the kind of people we have to reach out to, with a focus on survivors and patients and ground reporting.

So essentially, we make an agreement in terms of the outline and then we help them out as much as we can in terms of recording, resources, scripting, and other areas. We make sure to keep an eye on the quality of content and editorially.

How do you budget and finance a new show?

Padma- In terms of financing strategy, we are still exploring and pitching to different places. As of now, we are self-funded.

For the ones that we do in collaboration, we have cost-sharing agreements. As much as we can, we try to figure out a way to support podcasts by independent creators or hosts on-board with artwork, getting the music, editing, production cost, hosting cost.

Basically, we cover all the major costs involved in creating a podcast. We do have a Patreon account through which we get a small amount, that supports us to some extent.

We do hope, in a few months, to put out a call asking listeners to start supporting us.

You maintain an active blog along with your podcast. As a content creator, how do you approach a blog differently from a podcast?

Padma- I think it is slightly different and slightly the same.

Having some sort of writing experience helps in terms of formulating thoughts and that bit helps both in blogging and podcasting. You have to pen down your thoughts, you have to pen-down what is it that your reader wants to read or listener wants to listen.

So personally, for me, I feel the approach is pretty similar. But when I’m actually sitting down and scripting, then it perhaps changes a bit. In fact, I learned it the hard way- my initial drafts of Dear Pari contained words that I won’t use when I’m talking.

So, that’s where the difference lies- when you’re writing a script for a podcast, you got to do in a way that you’re talking to somebody and keep it basic and more colloquial. However, when you’re writing, you can sneak in some jargon and complicated words.

What do you think are some important skills for a podcaster?

Padma- I’m not sure if many would agree with me on this but I believe that scripting is the foremost skill for a podcaster to have.

I’ve been improving upon my own script-writing skills and I hope I’m better in the future podcasts.The other skill to have, I’d say, is the ability to ask questions.Voice modulation is another skill which comes very handy, and again something I’ve been working upon myself.

Can you tell us how your podcasting journey has been so far? What do you see as milestones along this journey, and what are some challenges you faced?

Padma- In terms of podcasting journey, it’s been a whirlwind I’d say. When we started off, I wasn’t thinking that six months down the line we’d be doing seven shows. That’s been a really exhilarating experience, I must say. The fact that I can now not stop talking about podcasts is no fun for people around me, haha!

Padma appeared on a panel for World Radio Day in Delhi, earlier in 2019

Talking about challenges, the funding part has been quite stressful. I’d really love to work with some great people out there and start more shows but the only thing that’s stopping me is the resource limitation. Hopefully, in the next few months, we’d figure out a way to deal with that curb also.

You see, a lot of us who’ve started their podcasting journey in 2017–18 are still among the early starters. I know that it will take all of us some time to reach a volume that is required to attract marketers and advertisers. So, I wouldn’t call it a challenge but little teething problems that exist.

Podcasting isn’t a full-time job, at present, and we really hope it soon reaches the stage where we can sustain as full-time podcasters.

What advice do you have for somebody who wishes to start a narrative-storytelling podcast?

Rakesh- Do your scripting, and get to planning! Go for online courses, YouTube videos, free storytelling workshops just so that you understand the basics of it and then build on them with a lot of practice.

Padma- I think it really depends on the kind of topic one chooses. Not everyone needs to go for something which involves a lot of research.

What I think is really important is figuring out what is impactful.

So, for instance, you interview a guest for your podcast. When you listen to the recording for your script, you should be able to figure what is it that can be narrated impactfully to the audience, what bits stand out, what is going to stay with the audience and things like that.

This usually comes with practice. You must always keep in mind that you aren’t creating the podcast for yourself, but rather for your listeners.

How are you going about promoting Suno India’s podcasts? What mediums are working the best for you?

Padma- In terms of promotions, what made Dear Pari stand out was definitely the artwork we used. Every episode has different artwork, we sort of added a visual element to the audio without converting it into a video. We have actually got listeners who just saw the artwork and felt inspired to check out the podcast, eventually getting hooked to it.

Rakesh- Talking about mediums, Facebook offers a limited engagement because its algorithm works that way. Only if it is something really important, we pay some amount to boost the post and see how that works out.

But Twitter offers a fairly good engagement. That is how we’re going about it, you see, trying to exploit as many mediums as we can and spread the message to everyone who’d be interested.

Do you think recording podcast videos and using YouTube as a medium to publish them can help get more listeners?

Rakesh- We do have a YouTube channel and have thought about making videos in the form of a live recording of the podcast or Headliner videos for YouTube.

But you see, to try out so many mediums, you need to have the bandwidth, the time that goes into producing the content.

What we do is that we use these mediums but in a limited capacity, keeping our focus on podcasts. That is to say, we do have a YouTube channel where we post Headliner videos but it isn’t very active. So these are short videos followed by a link to our podcast/ website, thus helping generate traffic on our website.

What podcasts would you recommend to our readers?

Padma- So my favorite podcast, at present, is Desi Stones and Bones. I also really enjoy listening to Musafir Stories- it has become my way to fulfill my wandering spirit. Apart from that, I like tuning in to the Newslaundry Hafta.

In the news space, I also listen to the New York Times Daily.

True-crime podcasts are another of my favorites, and in that space, I’m hooked to Criminal these days after having binge-listened to Dirty John.

Rakesh- I listen to a lot of US podcasts and HowSound is my favorite. It is a podcast on different audio stories and what makes those stories really interesting, so I’d highly recommend it to all podcasters out there.

Among Indian podcasts, Indian Express’s Three Things is the daily show that I listen to because it is short and crisp. Another one that I really enjoy is In The Field.

Caliphate is also one of my all-time favorites and one I’d highly recommend.


You can follow Suno India here, on Twitter and tune into their podcasts on Storiyoh and all other major platforms.