#VoicesOfIndia- Going impromptu with Saif from The Musafir Stories

Harshita Jain
Apr 20, 2019 · 11 min read

Saif, a businessman whose love for travel is taking him places, sitting behind a mic and a laptop, shares his podcasting journey and more.

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Run as a “passion project” by Bangalore-based Saif Omar and his wife Faiza Khan, The Musafir Stories features a diverse range of storytellers .. from long-time bloggers to adventurers … out there to enjoy a place they love. The idea for the podcast was inspired by the desire to passively travel with these explorers, while also learning some pro-tricks to travel.

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On their second anniversary special, Saif and Faiza hosted Shivya Nath, one of the most popular travel bloggers in India

In this interview, Saif talks about his podcasting journey, the challenges faced, the podcasting industry and more. Excerpts from the interview-

So, Saif, your latest episode is about Bodh Gaya. What’s one new thing that you learned in that episode?

For starters, I didn’t know that Prince Siddhartha was from Nepal. His kingdom Kapilavastu, where he is from, belongs to the modern day Nepal. Also, getting to know how the Mahabodhi Temple was rediscovered from ruins and that the Bodhi tree we see today is a sapling of the original Bodhi Vrishka was quite fascinating. We also discussed the teachings of Buddhism. We didn’t go very deep into them but discussed the idea of how people tend to think that the world is too complicated, and things like that.

That’s great. You started this podcast with the idea to passively travel with others. Isn’t it? Curious to know, what do you think the podcast has done for your wanderlust?

I’ve been an avid podcast listener and one of my favorite genres has been travel podcasts. You see, podcasts have that innate quality that they’re more intimate and personal than video-based content. While listening to podcasts, you’re relating with someone just through their voice and painting a picture of that person, and of what they’re talking about, thus triggering your imagination.

With travel podcasts, this gets amplified a lot because you’re trying to take away the experiences and the description that the traveler is painting for you. You take that away and try to create your own image of what that place might be, making you curious to actually see what the place looks like. This happened with me when I started listening to Amateur Traveler back in 2009; it always took me on so many vicarious journeys.

And India is so diverse in terms of travel experiences, from mountains to beaches and dunes to forests, it isn’t a homogenous land mass. So I thought it’d be great if I could replicate those experiences for Indian destinations. Finding there was nothing in terms of Indian content in this genre, I decided to launch my own show.

What are some places that you’ve loved traveling to passively, through podcasts?

I’d say Northeast, it has been a gold mine in terms of the things we’ve uncovered and discovered by speaking to people. To be fair, Northeast is slowly getting mainstream but still, it isn’t as extensively explored as other destinations, so in that way, it’s been a big revelation.

In fact, many times I discover something new and wonderful even about places I’ve been to, giving me a different perspective. Every traveler might have a different experience than others at the same place, making you wonder how much a place has to offer. So, I have had both experiences- traveling to a place passively and looking back to a place I’ve been to from a different perspective.

When we look at the coverage around podcasts, we see that Musafir Stories is pretty much everywhere. Can you tell us how do you manage this? Also, can you share some advice for other podcasters on press outreach?

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From the article, “All You Need Is Radio Ga Ga” on Outlook India

I feel one of the factors is that we’ve been in the podcasting space for a little bit longer than others. We jumped on to the bandwagon when others were still discovering the space.

Other than that, what I’d say is that try and be relevant. As an Indie podcaster, if you aren’t showcasing your work more, you’ll easily get trampled as these bigger names, networks, and media houses get into this space. Of course, it is upon the listeners to take it or leave it depending upon their interests, but it is up to you as a creator to do your best. I’m not suggesting to go full out and have a marketing budget, and all of that- I know how difficult that is. But at the end of the day, you have to try and be as innovative as you can, work on outreach, be active on social media.

After a certain point, it is also about luck in the sense of being at the right place at the right time. But again, to be lucky, you also have to grab every opportunity that comes your way and WORK.

Also, being consistent is extremely important. You can showcase your work to the world the right way, only if you’re fairly consistent in producing your work. Don’t expect people to come looking for content and finding yours. That might happen eventually, but that shouldn’t be the only way out. Always put in that extra bit of effort that helps people find you.

Never limit yourself to one medium. Stay active not just in the podcasting community but also in a space where you can connect with listeners, where they look for recommendations on what content to consume. Don’t blindly recommend and talk about your podcast, lead them in the right direction. As a way of giving back, they might just check out your podcast or talk about yours in their network.

Basically, you can’t figure out what works and what doesn’t unless you go an extra mile and try it out for yourself!

What do you think are the most important skills a podcaster can have?

As a podcaster, I do not have any background in media, journalism or even public speaking, for that matter. In fact, I’m one of the biggest introverts out there, I promise! But podcasting has definitely helped me get out of my shell and talk to more people.

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What I’d suggest for anybody who is starting out is the following-

One, try and focus on the content. At the very core, what you’re doing is putting out content and that’s what your podcast revolves around.

And two, be consistent. I really can’t stress how important consistency is.

For me, these two things are what I measure myself against. If I’m top-notch with my content and if I’m consistent, other things become secondary.

We all know we’ve to constantly work on our speech, delivery, the way we interact, and things like that. But at the heart of it, the quality of content and consistency should be the first priority. Things like production value, marketing, outreach, and so on will eventually fall into place if you focus on these two Cs.

The Musafir Stories still hasn’t reached the point where if we miss out on one episode, there are a hundred people tweeting about it. But that’s not what we worry about it! For us, it is about commitment and about providing the best content we can.

From your interviews with women travelers, do you get the impression that it is unsafe or comparatively more challenging for women to travel alone?

To be honest, when it comes to traveling, men and women face similar challenges. I don’t see anything that should stop women from exploring and traveling. It really boils down to how conscious one is about his/ her surroundings, how well-planned and careful one is.

In fact, on The Musafir Stories podcast, more than fifty percent of the guests we’ve hosted are women travelers. That in itself speaks volumes about how it isn’t really unsafe for women to solo-travel. Even in the blogging and travel-writing space for travelers, there’s a good chance that there’s either a 50–50 split between the two genders or that there are more women travelers. So from what I’ve seen, women have been traveling a lot, both professionally or otherwise.

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I understand that there’s a genuine concern about the idea of solo-traveling for women, but if you plan well and take the right steps, you’re good to go! Keep in mind the basics- not venturing out at a secluded place after dark, not walking around with your headphones plugged in unaware of the surroundings, and so on. I’d also take this opportunity to give a shout-out to those women who’re going the extra mile and battling the perception, the taboo against solo-traveling. They really are doing a great job!

What are your plans going ahead with The Musafir Stories podcast?

We don’t have any major changes in mind for the days to come. A Hindi sister podcast, however, is something we’d been wanting to work upon for quite some time.

The issue is that both Faiza and I aren’t native Hindi speakers and so our conversational Hindi isn’t good enough for a podcast. We might work with a new co-host who’s well-versed with Hindi. You see, this might turn out to be a big change because it is basically equivalent to taking down the existing format and trying something absolutely new.

Apart from that, we always have certain incremental changes coming up.

At present, we are experimenting with field recording and sound effects. We are trying to add ambient sounds in order to offer a better audio experience than just a conversation.

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That is to say, for instance, if a traveler is talking about snow melting, then we’d add sounds that make you feel that. We strongly feel that this can lead the listeners in a better direction in terms of passively traveling and will trigger their imagination immensely.

Do you have any recommendations for somebody starting an interview-based podcast?

I think it is always good to have an angle for the interview or to know the flow of the interview. As a host, one of your most important duties is to ask questions and manage the flow of the interview in a way that’s relevant to your podcast.

Now, that might not always happen but you must keep in mind that taking an interview isn’t the same as having a conversation.

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While taking an interview, you’re speaking less than twenty percent of the time, and you really are just guiding the conversation in a direction that would interest your audience. Sometimes these conversations might become open-ended, so I’d recommend prepping up the guest during the on-boarding process as to what is it that you’re going to talk about.

This is not to say that your conversations shouldn’t have curveballs at all, I mean they do add an element of surprise which can turn out to be good. But you must have some control over the majority of the process.

There’s been a lot of talk about monetization of podcasts in India. What’s your take on that, with respect to The Musafir Stories.

Unfortunately, I am not the right person to talk about this. The sole reason for this is that The Musafir Stories was started as a passion project and it has been the same throughout the journey. We always perceived it to be a medium through which we can talk about something we’re deeply interested in, so monetization was something we never focused upon.

I mean if somebody’s willing to play ads or give us money for doing this, we’d be happy and not we won’t turn them away! But talking about monetization, I’m a bit old school about that, I’d rather ads pay for that. I’d not want our listeners to have to shell out money for listening to us.

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You see, there’s the thing about walled gardens nowadays where everybody wants exclusive content. But I see podcasts as a free medium. In fact, the reason why I’m a podcaster is that podcasts are a democratic medium- anybody can start a podcast, it allows people to have a voice and to have opinions. You don’t have to have skills in journalism or belong to any big media house to create content as a podcaster. That’s the beauty of this medium.

I understand that the creator needs to be compensated in some way. However, this system really turns out to be a hindrance for you to be available everywhere. Your listeners cannot have four to five different platforms to listen to the content, it just messes up with the system a little bit. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I am just not one of the proponents of this walled garden model for monetization. Especially in India where people are still discovering podcasts as a medium, if you bring in this system, it’d just shut them out.

Maybe a platform like Patreon could help, or a system of user donations and contributions. Again, I’m not talking about monthly donations or whatever. Even if people are making one time contributions of sorts, I’d be happier to accept that than forcing my listener to pay to have access to the content.

So basically, I’m into a model of voluntary contributions. If listeners feel that we’re adding value and if they feel that our effort and time are worth their money, they’re free to contribute and we’d love to accept.

Let’s round up the conversation with a few podcasts that you’d want to recommend to our readers.

Sure, so I recently finished listening to The Dropout which is a podcast that revolves around the story of Elizabeth Holmes in the US who set out to revolutionize healthcare, and how things go awry with her. I’d highly recommend it to people interested in white collar crimes.

And about the Indian podcasts, I think Suno India is doing a brilliant job in terms of the kind of issues they deal with. Also projects like The Passion People Podcast by Naga, Writer and Geek Show are fabulous and ones that I follow on a regular basis. Then there’s Indian Noir where Nikesh Murali is taking production value and storytelling to another level!

I’d highly recommend these podcasts.

You can follow The Musafir Stories here, on Twitter and tune in here.

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