Podcast: Linking yesteryears' golden age of radio with the future

Podcasts have grown as a standalone storytelling medium in India. Radio can be limiting in that you need to find a broadcaster to air your story. With podcasting, you can air your own stories

Anurag Minus Verma
Anurag Minus Verma

Garima Sadhwani

The day after Anurag Minus Verma (Yes, that is what he calls himself) released an episode about caste on his podcast, a listener called him up and cried. Verma didn’t know him and they had never met. But the listener told him that the podcast helped him come to terms with his Dalit identity.

Over the years, some listeners have sent him videos of them enjoying his podcast while sitting in the mountains or listening to them with their loved ones nearby, or written how his podcasts had stimulated discussions. “I don’t record podcasts as an intellectual, I record them as someone who is trying to learn. Maybe that is what touches people,” he says.

Podcasts have grown as a standalone storytelling medium in India. The Hindu reported in January 2021 that “Spotify-owned Anchor added more than 25000 podcasts from India in 2020”. The report also informed that India is the third largest market for podcasts globally.

Devadas Rajaram, a New Media professor who teaches podcasting at the Asian College of Journalism, had been an avid listener of the radio since his childhood, but says his understanding of podcasting changed with American journalist Sarah Koenig’s 2014 podcast Serial. Serial’s success also inspired Toronto-based journalist Aparita Bhandari, who has two podcasts to her credit- Khabardaar and Darmiyaan. Her nearly two-decade career in radio had shown her the challenges the medium posed and prepared her to counter them as well.

“Radio can be limiting in that you need to find a broadcaster to air your story. With podcasting, so long as you can put together some form of audio narrative, and have some basic technical know-how, you can air your own stories,” she says.

Dev Kewlani, an engineering student who recently started his own podcast Loud and Anonymous, says “Podcasts have redefined the way we multitask.” Mannat Dhaliwal, a junior planner at WSP India, agrees. She listens to podcasts in the morning while brushing, having breakfast, when out for a walk or at night to help her sleep better. “Podcasts are great because they help you focus and it’s more convenient than watching a video,” she says.

Lawyer-turned-journalist Khadija Khan also listens to podcasts while doing activities that don’t require her to focus, like doing laundry or cleaning her room. Another binge-listener Rasleen Grover feels that podcasts provide relief to our eyes. Her fascination with podcasts made her start her own series called Honest Discussion with Rasleen.

Noopur Tiwari, founder of Smashboard, a non-profit digital platform that also produces podcasts, says, “After working for two decades in television, what I find amazing about podcasts is that the host doesn’t have to be seen! Not having to worry about your physical appearance seems like a luxury.” Podcasts, she says, have become a means for people to voice their concerns without the fear of being recognised. Tiwari’s organisation Smashboard produces podcasts centred around survivors of sexual violence, and feminist mental health, which are not subjects people are generally willing to be seen as discussing.

Podcasts became even more popular in the wake of the pandemic. Podcasts provided the human connection that the Covid-induced lockdown had deprived, says Verma.“This might be the reason why Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces are all the rage right now. Everyone from journalists to history buffs, from musicians to meditation enthusiasts and astrology-experts have formed their own groups and found an audience for themselves,” he adds.

What goes into the making of a perfect podcast though, you ask? Mae Mariyam Thomas, founder of Maed in India, which was one of India’s top podcasts on iTunes in 2018, has the answer for you. Have a fair idea of what you want to do, figure out your format, duration, guests, voiceovers, record in the best possible audio quality and edit. “Editing is your best friend,” she says.

Kewlani follows these rules and sayspre-production and careful scripting are his mantras. However, in stark contrast to what he preaches and (usually) practices, he feels his best produced episode was one he did not prepare for. It was an episode on productivity, he recalls. “It was four in the morning and I couldn’t sleep, so I just switched on my phone, started recording and delivered a five-minute monologue. That was my best episode,” he claims.

“Podcasting has its own aesthetics and conversations should flow organically, like you’re chatting with a friend, without any care,” quips Verma. Podcasts interest people only if the listener gains from it. If a listener is investing an hour and a half listening to you ramble, there is something or the other that they should learn or gain an insight or pick up about a lesser-known subject, he suggests as recipe for making podcasts interesting. Khan agrees. Her favourite podcast, 99% Invisible, talks about colours in a way that she never thought was possible.

When Khan had initially released her podcast Conversation with Kakes, a lot of times she was just screaming into the void. While on visual storytelling platforms like YouTube, people can like, comment and share your work, there’s no such mechanism for podcasting apps yet. “Unless a person specifically messages you, you’re in the dark about how you’re actually doing,” she says.

Though a new medium, podcasting finds close relations with our history of storytelling. Thomas says, “Oral storytelling goes back in time and crosses the lines of class, education, age, gender and geography.” For Verma too, podcasting has the nostalgia of listening to bedtime stories from his nani and dadi. “Voice has an important role to play in our lives,” he asserts.

Not surprisingly, podcasting often reminds people of the golden era of the Radio. Rajalakshmi, an 84-year-old homemaker reminisces about how she learnt Hindi while listening to Kishore Kumar’s songs on the radio, after she moved to Jamshedpur from Tamil Nadu. Now, YouTube has replaced the radio for her, but she says, “given a chance, I would like to go back in time and listen to music on the radio and not on YouTube.”

Thomas feels that much more can be achieved in terms of different formats, diverse voices, sound design and subject matters in podcasts. But what’s even more interesting for her is to see how local stories find and traverse their way into this world. She exclaims “Podcasts are to the radio what Netflix is to broadcast television.” There’s a lot, they insist, that still remains to be explored.

Rajaram also feels to monetise podcasts, people need to move on from merely recording a conversation to using immersive elements like ambience sounds in their podcasts. He’s eagerly waiting to explore what Augmented Reality (AR) has to offer to audio storytelling.

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