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Audio content boom: The sound of success

Kuku FM was born in June 2018—much before the audio market in India began to gain momentum, unlike in the US, Europe, or China. The audio OTT explosion was also yet to happen then. Fast forward to March 2022. The audio streaming start-up announced that it has bagged $19.5 million from investors in a series B funding round. More recently, in June, its co-founder and CEO Lal Chand Bisu also said that the platform has now crossed 1 million active paid subscribers—accounting for 27x growth in 12 months.

From ‘India mein log pay nahi karte (in India, people don’t pay)’ to becoming one of India’s ‘biggest audio subscription platforms’, as per Bisu, it’s been an amazing journey for Kuku FM.

More remarkable is the focus the space is now getting in the country. Recently, the Government of India’s ‘Agnipath’ scheme created an uproar throughout the country—a major reason being the lack of information. During such a time, the message explaining the scheme had to be clearly delivered. So, a 9-minute, 32-second podcast was uploaded on the ‘mygov’ portal of the Centre as a part of its Samvaad series titled ‘All You Need to Know About Agnipath’ by Lt General Anil Puri. This was among the many podcasts on the portal uploaded by prominent personalities like boxer Nikhat Zareen, writer Ashwin Sanghi and writer-historian Vikram Sampath, among others.

In fact, the Indian government has been quite active on its podcast series in order to bring out motivational content and PM Narendra Modi’s messages.
When the central government itself is heavily invested in leveraging the popularity of the format, one knows that the audio renaissance has arrived, and is thriving through several mediums.

Yogesh Dashrath, country head – India of audiobook and e-book streaming services platform Storytel, explains that radio has been there for decades as an active entertainment medium. Now with audio streaming platforms, multitasking is possible, making it an ideal companion. “Today, people want to read but don’t have that kind of leisure time. Also, there are lots of people who want to catch up on recommended books but don’t have the patience to read; they listen. We also get subscribers who speak in their mother tongue. However, they have a tough time reading the language. For them, audiobooks come as a comfortable option,” he adds. Stockholm-based Storytel, which launched in India in 2017, also has over 7,00,000 titles on a global scale.

The numbers’ game
Like Kuku FM, several other audio OTT players are now seeing a growth, both in numbers and popularity. Some of them include Pocket FM, Storytel, Audible, Pratilipi FM, Khabri, Gaana and Headfone, among others.

According to management consulting firm RedSeer’s report titled ‘India’s Podcast Market—World’s Fastest-Growing with Immense Potential’, the Indian podcast market is ‘the largest in the world’. It said that of the total time spent by Indians on online entertainment, 1% accounted for podcasts. The report cites low data tariffs, freemium models, smart devices and diversified content as the reason for the audio OTT boom.

According to a study on ‘Audio OTT market size forecast in India FY 2021-2030’ by Statista released in 2021, the forecast size of the audio OTT market in India is expected to grow up to $1.1 billion in the next four years and up to $2.5 billion by the end of the financial year 2030.

Personalised audio streaming service Pocket FM, which was founded in 2018, too, has had a steep growth in term of numbers and currently has about 15 million monthly active listeners, with daily average user time spent of more than 100 minutes, three billion minutes of monthly audio streaming, and boasts investment of $93.5 million from investors like Naver, Goodwater Capital, Tanglin Venture Partners and others.

Ashu Behl, SVP – content, Pocket FM, says that the audio platform—which was founded by Rohan Nayak, Nishanth KS and Prateek Dixit—had a vision to redefine the OTT space with an audio-first approach and the inspiration came from long drives, repetitive and irrelevant music content and a group of YouTube creators who were putting audio dialogues with a thumbnail, generating millions of views by hacking a video-only platform. “While audio OTT is pegged at $1 billion by 2025, we believe the industry will multiply to be dominated by non-music audio entertainment, as we have seen in the video entertainment space.”

Those in the tier 2 & 3 cities, too, are open to experimenting with audio streaming platforms. Vikas Goyal, co-founder, Kuku FM says that earlier there was an inhibition that consumers, especially in tier 2 and 3 cities in India, would not pay for content but as they started monetising their content, they observed that as long as there is quality, people will pay. “Over the years, we have screened the content that did not work out and pushed the content that consumers liked,” he says.

The growing popularity has also brought in investor confidence in homegrown apps. In April this year, audio OTT platform Headfone—founded by Pratham Khandelwal and Yogesh Sharma—raised $10 million in series B funding led by venture capital firm Elevation Capital.

Indian online self-publishing and audiobook portal Pratilipi’s business head Ambesh Tiwari says audio streaming is one of the fastest growing segments in entertainment media in India. He says, “With the growing availability of content the consumption has gone up manifold. At Pratilipi, we are the home for some of the biggest stories across languages and using these stories we intend to scale up three vectors— the number of genres, quality of production and volume of stories.”

Shailesh Sawlani, VP and country GM, Audible India, says that when their audiobooks service was launched in India in 2018, they were looking at the vast opportunity for category creation. The audiences had not built a habit around listening to audiobooks or audio shows then. “During the pandemic, we saw listeners experiment with different genres while exploring Audible’s content library,” he adds.

While there has been a surge in the number of new players in the audio OTT market, the prominent players in the music streaming industry, too, are no longer exclusive to music but have expanded their business models to encompass the audio content in the form of podcasts and series.

Swedish media services and audio streaming platform Spotify, which introduced a diverse variety of podcasts from motivational to talks on sex and pleasure, plans to double its reach to 1 billion users by 2030. Meanwhile, in July this year, music and entertainment company Mirchi rolled out its mobile app Mirchi Plus. The new app would comprise podcasts, audio original series, entertainment news, Mirchi’s videos and more.

As a creator and host of popular podcast series The Ranveer Show on Spotify, Ranveer Allahbadia says, “The podcast industry has changed since we first started because more people are now actually aware of what a podcast is and everyone’s attention span has shrunk, people prefer short, concise, and to the point conversations more often than they prefer lengthy, free-flowing conversations.”

Content explosion
With newer platforms emerging on the scene, there has been a content explosion of sorts from different genres to various regional languages, making podcasts available to a larger audience across the country.

At Pocket FM, Ashu Behl says the fiction audio series is the largest category consisting of shows in the romance, mythology, drama, horror and suspense genres. He says that consumption in the second category is largely driven by non-fiction genres, which contribute to about 70% of consumption. ‘Informational podcast’ is the third category that attracts a unique set of audience with very defined content needs. While Hindi is the leading language, English and Tamil-Telugu-Malayalam-Kannada are shaping up strongly on the platform.

Broadening their customer base, Karen Appathurai Wiggins, vice president content, APAC, Audible, says that their two most popular genres are self-help and fiction. “In terms of regional content, currently, we are focused on excellent and high-production value Hindi programming at the moment and have a comprehensive library of Hindi language titles featuring some of India’s best voices such as Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and so on. We have hundreds of Tamil and Urdu audio books that customers can listen to, and we are looking at exploring more languages in the future,” she adds.

Digital audio platform Khabri, which picked up during the pandemic and is known for its educational videos in Hindi, has a large customer base in tier 2 and 3 cities who seek online guidance to prepare for competitive exams, shares Dushyantt Kohli, co-founder and COO, Khabri.

Pratilipi, which is strengthening its foothold in the Indian market, too, has stories spread across genres, says Ambesh Tiwari, its business head. “We also experimented with new genres like the celebrity audio blog with TV actor Sara Khan. We have also recently launched a segment called ‘Pratilipi courses’, which help our listeners gain knowledge and help them with personal growth,” he says, adding that they have only scratched the surface when it comes to the demand for audio stories.

No music to the ears
According to the FICCI-EY media and entertainment report 2022, the Indian music segment grew by 24% to Rs 1870 crore in 2021. Of this, 90% of the revenues were earned through digital means, mostly advertising-led, with three million paying subscribers. Indians spent an average of 21.9 hours per week listening to music, higher than the global average of 18.4 hours per week.

This clearly shows that music streaming, too, picked up during the pandemic. Yet, the audio streaming platforms are either reluctant or in no hurry to introduce music on their platforms as content finds popularity due to its diversity and language being no barriers anymore. Vikas Goyal of Kuku FM agrees that music has been the soul of audio platforms but in the past 2-3 years, audio content, too, has got recognition. Dashrath of Storytel says they want to stay focused on stories and create a hallmark in the world of great stories. Tiwari of Pratilipi says that currently they believe there is a lot to be done in just storytelling and hence they are focusing their energies in that direction. Kohli of Khabri says that they want to focus on their educational content for now.

Creator community
The content for the audio streaming platforms is either outsourced or produced in-house. Either way, it brings a plethora of opportunities for creators who want to contribute and even get monetised.

Behl of Pocket FM reveals that their audio shows are mostly powered by their 2,00,000 creator community, consisting of writers and voice actors. Writers can register themselves with Pocket Studio to explore the strength of its 15 million monthly active listeners.

For Audible, Wiggins says that they work with the best production houses, authors, talent and leading English and regional language publishers to create ‘Written for Audio’ content with wide appeal. To cater to the increase in demand for local and global content, they have partnered with publishers like Penguin Random House and HarperCollins, along with Indian publishers like Srishti Pub and Rupa Publications.

Pratilipi’s Tiwari says they are open to user generated content. “Currently, we work on three models—UGC, outsourced and in-house productions. Before any IP is monetised, we have a very clear understanding with the creator to ensure they monetise well on content,” he explains.

For Storytel’s ‘Storytel Original’ content, according to Dashrath, stories are created in-house—written and narrated by known authors as well as upcoming new talents and voice artists in the country. Goyal of Kuku FM says that they acquire content from various communities of creators—some contribute regularly, some exclusive and some on a revenue share basis and that content is licensed. They also promote user generated content with a small fraction of users to test the quality of content.

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