Is it really possible to grow a podcast as a business? How do you find listeners and earn revenues? Padma Priya, Co-Founder of Suno India shares her learnings.
As a child, if you have ever had a loving grandparent or parent tell you a story, you will remember the sheer joy of listening to one. Stories narrated by a human voice appeal to something deep within us, something instinctive that predates the written word by a time span of millennia.
Little wonder then, that in this digital age, we are recreating the charm and wisdom of such storytelling in the form of podcasts. I first began listening to podcasts two years ago, and they are now an unmissable part of my everyday routine. From politics and culture, to self-help and literature, or even true crime, there is a podcast for every listener’s tastes.
I also became deeply interested in the many fantastic podcast narrators and producers who bring us these stories. As the podcast medium for story-telling grows in India, I decided that it was the right time for this PodQueens series, where we interview some of the most interesting podcasters who happen to be women.
In each interview in this 6-part series, I will be talking to one or most podcasters, on a particular aspect of podcasting. The idea is also to create a kind of ‘wisdom bank’ for anyone in India who’d like to start a podcast today.
In this first interview, I talk to Padma Priya, Co-Founder & Lead of Suno India, a pioneering podcast platform in India, that describes itself as “a multilingual- multi-generational podcast platform solely dedicated to audio-stories on issues that matter.”
Suno India’s many podcasts are deeply reported, and often take up issues that don’t get much space in mainstream media. In this interview, we focused especially on building a podcast as a viable business, how ready the Indian audience is for such content, and how they have built a large audience on modest budgets.
Aparna: So Padma Priya, I realised that you started Suno India only in 2018, which isn’t really very old and already you’ve crossed the half a million listeners milestone. I was curious, how does a new listener typically discover your podcast, because I have read in some of your interviews that you have quite modest marketing budgets…so how have you built this audience?
Padmapriya: I think one of the things that has really worked for us is that we go into looking at our audience as a community. Each podcast caters to either a particular community or a potential member of that community. Take for e.g., ‘Dear Pari’ our launch podcast, which was on adoption. It stemmed from a very personal journey but the idea was for it to be a resource for parents or families who wish to adopt, are considering adoption, or are looking to navigate those conversations with friends or family. Typically, for most of our podcasts, we go in with that mindset – what are the gaps in terms of the information (and often the gaps are huge), and it is why we choose underreported sort of themes. That’s typically how we do it.
In terms of discovery, in the past one year, a lot of it has been through word of mouth. People also discover us through newspaper or web articles. We also have hosts who are very rooted in the community in itself. For example, our podcast on the history of Hyderabad, called ‘Beyond Charminar’ is hosted by Yunus Lasania, who has been researching the history of Hyderabad as a passion for years. He also does walking tours, and that’s how I discovered him on Instagram. So it is also him bringing in his community towards the podcast; they discover the podcast and then their other Hyderabadi friends discover it.
The usual social media marketing doesn’t really work for us and to be honest we haven’t had such great marketing budgets and we have not really gone that route. Also, with podcasting growing so rapidly in the country, now more and more people are like, let’s go checkout this podcast on this topic!
Being a platform, you produce your own shows but you also collaborate with other experts. The range of your shows is so diverse, and the founding team may or may not be expert in those fields. Given that, how do you really decide what subjects are relevant to the audience or whether they will reach a large enough audience?
I think again It’s a mix of things, Aparna…it’s not like we do focus group discussions, nothing as formal as that; but of course we do talk to people around us.
As you rightly pointed out, all three of us may not be experts in each of the subjects that we are choosing but I think we do know the right people who are experts in in those fields.
One thing you will see common across shows is that these are topics that are not really discussed in as much depth as they should be, whether it is tuberculosis or say, tech rights. We also look at communities that have been invisiblised by the society, like people with rare diseases. It’s an intersection of disability and other issues.
The common theme across our shows remains that we bring in underreported and under-narrated issues.
Do you ever set listenership goals? And conversely have you ever have to call off a podcast because you felt it didn’t do as well as you thought it would?
Very honestly, we don’t always start with listenership goals; we do have certain milestones though, but not like ‘only if it hits this much’. Since we do multiple seasons, where we feel like there is more to cover or there is a really good audience, we do try keep those podcasts going.
The only show that I called off was this show called ‘The Lost Child’. It was a very difficult conversation, a spin off from our adoption podcast. I had done a lot of research, I went to Muzaffarpur, Bihar, did a couple of interviews and even put together two episodes but then we had to call it off; but it was more because it was taking a mental toll on me. The lines were getting blurred for me as a mother and a journalist. I was not able to stay very objective with that story. Perhaps it is the only podcast we called off in that sense.
Many of these subjects require very in-depth research; for instance, I listened to the one on the long wait for children with special needs to be adopted, or even your recent one on different community stations. As media persons, we are constantly hearing that even 800 words is too long today or that if it’s a video, it has to be sixty seconds long.
Personally 20 minutes for a podcast doesn’t seem long to me but in general, given this received media wisdom on audience attention spans, how do you reconcile that with the interest in your podcasts?
When we were getting into this we were told, you have so much competition from video, from text and yes, we were told that you know, attention spans were low but honestly just looking at our listenership, and the kind of engagement we get for a lot of our podcasts, I do see that people are actually tuning in. It’s almost like, you tune in to tune out the other noise!
That’s a very different perspective…
Yes, so you are tuning in to tune out of the chaos and actually absorb and learn something new. That’s what happens for a podcast listener.
I had a friend who for the longest time was following the SSR case endlessly, and a few weeks later, she messaged me, “In all this SSR coverage, I didn’t realise how much I was missing out and I just caught up on some of your episodes on Suno India. You’re not screaming at each other. It is refreshing from the mainstream media.”
That’s exactly what we had set out to do. We say on our website, we are not here to tell people what is right or wrong, we just tell you what is happening around you and it is up to you what you make of it.
I understand the whole attention span thing, but I honestly feel like, maybe give it 4-5 years and podcast is on its way to becoming a larger medium; it may not be the same as TV or print which took years for it to build but it is definitely here to stay.
One of the big advantages is that it is literacy agnostic. You don’t need to be literate, you just need to listen and understand, and I think that’s helpful in general with audio. We are a voice first nation (as an example, one of my household helpers can’t type but she uses WhatsApp voice notes to talk to her son). So it’s just a matter of time before podcast catches up with what everyone is vying for – the next 500 million Indians coming on the internet and especially in Indian languages.
A related question – all this deep reporting comes at a cost whether it’s travel or your own time or other reporters’ time, or anything else. How do you see the economics of podcasts, especially when we hear newsrooms cutting down on reporting every day? Do you feel the audience is ready to pay for this?
I really hope they will be ready to pay for this. We have a few listeners who contribute to us, either with a onetime voluntary payment or even on a monthly basis. I honestly hope listeners will understand the kind of effort that goes into making a podcast; at least I can speak for Suno India and the time it takes, whether its research, fact checking, scripting, or recording.
One of the ways of generating revenue is through finding like-minded organisations who will support our work and you know, not try to control our agenda. We have been lucky and very grateful to have got this support – we are an IPMSF grantee*. They have had our back for the past few years now and we are quite confident that we will find the right mix of ways to generate revenue.
Apart from being a foundation grantee, I also read that you’ve raised angel funding from Shobu Yarlagadda, the Producer of Bahubali. Since equity investment typically brings in pressure to scale up and acquire users aggressively, how do you see that playing out for you with an investor now on board?
Mr. Shobu has been very generous and we are very grateful to have him on board as an angel investor. It happened because of him understanding our vision and our values, and the value of storytelling. I think that’s where the synergy has happened for us. We are hopeful that in the coming few years, you will also see Suno India branch out into other kinds of podcasts that I’m really keen to explore, for example audio drama or fiction with some contemporary messaging. So let’s see, it is an interesting collaboration and we are very happy to have him on board.
We will definitely grow, maybe not at the pace at which other companies with angel funding grow. We are not interested to just bloat up our size. I think that we are very clear about that.
One last question, Padma Priya – if you had to recommend to our readers some of your favourite podcasts (besides those on Suno India), one Indian and one non-Indian what would those be?
Alright, so non-Indian, definitely check out ‘Serial’; I think this is a must if you’re starting out in podcasts, serial is a fab fab podcast! It’s a true crime podcast.
In terms of Indian, definitely ‘Desi Bones And Stones’ a history palaeontology podcast by Anupama Chandrasekaran.
If you’re not yet a podcast listener, I hope this series encourages you to start listening! (And if you are, do add Suno India’s podcasts to your roster). You can listen to Suno India podcasts at any of the common podcast players such as Apple, Google, Spotify or Castbox and follow them at Facebook or Twitter.
*Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation
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