The insulated audio recording room at Famous Studios, Mahalaxmi, Mumbai, reverberates with laughter. Funnyman Cyrus Broacha is his inimitable self, making wisecracks as he chats with co-host Chhavi Sachdev and restaurateur Nikhil Merchant. As they discuss the beef ban, the changing food culture in the city, and even recent headline-grabbing events such as the Kenyan lawyer who offered livestock to Barack Obama in exchange for his daughter’s hand, Broacha quips: “That was so honest, and sexist. I kept thinking, where’s PETA now?”
The trio is recording Cyrus Says, a bi-weekly podcast that offers an irreverent take on current affairs and guest-specific topics — in this episode, Merchant’s culinary journey. Presented by Internet-based talk radio station Indus Vox, Cyrus Says went live in March and has put up 13 episodes since, on subjects ranging from the Maggi controversy, BJP’s one-year anniversary, and Housing.com founder and CEO Rahul Yadav, among others. Broacha, who also hosts a news spoof show on TV, grew up listening to American radio personality Howard Stern’s bold shows in the ’80s. “Even on TV, you can’t be yourself beyond a point and podcasts allow you to talk more freely,” he says. Agrees Jose Covaco, who hosts Kaanmasti, toilet humour podcast, with Suresh Menon. “Radio too has guidelines. But Kaanmasti gives us the freedom to present uncensored entertainment,” says Covaco.
A blend of the words iPod and broadcast, “podcast” was first used in 2004 at the peak of the iPod and MP3 player boom in the West for news or entertainment audio shows that could be streamed or downloaded on computers or mobile devices. While easy access and advanced technology steadily spurred its spread in the West, podcasting in India remained a niche segment. When Abhishek Kumar and Aditya Mhatre began Indicast, India’s longest running podcast in 2005, they often had to explain what a podcast meant. “Aditya, who was in the US then, and I began recording discussions and opinions on big news events after office hours,” says Kumar. They were up on iTunes a month later and are today nearing one million downloads.
The growing number of smartphones and users’ need to explore more quality content outside TV has increased the popularity of podcasts. “People here did not have a habit of listening to radio other than for music. But technology piqued their interest in exploring science, comedy, history and culture in newer formats. Since the podcast boom happened on the back of public radio, like in the case of BBC Radio 4, India held tremendous potential,” says Rajesh Tahil, co-founder of Audiomatic, a network of podcasts that began in April and has since attracted one lakh listeners. Amongst Audiomatic’s four shows are The Intersection, a narration of stories that fuse science with culture and history; The Real Food Podcast that traces the history behind India’s favourite foods; Ask Aakar Anything, a light-hearted Q&A with journalist Aakar Patel; and Our Last Week, a comedy show hosted by Anuvab Pal and Kunaal Roy Kapur.
A quick online search for Indian podcasts throws up several Cloud pages, such as Karma 101 and ChaiSuttaSkype, confirming their sudden traction. “To thrive, podcasts need to be crisp,” says Kumar. Podcasts’ success rides on quality content or personalities, as in the case of Cyrus Says or even Kaanmasti.
At its core, the charm of podcasting lies in storytelling. Before TV came to households, Indians were hooked to radio shows such as Hawa Mahal and Modi Ke Matwale Rahi. Today, podcasts aim to revive storytelling, using news or cultural themes as their base. “Audio content here has been very under served. One can listen to podcasts while commuting, doing chores or even while exercising,” says Amit Doshi, CEO of Indus Vox, that also hosts Tall Tales, India’s first storytelling podcast. Indus Vox plans to add news, business and music podcasts to its roster while Tahil says that even Audiomatic wants to expand his audience with shows in regional languages.