Podcasts vs audiobooks

Spotify India has launched its first campaign (by Leo Burnett India) to promote podcasts. This is a significant departure for the brand that was previously known for music, though this is fully understandable given the investment the platform is making towards building podcasts as a content stream.

Interestingly, the positioning for podcasts makes it simply seem like the on-demand equivalent of radio – the tasks showcased in the ads used to be done while we listened to the radio, but now Spotify wants us to move from radio to podcasts. In fact, one of the podcasts showcased is Neelesh Mishra’s Yaadon ka Idiot Box, which was a radio show launched by BIG FM 92.7!

As someone who loves audio content, but not podcasts, I do have a perspective to add. To make it clearer: I do not listen to podcasts (with very rare exceptions) but I’m a HUGE consumer of audiobooks. In fact, I may have bought only a handful of printed books in the past decade – almost all my book consumption is in the form of audiobooks.

Let me start with our radio listening behavior. How did we listen to the radio?

It started with appointment listening. There were specific programs we wanted to listen to. There was no TV back then. We sat in front of the radio and listened to the designated programs. I vividly recall listening to Tamil comedy plays by S.Ve.Shekar whole growing up in Srirangam, on the radio. His plays like Kaattula Mazhai or Mahabharathathil Mangaatha were radio-exclusives for me (which I later went to see live as stage-plays, when he and his drama troupe visited Trichy) and we even recorded the episodes on our cassette player so that we could listen to them later, on-demand!

Then, we got our first television set – a Solidaire TV. And life was never the same after that. Radio became background noise, something that needs to keep playing in the background to alleviate the sense of loneliness as we perform other tasks, occasionally interesting us in something that caught our attention.

Before the pandemic decimated work commute, the single-most common complaint about radio by people who drive to work was the number of ads that interjected the songs/talk. Yet, we put up with that, not because we enjoyed the ads, but because we had resigned to fact that such was the way of the radio (at least FM radio).

Now, just look at the ads by Spotify India promoting podcasts. The narrative almost makes podcasts as the new radio, something to be played while we performed other tasks in our everyday life. So, listen while you drive, listen while you walk, listen while you do chores at home, and so on.

The difference, of course, is that, unlike radio, podcasts are on-demand – you choose what you want to listen to when you want it. You pause and continue on demand. And there are no ads (if you are a premium subscriber, of course).

But besides those differences, podcasts are similar to radio in one way – you cannot predict that you’d like what you listen to on both.

Podcasts are like blogs, to make it easier to understand. You subscribe (or start listening to) based on the host or the theme. And you hope that each episode would engage you based purely on the assumption that the host or theme would make it so, episode after episode. But, like blogs (or magazine/newspaper columns by specific authors/writers), not all episodes/pieces may satisfy or engage you.

A very simple analogy from my own blog – I write every single weekday in this blog. Not all get the same kind of clicks or readership. Some do very well, some don’t. But since my focus is exclusively on airing my point of view, I do not care about the ‘doing well’ part.

But, as a consumer of podcasts, you would want to ensure that your time is well spent. That could have a material impact on how you perform your everyday chore or task. Unlike music, which you could get away by playing it in the background without necessarily focusing on it, spoken content requires active to quasi-passive engagement with your mind. This is the reason why you see the disclaimer in the Spotify ad that features a woman who talks about listening to podcasts while driving.

Also, one of the ad films refers to astrological predictions as podcast content. This was the domain of printed content, earlier. Then it moved to radio, and finally to TV, and eventually to on-demand video on digital platforms.

So, spoken content podcasts are like TV programs in that sense – if they do not engage you, you may switch to something else that could engage you better. Spotify may be hoping that the number of podcasts they host could help you pick something worth your attention and time.

That brings me to audiobooks.

The print-equivalent of podcasts is possibly a weekly magazine/newspaper column by a particular columnist. You read her column every week – some of them may appeal to you, some may not. But you still read.

The print-equivalent of audiobooks is simply the books. How do you decide to buy a book? You read reviews. You get it referred from people you know. You read about the book. You like the author and buy her book instinctively and hope that like the previous book, this one from the same author would work for you too. But, by and large, you have a better possibility to research and indulge in a book, than podcasts. It’s like deciding on a movie to watch in the theater.

But, a weekly column in print also allows you to skim. You may read the first paragraph that sets the context and decide whether you want to continue spending your time and attention or not. For instance, I do this every week with Santhosh Desai’s weekly column in The Times of India, called City City Bang Bang. Some of the topics he picks to opine on interest me, some don’t. For those that don’t, I don’t go beyond the first 1-2 paragraph.

Skimming is not entirely possible on podcasts. Of course, you could fast-forward podcasts to see if there is something you like, but those bits and pieces of spoken words don’t make much sense like you skim a printed paragraph.

Because skimming is not possible, and because I’m supposed to buy into a host or the theme alone to decide on a podcast, they do not work for me, just like some of the columns of Santhosh do not work for me. From Santhosh’s perspective, he could argue that it may not work for me, but it could, for thousands of others. But as a consumer, I need to look only at my time and attention. It is limited and very precious to me.

As a podcast consumer, it seems like a hit or miss, episode after episode. But when I decide on a book after enough reviews and research, it works significantly better. Of course, some audiobooks (or even printed books, like movies) may still not satisfy us, but that is a different problem altogether. The larger point is that I seem to be a bit more in control of my experience with audiobooks, but not so much with podcasts.

The other part is about continuity in audiobooks. I have mentioned this in the past too in this blog – I used to listen to audiobooks while jogging, and ‘Wonder what is going to happen today?’ was a great motivation to start running! I particularly remember running extra kilometers while listening to Gone Girl, completely immersed in the mystery.

The one kind of podcast that matches with this is stories. One of the few podcasts that I listen to includes LeVar Burton Reads where he reads out short fiction stories!

The narrative used in Spotify India’s campaign for podcasts would work perfectly for Amazon’s Audible – in fact, from my point of view, they work better, because all the people seem immersed in the audio content. That immersion is a bit more predictable and consistent with audiobooks than podcasts, from my experience.

But, I fully understand that this is my personal experience. People listen to podcasts the way they read blogs, and they are ok with not getting the most satisfactory episode often because they have bought into the host or the channel already (some amount of post-purchase rationalization involved?).

In our house, I introduced podcasts to my daughter, and she loves to listen to them on her Alexa (linked to Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Amazon Music). Some of the podcasts she loves include Circle Round, What If World, Stories Podcast, Brains On! Science Podcast for kids, among others. These offer a way for her to go into another world without a digital screen, using only her imagination.



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