Retrospective on the Asian Podcasting Ecosystem 2021

Podcasting Aug 23, 2021

I was given the chance to answer a few questions about the Asian podcasting ecosystem lately. It was a standard deal, and the questions weren't that difficult. I guess I was in a good mood at the time, because at the end of a frantic freeform writing session I wrote over 2k+ words (!!) in 2 hours (!!!), which I can't help but get excited about!

Not to scare off the writer, I duplicated the notes, rewrote the version and handed it off to them, and now I'm left with these leftovers. Thought I should release them out there while I'm here.

Note: Both the points from there and from here are true and are what I believe in - I just don't want to have to write the whole article on behalf of somebody else, so might as well maintain my own sovereignty and post out more of the personal, stronger(?) opinions here on TTN.

The many facets of Asian podcasting

Rather than a single market with standard umbrella definitions we see in other markets, Asia's podcasting game has many different flavours as soon as you step into any of the countries.

From English-language podcasts earning thousands of dollars in the Philippines to the highest listenership rate for podcasts found in South Korea, to the ever-growing support of Spotify's podcast plans throughout India, we're seeing all sorts of angles into understanding the ecosystem.

It's the wild west (well...Wild East amirite), and people are shooting out plans without knowing if they got the kill.

It's been fascinating looking through all of it from multiple eyes: from the perspective of a podcaster through Podlovers Asia, interviewing all sorts of players here. Then, the Podcast Rainmaker, and now transitioning that to being part of the Renegade Radio team, on the search to collab and meet up with more and more people who are podcasting in this whole continent. I play 3 roles here:

  • The Creator, eager to get their voice heard by the world
  • The Freelancer, eager to get their career sustained by podcasting
  • The Founder, analysing the markets to build rebellious conversations.

It's exciting, but it's perplexing at the same time. All three roles depend on the answer to the following question:

How do you define a podcasting ecosystem?

Specifically, an Asian one.

Huh. Where do we even start. Which governments are supporting the medium the best? What's the level of accessibility needed for a podcaster to sustain their show? Is there a minimum critical mass of listeners needed to define a market? The questions are endless, there are limited answers, and my attention span is as solid as water.

My rough draft notes on defining a podcast ecosystem can be found here, if you're interested.

In the above, I talk about market-specific attributes: some Asian countries have the same features and observations, while others have unique ones to their culture. Below are some of the few common ones:

Asian Podcasting is starpower-based.

A notable percentage of Asian consumers are influenced by those with starpower (note: not limited to podcasting). We know them as celebrities, influencers, those whose reputation is their career. The Hollywoods and Bollywoods of the digital world stand as a pillar of their own in influencing a consumer to act a certain way. We're getting some Robert Cialdini's Influence vibes here.

Despite this, starpower is NOT the only factor that affects any growing podcast. It is one of the factors, yes, and it is a reflection of general audience behaviour within Asia, so we should respect that. But it shouldn't be the deciding factor.

There are advantages/disadvantages to this, so it's good to be informed. If you're a podcaster and starpower is your game, there are some things you should know:

Advantages

If you're on the rise and are gaining starpower, you will grow a core audience that won't care what medium you articulate your message in (notably coined [[Resonant Audience]] in my notes; I'll write about this core point another time). They will follow you to the end.

This then depends on the authenticity of the person in question (starpower being highly correlated to authenticity, another topic for another day, do remind me). A core audience harbors loyalty to everything that you do. In the realm of podcasts, your core audience will support you if you're starting a show, or are taking your show in a different direction as long as you are not betraying your own mission (and therefore still stay authentic regardless of medium/change).

Another great advantage is its ability to encourage organic marketing. The same core audience will become marketing ambassadors by nature, as they share your content to their immediate circle and introduce more listeners of similar attributes. This also bleeds into opportunities: companies who have vetted whether your listenership aligns with their consumer profiles will find your starpower attractive. You've done the work of collecting the audience, and now companies want to pay you for your reputation. It's a win-win agreement, and starpower is at the core of that relationship.

Disadvantages

If you have too much starpower, your core audience will have expectations of how you should sound like or what you should say. This can limit the level of creativity and topics you could be involved in. There is nothing more jarring than an up-and-coming makeup YouTuber suddenly diving into full-blown politics, right? That change, even if the figure has the right to do so, can repel the audience away. I call this [[Expectation Inflation]].

Also, relying too much on a celebrity's face and not on the production of the podcast in question can result in low-quality content that no one will resonate with. Podcasters are loyal and carry specific behaviours that make them want to subscribe to your show. They don't want to waste their time with low-quality content, even if it is their favourite celebrity. There are plenty of other shows and mediums out there in the world that won't betray their routine.

A pretty face won't make a great show.

One potential drawback (based on luck really), is that there'll be more eyes on you from broader institutional levels. Those with high starpower have to learn how to stabilise their reputation by censoring some parts of their personality to keep up a certain face. This is because those with the highest starpower are used as success stories, case studies and examples by institutions and entities with greater influence, and even financial incentive. Think brands with advertising budgets, figures in the public sector who have a say in the country's digital media, and children. Yes, even children! Youths may not directly have influencing power, but because of their circumstances and their sensitive nature (one 'negative influence to children' article can turn your reputation upside down), podcasters have to consider whether or not their content is appropriate for younger audiences: will this hinder their career or reputation? There is no right or answer to this, but the fact that it does become a problem at this scale means that it is a drawback for the famous.

Despite all of the above, I can't paint the picture of Asian podcasting to all be based on your Instagram follows and how many movies you've acted in. That's disrespectful to the format. There's bound to be better explanations of the podcasting industry here, right?

...right?

Oh. Where's the data?

We're barely surviving on fragmented data.

This is a challenge that the average podcaster here won't worry about. They only want three things:

  1. Where to get more listens
  2. Where to get more money
  3. Where to get more exposure

And this is fair. I highly support this. The problem is, those 3 points are based off ANOTHER 3 points, and this is where the problem lies:

  1. Listenership data and market size
  2. Podcast Economy - where's the money coming from?
  3. Accessibility of the medium, via infrastructure, law, and market-specific impression

It's all data. Data that we can't get unless we band together. We have a ton of fragmentation across multiple countries and markets. it's hard to find a list of Malaysian podcasters based in KL, Penang, Sarawak, and other cities/states. Even a list of podcasters in the entire country (though we are in the middle of aggregating that with our Facebook group).

There are plenty of communities that are popping up in multiple Asian countries, but the ability to centralise all the communications, guides, available shows in different languages(!), and support is hard. The cost of aggregating all of this is insane, and we're not even talking about money: the energy to attract everyone together is difficult enough. I don't mind putting in the work, but there is only so much one person can do. We'll have to start creating proximity circles of podcasters, or mini-groups that talk to each other about podcasting often.

From an analysis standpoint, technical data for podcast listenership is lacking. Imagine the Infinite Dial research initiative but for Asian countries, that would be a blessing. Companies as well as entities that want to dive into the Asian podcasting space (especially investors!) want to see hard numbers before they can commit. It's a challenge for independent podcasters as well as podcast networks based in Asia to showcase the potential of their respective podcast market. We don't have the equivalent of an Infinite Dial in Asia, (what would it be called? Mugen Dial? That would be so badass) and the cost of hiring a research entity can go upwards of 4-figures USD to initiate an analysis. If a core team of independent podcast analysts could compile that money together to share the data amongst each other that would be fantastic.

Even then, defining what numbers are considered enough for investment are difficult when our comparisons are stable markets like the US, UK, Australia. There needs to be some synergy between the analysts of the podcasting space in Asia as well as the community leaders of Asian podcasters, to create an ecosystem that can attract listens (and therefore business and investments).

One more thing to note is the awareness factor. We podcasters know about podcasting, of course, but what about institutions? Governments? Companies, schools, villages, and larger communities? The awareness of podcasting as a medium varies on multiple institutional levels and this variation depends on the country.

For example, in India there are plenty of large-scale players participating in the Indian podcasting space. Spotify, Amazon, JioSaavn - in a country of 1bil+ people of different languages, they are able to create a variety of podcasts to cater for different subcultures and genres. The rate at which the Indian podcasting market is reaching stabilisation is faster than other Asian countries (minus South Korea, which is already stable).

On the other hand, a majority of podcast listeners within Malaysia listen to their favourite shows on YouTube, a video platform. The perception of a 'podcast' is synonymous with YouTube shows here, which means more listeners are active than passive (consuming the content as a lone activity vs. audio-only while doing something else).

With the introduction of Spotify as an option to listen to podcasts however, the barrier to introducing new listeners (especially those who are younger, tech-savvy and are already accustomed to Spotify as part of their consuming patterns) is lowered, so it is easier to talk about podcasters with millennials.

My hope is that Asian podcasters unite, support each other, and be transparent about their numbers on a supporting platform, creating a pseudo-podcast economy that is attractive to everyone else within the region: listeners, institutions, businesses, investors, and the public sector. Strong, official collaborations between podcasters within countries and between regions are highly recommended, and these can be in the form of third party non-profit organisations to push for podcasting throughout the region.

The above is possible because of our cultural fluidity:

We thrive on multicultural loyalty.

Something truly unique about Asia is our inclusion of multiple cultures being the norm (yea that's right I went there).

The fascinating part about multiculturally ingrained values of communication is that the way we articulate things are broader than mono-linguistic cultures. We're more forgiving of conversations that use 2 or more languages at the same time for example.

It's a great example of creating content specifically for a local audience, which we want more of. The humanisation of a local audience is seen in the local content available to them, more so than shows from overseas. Some of the most surprising things I've learned are:

The loyalty of podcast listeners in different languages run deeper. When countries with multiple cultures, languages, and melting pots of people mix and mingle with each other, they create a foundation that is unique to that market respectively. Podcasters who respect this foundation and create a show catered specifically to this interaction earn the most loyal and engaging of listeners, more so than English listeners.

Non-English audiences are hungry for new content. Even if they aren't exposed to podcasting, if taught properly how to access the shows that they resonate with the most, they become loyal almost immediately. New listeners who don't speak English are then introduced to podcasting from their own language's perspective - this is important as it means other podcasters' ability to hijack their routines are lessened if they speak a different language. Plus, if done right, local-language podcasts that collaborate with each other will find it easier to capture their intended audience because of that commonality. This is a great example of the potential of podcasting: the potential is there, it's just that language barriers are that huge a factor when looking at Asia as a whole.

There is a rising demand for uniquely Asian narrative stories. There are cases of podcasts popping up where it is not just another conversational show between the host and guest, but a story. Not only a narrative, but a telling of something that can only be found in Asia that it immerses the listener completely, no matter where they are in the world. Podcasters from the US have reached out to me to ask if I have any podcast recommendations of stories like these, because their fascination over the concept of Asia, it's culture, history, and interactions with various peoples, has compelled them to want to listen to local shows here despite the cultural barriers. English-language listeners are willing to learn our stories through us! Isn't that amazing?

We have loyalty through different cultures, the hunger of a rising listenership, and the demand for uniquely Asian narratives. The next concern is sustainability:

Where's the money coming from?

Every podcasting market will have some form of brand movement into it as it is the nature of business to go where the audience (and therefore the money) is. Even moreso if it is for a long-term investment, eg. capturing the market as the audience grows to get the first-mover loyalty advantage.

Yes, it's the same for Asia: a number of factors have led to the growth of potential podcast listeners within each Asian country. This can range from technological access (esp. the introduction of KaiOS), the rising of the middle class, affordable tools for an independent podcaster, as well as case studies of successful podcasts as part of analysis. All of this is data, and enough data can affect the confidence levels of any brand interested in attracting audiences to their own domain.

As podcasting is a medium that promotes similar consumption behaviours to radio, however differ in delivery method and backend, any brand that can tap into an audience loyal to a single voice, a podcaster, who is synonymous with their mission will find that opportunity attractive. Hence the natural progression of established brands moving into the podcasting space. The number, quality, and the speed of brands diving into the podcast space within Asian markets differ greatly though, as you have these cultural, language and institutional barriers that may hinder their strategy.

No matter the medium, whether podcasts, YouTube, or blogs, if the audience is loyal, it is attractive to a brand. Podcast listeners are some of the most loyal audiences ever to any creator, and that is a goldmine for most brands.

The future of Asian podcasting is collaboration and transparency

I believe the future of podcasts in Malaysia is syndication under one Malaysian podcasters banner. To tackle all the above challenges, we'll need a large community to support both newbie and veteran podcasters, supported by an assortment of podcasting companies and businesses looking to tap into the community. Podcasters need support from fellow creators to collect their own unique audiences, collaborate for any overlaps, and be available for any opportunities that can help them sustain their relationship. Pair that with initiatives that can support a healthy podcasting landscape, and any market regardless of location and region can thrive.

Malaysia however, has a unique advantage: the variety of languages we speak here mean that the audiences we can attract expand easily throughout Asia. Tamil and Hindi podcasters in Malaysia can start attracting listeners from India, and Mandarin-Chinese podcasters here can pull in more from China, for example. Another point to note is that Malay audiences are very loyal to their influencers and content creators, so any up and coming Bahasa Malaysia podcast will find it a lot easier to attract listeners here.

This is an example of attributes unique to Asian countries as compared to others: our cultures are not monolithic. Because we have multiple cultures within each country, we cater to different languages, perspectives of the world, and therefore listener behaviours. Not all of the standard podcast marketing tips found in the US may work in Indonesia for example, and it may be harder to tap into the South Korean podcasting market as an international podcasting company unless you have a prior business relationship with a company there. The business practices, cultural tendencies, and market-specific attributes are unique to each country, and that requires further evaluation.

Clarity is key to sustainable podcasting

If there were greater collaborative efforts that are well-documented (like the ones below), then we have greater clarity. There is clarity in data, clarity in the number of activities surrounding podcasting, clarity in how confident we can be (as podcasters, companies, governments, listeners, etc.) in truly defining ‘podcasting in Asia’.

Clarity helps with predictions and deciding where the future of podcasting will go. It’s like investing into stocks: if you want to be more confident in deciding to invest in a company, you want to know all you can about what they’re doing good/bad, and where they’re heading. It’s the same here: by thinking about the future of podcasting in Asia, we’re essentially ‘investing’ into a future where podcasting in Asia is unique, possible, and distinct from other markets. That means sustainability, and sustainability requires clarity.

The thing is, we still don’t have a good definition of it yet (Asian podcasting). If we talk about US podcasting for example, we can immediately think of powerful flagship podcasts that are high-quality, consistent in their work ethic, and supported by a wide variety of patronage. In Asia, such cases are really uncommon.

The methods below help with clarity (syndication in Malaysia, zooming out -> connecting voices across countries in the region), because when it comes to answering the question: “How can the Asian podcasting ecosystem stay sustainable?”, it is easier to refer to a single source than many pockets of communities (the details can come in naturally later). There is uniqueness in many Asian countries, but the wrangling of all that data on every unique community requires a lot of effort to present to the world.

So if we want to define the market of any incoming medium, we have to go modular. We can’t blanket define what Asian podcasting is when it works differently in South Korea, Singapore, and China (and yes, all 3 work VERY differently, yet they’re pretty much Asian podcasting). So, modularity is the key here.

It is then easier to go modular and answer the question above through syndication/collaborative communities per country, as that can become the point of reference when want to ask what is the future of podcasting (insert country name in the blank). That way, we can have a lay of the land, find out what’s needed to improve podcasting here, and not try to work on the medium in our silos. From comparing with other podcasting markets, no market has worked well in silos. People do talk to each other often to help push the medium. We can’t discuss about the future of podcasting in Asia when we don’t know what we’re working with at the moment, and what is available to us.

Zooming out and connecting these voices across different countries: adding onto the uniqueness aspect of Asian podcasting, we also need to gain clarity on the differences between each country. This requires transparency, case studies, success, failures, and examples of what was tried and true for each country. The players in the podcasting ecosystem need guides on how to tackle podcasting in their respective region.

So we have a two-layer approach to the future of podcasting in Asia:

  • Intra-country Asian podcasting (syndication/collaboration/communities)
  • Inter-country (representative communities, translation, transparency, research houses, etc.)

All of these are necessary to define the future of Asian podcasting.

Transparent win-wins

A win-win situation, in my eyes, is this:

An open ecosystem with equal opportunity for the market to circulate within each of the actors. Podcasters, producers, networks, companies, investors and the like. By open, I mean transparent, well-documented tracks between entities who are doing well and those who are investing/injecting money into the ecosystem.

The BIGGEST win-win situation here is the reduction of cultural/language barriers as a factor of a podcaster’s success. Ideally, a non-English podcaster can gain the same level of success as English-language podcasters in terms of listenership, support, grants, networks, documentation, etc. and that they are not hindered by the limitations of their respective markets, language-specific market maturity, and access to resources.

I hope to see a future where these strategies are clear and open for any independent podcaster to tap into and gain the same opportunities as those with greater financial power, so we can maintain an open ecosystem. This means encouraging governance for podcasting as a medium, transparent podcast listenership data for every Asian country, and a healthy podcast economy that can promote podcasting as a sustainable career.

If it is possible in the US, it is also possible here - we only have to reach that stage through a unique Asian outlook paired with synchronicity between all actors within the Asian podcasting ecosystem. It's a challenging, but exciting venture, and I wish for everyone interested in podcasting to be aligned with that mission so we can arrive at this future.

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Norm

Norman Chella is the Podcast Rainmaker, Polymath in Progress and a very strange writer. His creative pen name is N.T. Cloever. You can find his words right here.

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