Podcasting is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in India, with the internet finally flowing like the Ganga. I say this from my perch of being the host and producer of a long standing podcast called the Biker Radio Rodcast, a home grown motorcycling podcast celebrating our heroic riders, legendary mechanics and iconic builders through stories told by members of the community one legend at a time. The shocker here though is that I don’t ride; not anymore; well, not yet…
The last time I owned a motorcycle was when I was still dating my wife-to-be. Her expectations were pretty clear: we need to get a car after we get married. Now, I wasn’t going to blow my chances with the one girl who seemed to like me so the car arrived two days before our wedding - a cute Maruti Zen propitiously fitted with a CNG kit. But hey, we had a car alright! The cars have kept changing but I’m still to get back to motorcycling. I guess it’s just a matter of time.
I’m a hotelier by education but early in my career I realised I’d have to be on the other side of the desk if I wanted to have any fun! Long story short, I chose FM radio over being a hotelier and became a radio jockey on AIR FM New Delhi, hosting shows like Just For You, Livewire, The JK Tyre Matchless Music Hour and then some. Seven years later, I launched Red FM’s New Delhi station as head of programming. Thus began my journey of seriously schooling myself in understanding radio content, conversations, and listenership. It’s been well over two-and-a-half decades of flirting with radio albeit in a new avatar. Still crazy after all these ears ;)
But before I tell you my story, let’s wind the clock back to 2016 when telecom giant Jio decimated the price of data. With free internet as a carrot, now everyone wanted a smartphone and almost overnight, content consumption shifted from ‘appointment’ to ‘On Demand’. Audio content, which had already transitioned from analog to digital, now could shift from terrestrial to WiFi. The realization that the future of radio was online had already ignited the entrepreneur in me when I built a full service live streaming radio station for a mall in 2011. The internet in your phone was no longer a dream and I was excited about creating content. But for any tectonic shift, people needed to be trained. I had started evangelizing podcasting, a form of independent audio blogging that I had been dabbling in beginning Jan 2007 while I was COO Zee Radio. I realized then that, like YouTube, every kid could now set up their own garage radio station, one of my coveted childhood dreams. With that in mind, I began training aspiring podcasters. I soon understood, though, that all this talk about podcasts was happening in a vacuum and that perhaps producing one on my own might be the best example to set for people to build on.
While the primary mandate for radio has always been to ‘build community’ -- an agenda lost to most broadcasters in India -- it is a task that social media has clearly excelled at. I got down to basics and started my hunt for a community rather than for content. Let me explain: Most authors will sit down and write something, publish it and then hope to create a community around their content. Podcasts too had been using this stereotypical template, which I concluded needed rethinking. Occasionally, it strikes me that marrying a Punjabi has been a liberating experience. Among the many new things I have learnt is that when things don’t work, flip it on its head. As the Punjabis say, “putthe kar ke vekheen”! My light bulb moment came when I figured I could reverse the paradigm if I built content around a community rather than attempt to build a community around MY content. When you’re working for a radio station, creating content is everyday clay and so the content came easily; it was the format that would make the difference. Being a hotelier, I could have chosen food, travel, luxury or a dozen other topics that I am interested in. But I was looking for a community that was passionate to begin with. The motorcycling podcast brainwave came up as a chance idea during my first podcast workshop. The motorcycling community is passionate and exciting. They’re like family; people you can’t live with and people you certainly can’t live without! I shared my idea with a friend over a few beers; we had ignition, straightaway. As we went from person to person exploring the community, we realized the stories were begging to be told. All we had to do was record them. A few more beers and Biker Radio Rodcast was born. It’s a rather strange name for a podcast so allow me to explain: The ‘biker’ was a no brainer; ‘radio’ was debated but I knew that most listening was still associated more with radio than podcasts and so we left it in. That finally left us with the RODcast. ROD, in our minds, stands for Radio On Demand and although it would take a lot of explaining and fumbelina fumbalayas before anyone managed to mouth it, we thought it would be quite a talking point. The BBC seemed chuffed with the idea when we sent in our entry for the Radio Audio and Funding Awards in the UK (2018). Aspirants from all over the world participated where we made it to the finals and came in second overall. We also got accolades for inventing a new term – Radio On Demand in the field of audio. Biker Radio Rodcast had won India’s first Whickers Award.
Armed with our international award winning format and the conviction that we were on to something great, we dug our wheels in and revved up. A podcast might be the most minimalistic piece of content when you hear it but what goes into producing it is gruesome - tireless hours, days and weeks of editing, packaging, imaging, art work, publishing, troubleshooting, promotion and then some. The fact that the motorcycling community finds our work brilliant gives us great credibility. Our podcast makes heroes out of seemingly ordinary folk and that is where it is authentic and true to the core. While TV and radio stations are infamous for trouping in prima donnas on the odd World Motorcycle Day to pay customary obeisance to the community, auto journals are known to ‘review’ motorcycles with an invisible clutch cable controlling their ad sponsorships. I believed the motorcycling fraternity lacked a platform to celebrate the passion of its members and to speak for itself rather than be spoken to. The fraternity in India is a diverse coming together of young achievers, CEOs, business owners, salaried executives, corporate honchos, doctors, lawyers, bankers, hoteliers, rally racers, cricketers, mavericks, wannabes, wheeler dealers, actors, politicians and even Supreme Court judges. Motorcycling is also the preferred toy of the new 50-year-olds who can now finally afford to get back to the passion of their younger days. But each individual’s story is unique and invariably inspiring.
The interview section on our podcast is called “The Long Way Home” in the spirit of Ewen McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s motorcycling escapades around the world, and is garnished with an expert advisory called ‘Soundboard’, a personal report from a road trip called ‘MyWay’, and the occasional road safety audio meme called ‘horn please’.
Conversations with our guests are usually candid, explorative and reflective. Almost all of them have had breakthroughs and some have even got teary eyed recollecting their Long Way Home. The prep consists of the usual research on our guests from a combination of what is already available on the net along with tip offs from close friends, other riders. Add to that a couple of stock questions, like, ‘If you had the opportunity to pick any one person from history, imagination or contemporary times, who would you like to ride with and why?’ and ‘Which has been your favourite ride till now and is there a ride that’s on your bucket list?’
One of my favourite interviews was with Lalli Singh, a veteran who created the touring-India-on-motorcycles category popular with foreign visitors, who want to experience India raw and real. The 6-feet-something, soft spoken Sikh was sitting on a treasure trove of experiences and history and it was great to take in all that. Sometimes conversations can get intense and with the outpouring of memories occasionally comes revelations of insecurities and hidden pain. Lalli Singh spoke about his epic battle with alcoholism as a teenager, his loving grandmother and her faith in his enterprise, and his own remorseful relationship with his spiritual overdraft. Each precious story that he shared was a powerhouse for the seeker, the listener.
And then there’s my conversation with Harbinder Singh aka Bobbee -- India’s most celebrated Royal Enfield restorer. Intimidating, expressive, learned, he’s either loved or hated depending on who you’re talking to. It took us three years and three recording sessions to finally can our first trilogy episode that also coincided with Biker Radio Rodcast’s 75th milestone.
You are only as good as your guests. Almost all of ours have been very forthcoming and often suggest people whose stories and experiences are uplifting. Vijay Singh Ajairajpura is a great example. A youth icon of motorcycling and customization, of exotic Rajput–Zoroastrian descent, this immensely talented and handsome young man’s episode is still the most popular. We drove to Jaipur and hit the record button at noon finishing well into the evening before calling it a day around midnight. Editing down that much content to an hour requires the skills of both a butcher and a surgeon but the great Biker Radio Rodcast team worked their magic.
Indian women on motorcycles raise eyebrows both back home and abroad. Even the most progressive nations listen in disbelief when they discover that there is an entire tribe of women bikers in India. We too celebrate that with at least 1 in seven episodes featuring a woman rider.
With all our guests, our questions rise organically and our conversations are often a combination of candid facts, shocking revelations, hilarious cock and bull anecdotes, juicy gossips and stunningly honest insights.
I’ve learnt that the listener is interested in candid stories about success and failure and is attracted by a guest’s honesty and not really by how they might want to be perceived. In the age of 12-second attention spans our listeners have clocked over 12 billion seconds with each episode easily spilling well over the hour.
Our show’s anthem is a stunning ‘Ahir Bhairav’ alaap fused with the exhaust notes of a powerful rock outro. Always trying to improve on our packaging, we have recently started experimenting with Hindustani, Carnatic, folk and even street soundscapes as short interludes between stories to give the show a thematic underlay. With Lalli’s interview, we experimented with ‘Shabads’ and ‘baul’. All this has allowed us to also showcase lesser known musicians and budding artists.
It’s true that podcasts have been suffering from a lack of credible monetisation support. The design of the RODcast attempts to prop up the sagging P in podcasting to ensure that the listener, our presiding deity, gets non-ad pesky top quality content as well as a previously unheard of listening experience. Patrons get the highest ROI with a focused marketplace and this ensures that the production enterprise is sustainable as a business. A podcast can be a great entertaining experience, a potent marketplace as well as a self-sustaining business that supports the art of listening.
That’s what we are trying to do with the RODcast model. Biker Radio Rodcast continues to be boot strapped with me giving it eight days a week as a labour of my love. Thankfully, I have a wife who believes in my revved-up projects.
Real success is just around the curve and we’ll be there to take it even as we listen, connect and ride on.