In 2018, India had just 50 million Internet users, most of them accessing it through desktops and browsers. Podcasting had not yet become popular, but Lal Chand Bisu saw an opportunity to reach millions of listeners through audio.
During the recent INMA South Asia News Media Summit, Bisu, the co-founder and CEO of the audio platform Kuku FM, explained how he launched and grew his company, which began with an awareness of the changing aspirational nature of India’s population.
A growing market
As the Internet brought the world closer together, young people recognised success wasn’t limited to careers like being a doctor, engineer, or government official.
“Now they’re talking about how they can become a YouTuber, how they can start their own small business, how they can upgrade their life,” he said.
Bisu and his team identified a growing market that wasn’t being addressed, then coupled that with a second insight: the amount of time people spent doing mundane things like commuting or performing repetitive tasks.
“There are 200, 300 million jobs that are very repetitive, and you can’t consume content on the screen during your job or doing these activities.” Audiences can, however, consume audio content, so with that in mind, Bisu launched Kuku FM. Focusing on the 1.3 billion Indians who don’t speak English, it provides premium audio such as books and podcasts.
“All the good books are in English. If you are Hindi speaker or Tamil speaker, you’ll rarely get that good book in your language,” he explained. “When we started talking to these users, we realised that there is high demand for this kind of content and they are even ready to pay for … good quality content.”
Reaching an aspirational audience
Kuku FM began creating premium content and chose a subscription-based approach to generate revenue. The key to monetisation is having good content from the beginning, which gives listeners a reason to sign up, Bisu said. For his company, it also required educating audiences about the ability to consume content via audio.
“For India, there is no culture to consume content in audio except music,” he said. “Music is the only content that you can consume in audio. There is no culture for podcast only.”
Bisu’s platform is changing that, offering more than 50,000 hours of premium audio in seven languages. It has five categories and more than 30 genres of audio, and subscribers who sign up for one reason will often explore other genres and topics, Bisu said.
The most popular areas are things like personal finance, parenting, history, biography, and motivational content. Only about 30% of the content consumed is entertainment related. That was a surprise, as they had assumed entertainment content would be popular.
Instead, about 90% of transactions are driven by non-entertainment usage, and audiences will discover things like a long-form soap opera that has more than 10,000 episodes.
“Because India is an aspirational country, everyone wants to grow and they are [willing] to pay for any content that can add value in their life,” he said. “That’s why all this content is working on Kuku FM.”
The rise of podcasting has coincided with Kuku FM’s growth. Bisu said commuters have been particularly eager to embrace the audio format.
“When we talked to users, they were actually feeling frustrated that they’re wasting time in their commute,” he said. “They’re frustrated, they don’t want to waste two hours in a commute. So now they consume content in that duration. They want to learn in that time because they want to do something good [with their time].”
Today, the platform has 2.7 million active users and is adding about 300,000 paying users each month. Comparatively, Netflix India has about six million subscribers and Prime has 18 to 20 million. It is in the top 10 audio platforms in India and has grown organically.
Next, the company will add more content verticals such as courses, education, and upskilling. It will also experiment with other monetisation models, such as a pay-per-piece option, and is looking to expand beyond India.
“Our first plan will be to cover the Indian diaspora,” Bisu said, noting that about 7% of the 2.7 million subscribers are located outside of India. “We haven’t done anything for them, so now we are planning to focus on these users and bring them to Kuku FM.
“I think there are 40 million users who are outside India and their paying capacity is much, much better than India.”