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Data Conscious Listening

Earlier this year, when I was writing about the BBC World Service’s new podcast slate aimed at listeners in Africa, I was reminded of a factor in the growth of the medium that we don’t talk very much about in relation to the US or Europe anymore: the price of mobile data relative to income. For emerging podcast markets across Africa and Asia, this can matter a lot, so I figured it’s worth looking a bit more into the state of that factor and what options publishers have to account for it.

Let’s pause briefly at this point to acknowledge why the price of mobile data doesn’t exactly tell the whole story here. For instance: the most comprehensive global survey I could find shows that one of the priciest places in the world to use mobile internet on your phone is actually Canada, where on average one gigabyte (GB) of data will cost $12.55. The cheapest in the world is India, with an average per-GB cost of $0.09.

There are a lot of other metrics to take into account when looking at this. Broadband infrastructure is a major one, since it can determine whether people have access to reliable and regular WiFi, and so is GDP per capita. The World Bank shows that the GDP per capita in Canada in 2019 was $46,194.70, while in India in the same year it was $2,104.10. To understand how mobile data impacts the growth of podcasting, then, we need to think about spending on mobile data as a proportion of an overall household budget.

In regions of the world where lots of people have historically had to think carefully how they use their data, the audio picture is naturally different than in areas where streaming while away from WiFi can be done without a second thought. Podcasting in general grows more slowly in such places: for instance, the inaugural Infinite Dial report in South Africa in 2019 showed that podcast listening in the country was 19 per cent, less than half of the 50 per cent the US recorded on the same question in the same year. Smartphone ownership in South Africa is actually slightly higher than in the US, as it happens (88 to 83 per cent), another indicator that it is the connectivity that is the barrier beyond anything else.

India is a fascinating case study in this regard, since it has very recently transitioned away from high data prices and audio growth has gathered pace as a result. An expanding and highly competitive telecoms market has sent the cost of data there plummeting in the last few years to its current very low level. Even taking into account lower average wages, streaming is now much more popular, especially among those with long daily commutes. Spotify launched in India in February 2019, competing with homegrown platforms JioSaavn and Gaana, and has scooped up exclusive podcasts aimed at, among other audiences, Bollywood and cricket fans.

So what options are there for publishers who hope to build an audience in a place where listeners face data constraints? Well, the most effective is also the simplest: keeping episodes short and file sizes small. Kim Chakanetsa, host of weekly current affairs podcast The Comb, talked to me recently about how this had been an important factor for the team at BBC Africa when evolving the format for this recently launched show. Although they wanted to dive deeply into individual stories and do more reporting than might fit in a radio bulletin, they also felt it necessary to keep the episodes at 20 minutes or under.

Alternative or additional distribution systems can help too — there are some great examples of podcasts that distribute their audio files via the messaging app Whatsapp, which is a popular way of sending voice notes and can be set only to download when within range of WiFi. What’s Crap on WhatsApp? is a South African fact-checking podcast that combats the spread of misinformation on the platform with short monthly investigative updates that are available just by adding a phone number in the app. Bengali network Rebel Radio is also using Whatsapp to distribute their shows in India, having found that the ability to quickly forward an episode to friends is invaluable for growing an audience.

One option that I particularly like are “call-to-listen” services like Dial-a-Podcast or Bullhorn that assign your show a phone number which, when called, will play it down the phone line. Even in places where data is expensive phone plans will often offer unlimited or extremely cheap call minutes, which makes audio more accessible. There’s also been a resurgence of this technology being used for live events in the past few months, with churches also turning to dial in services during lockdown to broadcast services for those who don’t use or can’t afford video calls.

In short: it is worth publishers thinking about how much listeners might be paying for mobile data, especially when planning to launch or promote a show in a part of the world where streaming is still expensive. Folks in the US and Europe might be accustomed to thinking that the way we use our phones is the default for everybody, but even the most fleeting glimpse at the stats suggests that’s very far from being the case.