The viability of podcasts

May 17, 2020

The podcast audience may be limited in Pakistan but there’s potential for growth. During the lockdown, there’s time to explore new platforms covering pertinent and interesting issues

Every week, Khushbakht Shah and Maheen Shaikh, Karachi-based lawyers with experience in corporate matters and litigation, educate citizens about their rights through a health and legal awareness podcast, Adal and Sehat Project.

“So far, among legal issues, we have covered succession laws, family laws, and rape laws,” shares Khushbakht Shah. “For health issues, we have taken on board a set of specialists and dentists who speak on matters like mental health, child psychology and oral hygiene.”

Awareness campaigns are helpful amidst misconceptions and lack of adequate knowledge among the public. Talk shows on television, articles in newspapers and now videos and posts on social media apps are popular forums for public awareness messaging. Podcasts are a relatively new forum. In markets where podcasts are popular, one major reason is their compatibility with a fast-paced lifestyle. Globally, there are more than 900,000 podcasts to choose from. In the US, 22 percent of the population listens to at least one podcast every week. In the UK, 12.5 percent of about 7.1 million people listen to podcasts weekly, up 58 percent in the past two years. The Guardian has reported that even throughout lockdown, when other art forms closed or stopped producing, podcasts have continued to grow.

“It’s just like [tuning on the] radio. You can do other activities while listening to the content; you can read, you can drive and you can exercise. It is simply streaming of digital audio which users can listen online or download in their devices to hear later according to their convenience,” says Noreen Khan, a multimedia journalist currently in the US.

In simple terms, a podcast is an episodic series of digital audio or video files. Unlike radio, podcast in Pakistan is a new and underexplored terrain. The formats available at present are still in the process of evolution and experimentation.

However, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced people all over the world to self-isolate and practice social distancing, dependence on all forms of social media has increased rapidly. According to Bloomberg, Zoom calls are becoming increasingly popular. Netflix and Amazon’s share prices have remained relatively stable, in contrast with the sharp decline in those of most others in commodities market. Meetings and lessons are conducted online, events are being carried out virtually. With podcasts enabling interactive discussions, it seems that now may be the right time to expand this medium in the local market.

“All over the world podcasts are flourishing during Covid-19,” says Noreen Khan. “Big studio newscast is difficult to produce given social distancing. How long will streaming website satisfy the appetite given that all production is on hold? In this case, theatre, media companies will turn to audio, and the digital form of audio is the podcast.”

The Adal and Sehat project is optimistic about expansion. Currently, the content has been adapted to topics related to coronavirus.

“Because of the pandemic, we have been disseminating information regarding Covid-19 by speaking to doctors, and to lawyers about employment laws and domestic violence in light of the recent lay-offs and rise in abuse.”

But while the timing and situation may be opportune for podcasts to flourish in Pakistan, legal practitioners advise caution in trusting the medium to address important legal matters.

Lahore-based lawyer, Waiza Rafique, points out that online mediums like podcasts are good for general advice rather than one-to-one sessions.

“When it comes to legal advice, it cannot be based on a chunk of information that is provided online by the client in a one to two-minute conversation or a monologue, to put it appropriately,” she says.

Usually lawyers do not and cannot advise people unless they study the case thoroughly along with the relevant documents available on the record of the case. Online advice, however, can work well in certain areas of law such as tax law wherein most of the filing process has been shifted online in Pakistan already. Nonetheless, it is a welcome shift in terms of adapting to the technological advancements”.

Since the medium is audio-based, experts advise caution in using and disseminating information. However, such caution is to be exercised on all mediums, and it may not act as a hindrance, rather may help polish the quality of podcasts.

Dr Shayan Khalid, the ENT chief resident and a Head & Neck surgeon at Agha Khan University Hospital in Karachi agrees that as far as public service messaging and awareness related to public interest issues is concerned, podcasts have great potential that must be tapped.

“The more we speak about (different issues), the more the chances of spreading awareness.”

He recently recorded a podcast episode on gutka consumption and its harmful effects leading to oral cancer. “Consumption of gutka (chewing tobacco), paan (betel leaf), chalia (betel nut) is common among the youth. And the young primarily use social media for information. Since the target audience (to spread awareness about the harmful effects of gutka) is the youth, social media is the way to communicate,” he says.

While the podcast audience may still be limited in Pakistan, there is potential for growth. The Adal and Sehat project is an example of responsiveness and adaptability of the medium to a need for greater awareness of health issues and legal rights. However, podcasts can take on a variety of issues, ranging from those affecting young Pakistanis across the globe to exploring Pakistan’s heritage and culture, is slowly expanding. During the lockdown period, with more time to spend on social media and discover new platforms, the local audience might get to know podcasts better.


The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. She has a keen interest in and writes on issues related to women, religion, history and society. She can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus: The viability of podcasts