Podcasts offer people knowledge, companionship, plus compassion. And companies want to tap in
By Ma Xiaowen  ·  2021-06-07  ·   Source: NO.23 JUNE 10, 2021
A teacher helps a student make an audio recording for a podcast in a primary school in Shangdu County, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on May 28 (XINHUA)
Wen Wen, a 28 year-old media worker in Beijing, always wears a pair of headphones during her daily commute. Most of the time, you'll find her listening to a podcast series titled Danliren Comedy, recommended to her by a friend, which presents skits from a bunch of young budding comedians.

During rush hour across China's metropolises, commuters like Wen are not uncommon on public transit.

Podcast frenzy 

A podcast is a program made available in digital format for automatic online download. It could be seen as the subspecies of an audio program, a new media product following old-school radio. The history of podcasts cannot be uncoupled from the history of Apple's iPod and the technology of Really Simple Syndication. Later on, the first podcast and podcast service provider emerged. Nowadays, audiences can listen to podcasts using a smartphone.

A typical podcast episode usually involves one or more hosts, joining each other and homing in on a specific topic. The topics usually cover industry insights, scientific research, life, entertainment, books, movies and music, depending on the hosts' field of choice. One episode can last from as little as 30 to as much as 90 minutes.

With unwavering popularity in the U.S. and Europe, podcasting is gaining momentum in China. Plenty of folks like Wen have become self-declared podcast addicts. According to Wen, podcasts are funny and offer her companionship along her journey.

Wen told Beijing Review that listening to podcasts has become part of her daily life. Unlike reading or watching videos, this activity is not a time-consuming feat. Living alone, she can listen to them in fragmented timeframes, for example, when cleaning, doing laundry, or just hanging out. Moreover, she gets to embrace an array of interesting stories and ideas in an otherwise somewhat "mundane" life.

Two years ago, Fang Zhou, a Beijing-based radio DJ, started the Music ONLY podcast with his friends active in the music industry in Beijing and Shanghai. In his eyes, the burgeoning independent podcasts have a lot to do with the COVID-19 lockdown.

"During the first months in 2020, people stayed at home due to the epidemic and had a lot of time to kill, therefore, many people started to listen to podcasts, even recording podcasts themselves," he told business portal Fang started Key Change in July 2020, where he selects the best of alternative music, and invites China's thriving indie musicians to talk about their musical inspirations.

According to Listen Notes, an online podcast search engine, podcasts in China reached up to 10,000 in April 2020. The number improved to 16,448 by late 2020. This upbeat pace is highly unlikely to slow down in 2021.

Another characteristic of the latest podcast frenzy is the entry of a number of journalists and media industry veterans. Established brands like Vistopia and Xin Shi Xiang had already joined in on the fun, and one of other new names in the realm is Sheng Dong Ji Xi, launched by a bunch of journalists based in the U.S. and first airing on November 26, 2016.

Their topics range from Harry Potter to U.S. Gen Z. An episode released on May 20 focused on ethics and opinions about how people conduct themselves in relationships in this era of social media. Dong Chenyu, a lecturer at the School of Journalism, Renmin University of China, joined in the conversation and shared his observations, which were subsequently echoed by many participants and listeners alike.

Shen Yifei, an associate professor of sociology at Fudan University, is also an old hand at podcasting. Aside from paid online courses on modern relationships, she is also a welcome guest on many podcasts. She chose to start her own program on Xiaoyuzhou, an emerging Chinese podcast platform launched in March 2020. 

Booming beat 

China is the world's largest online audio market in terms of user number. However, the penetration rate is far lower than that of the U.S., leaving much room for growth. According to Shanghai-based China Insights Consultancy, mobile online audio monthly active users (MAUs) accounted for 16.1 percent of China's total mobile Internet MAUs in 2020, compared to 47 percent in the U.S.

The total revenue of the online audio market grew from 1.6 billion yuan ($250.7 million) in 2016 to 13.1 billion yuan ($2.05 billion) in 2020, and is projected to further grow to 120 billion yuan ($18.8 billion) by 2025.

The primary means of audio monetization in China include membership subscription, on-demand pay, advertising, live-streaming and education services. 

The three main types of players in the country's online audio industry are content-focused, interaction-focused and comprehensive platforms. Among them, comprehensive platforms enjoy the most noteworthy expansion, thanks to their diversified content offerings and use case scenarios.

Currently, leading podcast apps on smartphones include Ximalaya, Qingting FM and Nasdaq-listed LIZHI, all emerging around 2013.

Ximalaya, founded in 2012, is the largest online audio platform in China. Its sound services cater to over 50 million users hailing from different age groups. The company filed its application for its initial public offering (IPO) to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in early May. According to its IPO prospectus, Ximalaya's MAUs surpassed 250 million in the first quarter of the year.

There were over 5.4 million active content creators on Ximalaya last year, with overall length of audio content ramping up to over 2 billion minutes. Nearly half of the company's revenue depends on paid subscriptions.

Ximalaya launched an individual podcast channel in February 2020. Nevertheless, more and more players are joining in the race. In June 2020, ByteDance, the operator of TikTok, released its own podcast app. Last September, Piting of Kuaishou, another leading Chinese short video aggregator, went online. The NetEase Cloud Music app, which many refer to as Chinese Spotify, has also added the feature podcast social networking.

Tencent's QQ Music app has been collaborating with Xiaoyuzhou, and Tencent Music Entertainment Group has revealed that it views "long-form audio content" as a strategic area for the company's development.

Flourishing independent podcasters and listeners in the emerging industry, too, are combining forces and forging communities. An event called PodFest China kicked off in Shanghai in 2019, the first of its kind in China, aiming to gather top podcasters, audio producers, content distributors and fans in a bid to create an active, resource-sharing network through a series of events and workshops.

However, as far as the podcast business goes, just how to make ends meet reminds unclear. LIZHI registered 82.2 million yuan ($12.87 million) in losses for 2020, remaining in the red for the fourth consecutive year. For Ximalaya, the paid subscription rate stands just around 5 percent. Hopefully, its listing on the New York Stock Exchange expected later this year would bring about some change and offer new insights into the market. BR

(Print Edition Title: Hear Me Out) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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