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"I foresee emergence of Audio OTT soon"

Says Indrani Chakrabarti, ex-VP & Cluster Programming Head (East), Radio Mirchi, and the key brain behind 'Sunday Suspense', in an elaborate chat with TalkiBooki.

1. Do you think audiobook has future among new generation & why ?

Yes, it certainly has. Traditional audio books have been popular in the west for years now, and the platforms which have been hosting those audio formats are now available in India. And some of them are just about beginning to make their presence felt in regional languages as well. So there is a big big world of audio opening up – but mind you, this doesn’t mean only audio books (by which I mean, somebody is nicely reading out the book from start to finish), but audio drama, podcasts. Even if youngsters don’t immediately warm up to traditional audio books (you see, it depends on your basic interest in reading in the first place) – they do have an appetite for audio drama and podcasts, which is throwing up so many possibilities these days.

The world of audio was largely limited to radio and music, not much has been done in the content space otherwise. I think that world is just waiting to be explored! Give the youth something exciting to tune in and they will. Of course there is stiff competition from audio-visual content, which has really boomed in the last couple of years. Look at the kind of new age content that we are getting to see in the OTT space, why can’t we have similar innovation in audio?! The audience is there, we need audio producers who are excited and willing to experiment.

2. As a producer of AudioBook, how many hours of content have you produced so far ? Does it give any indication of growing popularity of audiobook as a content ?

That’s a tricky one. I never counted. Let me see, for Mirchi between 2009 and 2018 – I must have produced around 250 episodes of Sunday Suspense averaging at 45 min per episode. In the last two years for Audible – I have produced approximately 60 hours of Hindi content and for Storytel (which are traditional audio books) about 300 hours in the last one year.

To answer your second question, I certainly hope it does indicate a growing trend in the audio space.

3. What are the biggest hurdles or challenges, you have faced while producing a famous story into audiobook ? Talent-wise, do you think this city has potential or starved ?

I would like to clarify here – that I have not just been producing audiobooks per se, as per the classic definition of the format. I have been producing mainly dramatized audio books and audio dramas. Let me give you the distinction in brief: a book is read, with single or multiple narrators, and is dramatized with the help of sound effects and ambient music. That for me is a dramatized audio book, where the original text is left unaltered and read verbatim.

There are a number of writers who write simply, their scripts are vivid, visual, engaging and they lend themselves well to dramatization with music and good reading or acting skills. Since I have worked mostly with Bengali writers – let me give you examples of writers whose works are a delight to work with – Satyajit Ray, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Sukumar Ray, Premendra Mitra, Harinarayan Chattopadhyay, Hemendra Kumar Ray – writers who have written for young/ juvenile readers. So, the stories are generally easily comprehensible.

The challenge in working on such formats is actually choosing the right story! Then comes finding the right voice who will be able to capture the nuances of the text, also emote by reading between the lines and overall visualize the full text. Next comes sound designing, that is where the whole picture comes alive. Unless the sound designer is able to fully visualise the text, see pictures in his mind, he will not be able to do justice to the audio treatment. The sound designer has to have a cinematic understanding of the reading/ enactment. The idea is to create what on radio we describe as – creating the ‘theatre of the mind’.

For audio drama, which is based on a famous book – the first challenge is to get the audio adaptation right. The audio screenplay, as I call it. This year I have worked on a series of English classics, which have been adapted in Hindi. These are extremely popular books like Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And all of them have been reimagined in the contemporary setting. For me the challenge was to get the right writer, who is not just creative, but has excellent literary and dramatic sensibilities, is proficient in both English and Hindi, plus has sense of youth culture, their preferences. I was very fortunate to find all of the above in Vinay Sharma, who is the creative director of the noted Kolkata-based theatre group Padatik.

It gives me a different high to work on a completely original script. So after the script is ready, the challenge is to get the cast and the crew right. Since both audio acting and audio soundscaping are relatively new areas of expertise - finding the right talent is sometimes tricky. But in a couple of years from now, I think there will be many many young talents who would have emerged as fantastic audio talents.

The challenge is also to market/ promote the final product. This is where I think the platforms need to make a more concerted effort . I am not talking about individual and private players in the business, for whom investing in marketing could be a huge challenge. But for established players like Audible, Storytel, Spotify and others who have entered the Indian market – there has to be more attention paid to marketing. Otherwise how do you get the attention of the youngsters who have zillions of content options to choose from these days!

Regarding talent – the city certainly has talent, but they need to be mentored. And they have to be told about the exciting possibilities in audio. There is still lack of awareness especially among youngsters.

4. What are top 3 pointers you keep in mind before producing an audiobook ?

It has to be written for the ear (as opposed to being written for the eye). The story has to have a very dramatic/ engaging opening. The plotline has to be simple, so that the listeners don’t get caught in the complex maze of the twists and turns and they can follow the plotline quite easily.

5. According to you which works well for an audiobook - adaptation of the storyline in audiobook format or readout of the book as it is ?

For me, as I have explained earlier, both formats have worked. The trick lies in the overall presentation. Both formats can be extremely boring or very exciting depending on the content, the presentation, the treatment.

6. Someday, would you see an audiobook version to be published before the physical book is made available on stand ?

Yes, I see that as a definite possibility in the near future. What I am foreseeing (and I hope I am right) is the gradual emergence of Audio OTT, if you know what I mean. So a complete original script/ drama that garners popularity in audio and is then turned into a book. And perhaps then the book becomes a popular web series. What matters is the content, not really the format. If the content clicks, then there will be fluidity in formats and perhaps synergy among various platforms.

7. Someday, do you see famous author's story is published as 'Audiobook Only' format ?

Depends. If it is written for the ‘ear’ only and the writer has a valid reason for reaching out only to the listeners (not to readers at all).

Otherwise, I hope not. Because even if print readership declines, there will always be takers for books – whether it is in the e-book format or a paperback/ hardcover format. I, for instance, cannot choose one over the other. For the young generation, may be it could be the other way, their first love could be the audio book/ drama, which will hopefully encourage them to pick up the book.

8. Any recent audiobook that you have listened to & reccomend to the audience ?

Have started listening to Sandman Act II on, Virus 2062 on Spotify.

9. Specific memories before starting Sunday Suspense on-air ? Any specific learnings while producing Sunday Suspense ?

Sunday Suspense has given me the biggest highs in my broadcasting career. I am very grateful to my former management for giving me the opportunity to do it my way, for nearly a decade. There was least interference and complete trust in me and the team. Being in the space of popular entertainment, where the show is run by one of the biggest media conglomerates, such freedom is quite exceptional! Mir, Deep and Richard for me were God-send. Unless you get a good team, you cannot bring your dream to fruition. It was a cherry on the cake to get talents like Somak and Agni in due course. It was their all-round contribution, which has made SS a household name.

These days I am told, it was ahead of its time (at least the first few years) and it ushered in a paradigm shift in the world of audio content consumption. Of course, none of us were thinking all that when we were producing each episode…we just were putting our heart and soul into getting our story out there! The current team continues to that…kudos to them for sustaining it!

Learnings…well, one has to choose the right story and also be a little adventurous in experimenting with stories. Which means, you have to be a voracious reader as well. We needn’t always play to the gallery. A balance of aesthetics and popular taste is what we need. Even if you sustain your work for months/ years… are you making an impact?

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