“You can think of Headfone as a YouTube for audio,” says Pratham Khandelwal, co-founder and CEO of the audio storytelling platform he launched with former colleague Yogesh Sharma after quitting his job at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters.
“Just like YouTube, you can create content on the Headfone app and distribute them as a channel or personal profile,” Khandelwal tells indianexpress.com, adding that initially, the company did experiment with formats like audiobooks and podcasts but soon realised that Indian users want to listen to audio dramas across genres. Although the premium segment might be interested in knowledge-based content, the masses are more into fictional stories, he elaborates. “We are focusing on the stories, but fictional stories that can be told in the audio drama format, or narrative storytelling.”
But Khandelwal, in his early 30s, is clear he does not want to be a production house; the same approach that differentiates YouTube from Netflix. “We at times do experiments with original content…but the broader vision is that we want to empower the creators so that we can have a diverse and scalable content repository for listeners to listen to that content.”
Graduates from the Indian Institute of Information Technology Allahabad (IIIT-A), both Khandelwal and Sharma had a common vision to create an audio platform that connects storytellers and listeners. For now, the audio content on the app is free, whether it be hosting, creating, listening or distributing. “We are doing some early experiments around monetisation but that would be more on listening to premium content,” he adds.
Khandelwal says 60 per cent of Headfone’s users come from tier-2 cities, 30 per cent from tier-1 cities and the remaining ones are from tier-3 and tier-4 cities. Though Khandelwal has no access to the hard data, his hunch is that users who are using his app are those who also use YouTube more than Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
Time spent on the Headfone app has significantly increased in the past few months and users now spend an average of 45 minutes on the app. But the focus is to retain users and hence Khandelwal says: “We are making our content repository very deep.” Previously you would find every kind of content on the Headfone app but now the strategy is to squarely focus on the audio content that can appeal to the masses in terms of marketing and our narrative.
To run a platform like this, Khandelwal says there is a need to experiment with the content. While content creators and storytellers are free to make their content, the three-person in-house team sets the tone that resonates with the users. In a way, this team helps the content creators decide what type of content should work on the platform.
“If people are interested in horror stories…we then try it out and discuss should we create a single episode horror story or a series and if we are creating a series then what should be the length of the episode and if the length of the episode we have finalised then what should be the language; if it is in Hindi, then it should be a proper Hindi or with a dialect like Bihari or Marwari,” he explains. The average length of an audio drama episode on the Headfone app is seven to ten minutes.
Since the user base that listens to the audio stories on the Headfone app prefers Hindi or their preferred mother tongue, Khandelwal is very much focused on increasing the content available on the app in vernacular languages. He says 25 per cent of the content you will find on the Headfone app is in English but just 2 per cent of users listens to that content. “I have found that most of the English language content creators, primarily from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, create content in a podcast format and that too in the knowledge segment which isn’t really what the mass market is looking to consume.”
The core demographics of Headfone audience are mostly young users. In fact, 60 to 70 per cent of users are below the age of 24 years and the major chunk of active users who listen to the audio content on the app fall in the 18 to 28 years bracket.
With the rise of Clubhouse and Discord, the popular audio platform for gamers, the conversation is around the uptake of audio and some even say this is the future of social media. “Audio is right in the middle of this spectrum, where the information is being pushed to your ears,” he says. “You can still apply your imaginative power or your brain to create characters,” perhaps the reason why Khandelwal is betting on the audio drama over audiobooks. “An audiobook gives very little information, exactly like the book; it’s like someone is reading a book for you.”
“But audio drama is very different; you can imagine the whole environment, the sound effects, and still you can be the hero, you can be the character in that whole movie,” he says, explaining why audio is a better format to consume intimate content over video.
The Headfone app has now been downloaded 6 million times on the Google Play Store, though that number is steadily growing Khandelwal feels that a lot of Android users aren’t aware of this app or any other platform that focuses on audio-only content. The app is missing on iOS for now, but the plan is to launch it in the future to get more users onboard.
While the Headfone app is pitched for its audio dramas, Khandelwal does have plans to add the elements of interactive audio to the platform, much like what Clubhouse has done. The company is in talks with comedians, influencers and even those story-tellers who made it big on the Headfone app. But the primary focus will be on increasing the depth in the audio drama category, mainly in Horror, thriller and suspense genres.
The Bangaluru-based startup, which has a 10 member team, plans to raise fresh capital in the coming months. For now, Khandelwal’s priority is to retain existing users and also how to improve the quality of the content on the platform so that they listen to the audio dramas regularly, or every second day.