As the podcast producer, you get to decide how long your episodes should be. But if you’re aiming to make a better podcast, you should consider what your show’s potential listeners’ expectations, which are already set for everything else they do in a day.
The focus is on time and better podcasting this week, and today I’m digging into the hard question no one likes to answer:
How long should a podcast episode be?
I’ll answer that, but only from the perspective of making a better podcast. Seen in that light, what you’re doing right now doesn’t matter all that much. Nor does looking too closely at what popular episode lengths are right now in podcasting land. And nor does the advice from the podcast pundits who’d rather keep podcasting as it exists today.
I firmly believe that there is an answer to the question of how long — or perhaps, how short — the episodes of a better podcast should be. But to figure it out, we need to consider both sides of the value equation. These two parties consist of you and your listener(s).
How long can you keep your podcast’s episode interesting?
Most of the opinions you will hear from other podcasting pundits or podcast consultants are focused on you. “Do whatever you want, man! It’s a podcast! No one’s here to tell you what you can and can’t do, so it’s up to you! You do you!”
I don’t disagree with that. Unless your’re considering making podcasting better. Which we are.
Yes, you really are in control of the length of your episodes. But how long can you be interesting? How long can you hold a conversation — either between you and your listening avatar or you and your guest — and keep it interesting?
You don’t get bonus points for going longer than necessary. You’re trying to make a better podcast, so you should never strive to talk about something for as long as you can. The fact of the matter is that it’s really hard to talk about one thing for hours on end and be interesting.
And if you think you’re somehow immune to that fact, and that you are actually good at waxing poetic non-stop for more than an hour, see how many people stick around when you try to do so at a cocktail party.
All of us have a natural limit to the length of time we can be interesting and relevant on a given topic. Psychologists have long told us that people’s attention spans are short. To keep someone’s interest, we need to change things up quickly and frequently. That’s why television shows change camera angles every few seconds. It’s rare (and intentional) to see a long, single-camera angle shot for 15 minutes. Heck, it gets weird on TV to see the same angle for more than 15 seconds!
Psychology tells us we have about two minutes before somebody’s attention irreparably wanders away. So the better podcasts out there rarely have a segment — monologue or a guest’s answer to a question — that lasts longer than two minutes. Not the entire show, and not what you might consider a segment. But no more than two minutes before something else — a new voice, a transition, a new “something” — brings attention back to the audio.
(Nota bene: I guess that means that this podcast episode is about four times too long. But there are exceptions to every rule. Or maybe there’s a way to make my own podcast even better? Food for later thought.)
How long do listeners expect a podcast episode to be?
The more relevant side of the equation is, I believe, the potential listening audience. Not the actual listening audience. I think there’s only limited value in examining the length of current podcast episodes. It’s tempting to look at existing data, but the value is limited to current podcasts, not podcasts made better. Current data from the biggest podcasts seem to indicate people are happily (?) listening to two-hour episodes. Podcast media hosting companies will aggregate their data and tell us that the episodes that get downloaded the most across all shows tend to be over an hour long.
But that makes a giant error. That’s only examining the people listening to podcasts right now. And only counts episodes — many of them very, very long — that are available right now. That population only accounts for 1/4 or 1/3 of the potential population. And it fails to understand anything about the 2/3 or the 3/4 of the population people who don’t yet listen to podcasts on a regular basis. Many of these people think that podcasts have nothing for them. Quite a few think podcast episodes are too damned long.
Everyone has an expectation of low long everything we do should take. We expect our television programs to be either 30 minutes or an hour long. Movies should be two hours long. Songs are three minutes and five seconds long, and only 74 minutes of music will fit on a CD. (Remember CDs?)
And yes, you can easily point to exceptions to these rules. But there are always exceptions, and exceptions shouldn’t trump expectations unless you’re trying to make an artistic statement.
We all live with and reinforce time constraints in every aspect of our lives. When media producers break that “social contract”, it feels weird. Typically, “weird” isn’t a feeling we’re going for when trying to make a better podcast.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a crazy example. You know how long it will take you to do your grocery shopping. Not exactly to the second, but you know how much time to allocate from the time you get up out of your chair, drive to (I walk across the street) the store, spend time doing the actual shopping, get back home, and then put all the new items in the pantry or refrigerator. You — and everyone else — have as an expectation of how long that process will take. And you — we — get pissed when it that expectation isn’t met.
Imagine now that your grocery store magically expanded downwards, and the items you need are now spread out over three additional floors below the one you’ve shopped for years, the aisles packed with four times the number of brands and grocery items. Now your expectations are shot, and your simple shopping experience becomes an ordeal that feels a lot like a day-trip to IKEA. That’s not an experience you — or anyone would — enjoy. Simply because it was unexpected. They broke the social contract with you.
No, you don’t have to follow the very tight show clock the way radio does. But you do need to establish and stick to a consistent time for your episodes. Your potential audience, the 3/4 or the 2/3 of the population who aren’t yet listening to podcasts, have expectations of how long something — everything — should be. And if you exceed their expectation, you’re a problem.
This is about making podcasting better, and length certainly is a consideration as you work toward that goal.
So how long should your podcast’s episodes be?
If you’re still looking for a precise number, you probably haven’t done the work of critical listening to your own voice out loud to see how long you can stay interesting.
If you’re still looking for a precise number, you probably have no intention of following the advice of psychologists that tell you to break up content every two minutes.
If you’re still looking for a precise number, you probably haven’t thought about what expectations your avatar has in their mind about the other media they consume, and how much time they’ll allow to try out your show.
If you’re still looking for a precise number, you probably haven’t thought much about your ability to do those things on a regular basis or across multiple episodes to deliver a consistent experience.
20 minutes is fine. 40 minutes is OK, too. Five minutes is great. Even an hour-and-a-half can work. But if you can cover the same topic with the same impact in 40 minutes instead of 90, why waste time on either side of the value equation?
The answer is always as short as you can possibly make it, as long as it’s consistent. Episode after episode after episode. That’s the long and short of how to make a better podcast.
Since you got this far, how about mashing that 👏 button a few dozen times to let me know you dig the written-word version of my thoughts on these podcasting topics? I’d sure appreciate it!
This article started life as a podcast episode. The 205th episode of my four-times-a-week short-form podcast called, oddly enough, Podcast Pontifications. It’s a podcast for working podcasters that’s focused on trends in our growing industry and ideas on ways to make podcasting not just easier, but better. Yes, you should listen. Here’s an easy way: 👇
Evo Terra (hey, that’s me!) has been podcasting since 2004, is the author of Podcasting For Dummies and Expert Podcasting Practices for Dummies, and is the CEO and founder of Simpler Media Productions, a strategic podcast consultancy working with businesses, brands, and professional service providers all around the world.