Why the brand-safe nature of podcasting is perfect for trustworthy, unfiltered conversations
“How long should my podcast be?” It’s one of podcasting’s eternally asked questions — and for good reason. It’s totally justifiable to ponder, and definitely worth considering when launching a podcast or evaluating your show’s strengths and weaknesses as an established creator.
Many people will cite commute time or a listener’s general attention span when considering this question, but is there anything the data can tell us?
If you take the average of the previous five episodes of Acast’s top 100 podcasts, based on weekly downloads in the past 90 days, the average length of a podcast is 38 minutes and 10 seconds (or, at least, it was on November 1).
There are 13 comedy podcasts in this top 100 list, and their average length was 55 minutes and 33 seconds, while the 22 news and politics shows come in at 28 minutes and 1 second. That’s a big difference.
The challenge with data like this is that a comedy podcast could be a sketch show or a surreal monologue, and a news and politics podcast could be an investigative documentary or a daily briefing. What’s more, a daily show is more likely to make it into our top 100 due to the sheer amount of content they’re putting out in comparison to a weekly podcast.
While these stats are interesting food for thought and confirm certain assumptions — that comedy podcasts are frequently longform conversations, and that news and politics are not — there’s not a huge amount to glean from this information, and it’s definitely not something to reform your podcast around.
So, if the answer to our question is “it depends”, how do you decide on how long your podcast should be? To help find the answer, I put this question to some of the finest content creators in the podcasting world. Here’s what they had to say.
Tash Walker, producer and host of the British Podcast Award-winning The Log Books — a podcast exploring untold stories from Britain’s queer history — spoke about the fluctuation in duration of episodes from season to season.
“Throughout our years of making The Log Books podcast, our thoughts on episode length have greatly changed. For seasons two and three, we threw the time restriction out the window and were led by the stories we were telling — it feels hard to restrict stories around those who have been lost to HIV to 30 minutes.
“And in our latest season when retelling the horrors of the Soho Nail Bomb, how could we restrict such important memories by time? Instead we started to think about who we were including in the episode and the pace of the narrative. If you engage the listener at each step, not overwhelming or rushing too fast, then the episode time will fall out of that.”
Tash’s is definitely not the only show to have ever done this. Don’t be afraid to revisit decisions you may have made about your podcast’s episode length — ultimately, the content should win out.
Scroobius Pip is an actor, former rapper and a Sony Award-winning broadcaster. His chart-topping Distraction Pieces Podcast is now in its eighth year. The nature of the show is a largely unedited conversation, which means any consideration of length takes place in the room — not during the edit.
Despite being a completely different format to The Log Books, his thoughts on the question came to a similar conclusion: trust your judgement.
“If a conversation is flowing well then to be strict on the length seems foolish. Who doesn’t want more of a good thing? I guess it’s a case of being aware of what feels right.”
He’s right, nobody is forcing you to keep your show within specific durations, so there’s no point in cutting out good stories. You know your content best — if something feels too long, it almost certainly is.
Who can you ask if you’re not confident about your judgement? For journalist, travel expert and podcaster Holly Rubenstein, host of The Travel Diaries — where she talks to special guests like Stanley Tucci, Yotam Ottolenghi and Nadiya Hussain about their adventures around the world — it turns out the answer was right under her nose.
“When I polled my Instagram followers about whether they preferred episodes under or over 45 minutes, the results were exactly equal. Those who wanted under 45 minutes normally gave the explanation that they wanted it to last the duration of a run (which also made me feel bad about how short my runs are).”
If you already have an audience, the best people to ask will often be your listeners. If you don’t have one yet, send your podcast to an honest friend (not the one who says everything’s great) and ask them if they got bored — and, if so, when and why?
Yaf Downes from the British Podcast Award-winning Out Of Home Podcast, a show about four Londoners living in Amsterdam, also talks about the most important part of any podcast: the audience.
“I think podcast length is a really interesting debate that ultimately depends on how the listener is consuming the podcast.”
You should be making a podcast that you would listen to if you weren’t making it — so try to think about yourself as a detached listener. What would you be doing while listening?
Yaf also looked to the future: “As technology evolves and capabilities increase, the experience of a podcast will evolve too — so I’m super curious to see what that means for the ideal podcast length.”
Thinking back to five years ago, the world of podcasting looked vastly different. Who knows what the next five years will have in store?
Not all podcasts are conversations or documentaries, though, and some are designed to be consumed at pace. Jamie East is a broadcaster, journalist and host of The Smart 7— a daily snapshot of the world each day covering everything from politics to entertainment, via sport and science, and all in seven minutes.
“The Smart 7 was always intended to be an addition to listeners’ habits rather than compete for affections. Seven minutes on the way to the bus or train, at which point you’d fall back on your Off Menu or Griefcast (and rightly so), was something we were confident we could own — and it seems to be working.”
What is your format? Would your content be better served as a daily short-form show, or perhaps twice weekly? Despite being the man behind a chart topping short-form podcast, Jamie’s views on duration might surprise you.
“I’ve listened to 15-minute episodes that have bored me to death, and have also inhaled three-hour marathons and been sad they’ve ended. Stop worrying about hitting that 45-minute sweet spot.”
Another fan of not getting too bogged down in length is Luke Moore, COO of the podcast studio Stak, and host of Football Ramble.
“My feeling is that it pays to not be too prescriptive when looking to establish an ideal length for your show’s episodes; far better to be led by the content and the idea itself and develop an understanding for what is suitable for your subject matter and audience than to be too dogmatic about sticking to a defined runtime. To me, pace, tempo and tone are far better measures of a show’s merits and can also be used to inform the dreaded episode length judgement call.”
It would be remiss to speak about podcasts and fail to include any reflections on fiction audio. Alex Newall is the CEO of Rusty Quill Ltd, the fiction podcast network that’s home to The Magnus Archives among many others.
Scripted fiction podcasting is a whole different world in the audio space, with its own genres and a completely unique production flow. Alex’s perspective was an enlightening insight into Rusty Quill’s process and, crucially, how the audience impacts this.
“Here at Rusty Quill, instead of having random run times, we try to put everything into a ‘Golden Twenty.’ This basically means that we try to make all our content run in iterations of approximately 20 minutes.”
Rusty Quill shows are generally around 20 minutes for episodic storytelling aimed at listeners who are doing chores or short walks, 40 minutes for longer dramas and people commuting or doing longer chores, or 60 minutes for those who want an extended listen.
“60-minute episodes are a combination of the first two and go down very well with hardcore fans who want as much content as they can get. Obviously there is some wiggle room in there, but generally speaking this is how we make content.”
While it’s not always useful to look at what works for another show, it is always worth looking at the data on your own show.
On Acast, and many of the major platforms where your podcast can be found, you can see your show’s listen-through rate (LTR) — giving you an idea of when people stop listening. No show will have a 100% completion rate but, if you see a pattern where a large percentage of your listenership are leaving at a certain point, ask yourself: why?
Could it be at the start of a feature within the show that some listeners might not enjoy? Do you begin to wrap things up early, to the point your audience can feel it and move on to their next podcast? It might not be either of these things, but it’s worth looking for correlation.
Additionally, if you’ve come to the conclusion that episodes of your podcast are potentially too long, but that the content is too strong to be cut down any further, is there any scope to split one episode into two? Some listeners might see a 90-minute podcast as quite a commitment, but two 45-minute episodes might feel more manageable.
Jamie Morton, British Podcast Award-winning podcaster and the son of the eponymous “dad” from My Dad Wrote A Porno, highlights the importance of respecting the listener who has chosen to spend time with your podcast.
“In my opinion, editing is the most important part of the creative process. You need to have objectivity and be prepared to kill your darlings for the greater good of the show. Concise, tight podcasts are what audiences expect and deserve. Remember, if you’re asking strangers to invest 40 minutes of their day to you, you owe them the best 40 minutes you can produce.”
Fundamentally, the question this whole article hangs on can be worth asking — but it’s also a bit of a dead end. Luke Moore sums it up nicely: “Basically, there is no correct answer to this question — it’s about knowing your audience, knowing what show you’re trying to make, and trying to be consistent. If you do that, the episode length should take care of itself.”
While the insightful advice from our podcasters might seem extremely varied, they all share one key element which, for what’s worth, has always been the answer to this question. “How long should my podcast be?” Simple: as long as it is good.