Episode length is sometimes a heated discussion in podcasting. There's helpful data from different sources. But what's right for your podcast? I'll help you decide!
I suggest a “who, what, when, where, how, and why” approach to determining the perfect podcast length for yourself.
Who is your audience?
Because most podcasts target separate niches, it can be very difficult to make blanket recommendations on all podcasts.
Many of the podcasts from public-radio showrunners are intentionally and skillfully designed to reach a broad, general audience. But your podcast may reach a smaller, more focused audience that may never be interested in general content (or general perspective).
When you get to know your audience, you can better understand their specific needs and situations. For example:
- New moms may not have much listening time while caring for young children.
- Business executives may not have time to listen during business hours, but they want to continue their education away from the office.
- Kids may have a shorter attention span, especially for non-entertaining content.
- Agricultural workers may have many lonely hours away from the Internet, and they may be eager for something stimulating.
Thus, you can probably imagine that a 5-minute podcast could be ideal for one audience, but too short for another. Inversely, a three-hour podcast could be ideal for one audience, but too long for another.
Your listener is the most important person to your podcast (“Duh,” right?). So what's the best way to serve them?
What is your subject?
Because broadcast media reach a wide audience, they need topics that appeal to the general population. That's why most long-form radio talk shows are about money, relationships (including religion), tech, politics, and sports. That information interests nearly everyone.
But podcasts are far more focused. You don't have to worry about appealing to employees on their rush-hour commute home. You only have to be concerned with the smaller group of people interested in your subject.
And not all subjects are equal. Although it's possible that nearly any subject could be shared (to some degree) in a few minutes or in a few hours, some subjects may be better at different lengths. For example:
- Educational content depends on the depth of the information. It's good to be short when it's a lot to take in (for example, Grammar Girl). But it can also be good to be long when a concept needs more explanation to be understood.
- Inspirational content may be good enough to be short. Think of all the devotional-style books that provide quick inspiration and make it easy to consume each day.
- Entertaining content that is good will probably never be long enough. Look at how well the Lord of the Rings extended editions sell compared to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. They're both entertaining, but the quality of one far outweighs the quality of the other.
Some podcasts may be harder to consume because their subjects require uninterrupted attention. But you can easily stave off that concern by ensuring your content is segmented in a way that is friendly to multiple listening sessions.
No Agenda is a twice-weekly, three-hour-long podcast that has huge success. I listen to it, myself, and I listen all the way through (except for the techno stuff at the end). I don't complain about the length because the episodes are entirely informative and entertaining. But there's no way that I could listen to a single Grammar Girl episode for three hours!
So what is appropriate for your subject? Do you need more time to explain something, or do you need only a few minutes? Do you have enough good content that will rapture people from time?
When do you publish?
I've always considered frequency and length to be closely associated. Daily shows may seem lucrative, but they take a lot of work. Plus, daily shows can be more difficult for listeners to stay current, depending on their own schedules and the length of your episodes.
Your publishing schedule needs to be a consideration with your episodes. In general, I recommend more frequent shows to be shorter and less frequent shows to be longer.
But that's not a hard rule, either! No Agenda publishes twice a week and it's three hours long. Grammar Girl is once a week and it's usually shorter than 15 minutes. And I don't see many people (if any) complaining about the length or frequency of either.
Thus, while your audience will really care more about the value you provide than the length or even frequency, your personal schedule may be the bigger issue. It's generally much easier to create short podcasts than long ones. So you may be able to give your best value only if you make shorter episodes when you publish more frequently.
Where does your audience listen?
According to “The Infinite Dial” study (and “The Podcast Consumer” report), by Edison Research, 51% of Americans cite their home as the top place they consume podcasts most. That's followed by 22% in an automobile and 14% at work.
But where they ever listen is 84% at home, 65% in an automobile, 42% walking around / on foot, 39% at work, 29% excercising, and 29% on public transportation. (These total more than 100% because this was a multichoice question.)
Different locations have different mental freedoms and practical limitations. At home has the most freedoms and least limitations, while at an office job probably has the least freedoms and most limitations. Driving and exercising probably have plenty of mental freedom, but also plenty of practical limitations.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American commute is 25.4 minutes. While that's helpful to know, (especially in considering how long certain topics could be in your show), it doesn't have to influence episode length.
Even if someone listens at 1× for only 25.4 minutes on their way to work, the podcast is still there for them when they get back in their automobile to go home. It's probably even easier for them to resume listening than to switch podcasts! The more interesting and relevant the content is to them, the more likely they'll be to resume listening, and perhaps continue listening across multiple sessions.
Consider, for example, if your podcast helps employees with daily inspiration or education. It would make sense for that content to fit within their commute so they can consume it completely before their commute is over.
Then again, average commute lengths could be completely irrelevant to your own show.
How do you present your message?
Presentation is equally as important as content. You can have great content, but people won't benefit from it if it's presented horribly. You can also have the presentation skills of the greatest public speakers, but bad content will leave people empty.
If you can maintain your energy level, the quality of content, and the relevance to your audience for only 20 minutes, then that's your ideal length. If you can maintain it for longer, then a longer show could be an option (though not a necessity).
In Beyond Powerful Radio, Valerie Geller said, “There is no such thing as too long, only too boring.”
I host a fan podcast about the TV show Once Upon a Time. Because it's a broadcast show, it must fit a specific amount of time. There have been many times we've called episodes or scenes “filler” while other things seemed too cut. The hard clock they have to follow both forces them to make content and limits them from telling the full story. That's why movies can often tell a story better: they don't necessarily have an imposed clock format they have to follow.
Why length actually doesn't matter much
Some broadcasters (such as those behind Bridge Ratings) have said because the average commute is 25.4 minutes, your podcast episodes should be that long, too. But as I've demonstrated, there are many more factors and success stories at all points in the spectrum.
In addition to No Agenda, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History is another podcast with extremely long episodes (up to 6 hours!), but the length hasn't held back these podcasts! In fact, Rob Walch, VP of Podcaster Relations at Libsyn (the largest podcast host and distribution platform) has said that among their customers 84% of the podcasts with more than 100,000 downloads per episode are longer than 51 minutes.
Even Edison Research's own findings confirm that long form isn't a problem. According to their study in 2017, the average podcast-consumer listens to 5 hours and 7 minutes across 5 podcasts per week. Thus, the average length of a consumed episode is 61.4 minutes. This is actually more a reflection of how long the episodes are that the participants listen to, than a reflection of the success
Again, these are all averages and broad studies. They can be nicely informative, but the diverse niches in podcasts make the data almost impossible to apply without deeper, segmented studies.
I like to summarize it this way:The ideal length of a podcast episode is the same as the ideal length of string: as long as it needs to be.Click To Tweet
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