Determining a Length for Your Podcast

By Tee Morris, Chuck Tomasi

You’ve got your equipment set up, so now you’re ready to podcast, right? Well, no. First you must consider how long your show’s episode is going to run. The following information gives you the rundown on how best to determine your show’s length.

Timing your podcast to the average commute

You may hear some veteran podcasters say, “Your podcast should never be longer than 30 minutes because that is the time of an average commute.” Those coming into New York City or Washington D.C. for their commute might disagree.

Yes, maybe the average commute from sea to shining sea is 30 minutes, but that should not be a set-in-stone template. There are shows where each episode is 60 seconds, others where the host(s) decide they need to go on for hours (thank you to whoever invented the pause button!), and still others where each episode length is variable.

The bottom line: You decide how long it takes you to podcast, and remember, there are going to be those super-sized episodes that occasionally come along.

The hidden value of the short podcast

There are many podcasts that run under ten minutes where hosts deliver their message and then sign off only moments after you thought they signed on. While on average — and this is more like an understood average, not really a scientific, detailed study of all the podcasts out there — a podcast runs from 20 to 30 minutes per episode. So what about these 10-minute vignettes? Does size matter? Does time matter? (Whoa. Deep.) Is there such a thing as too short a podcast?

Here are some advantages in offering a short podcast:

  • Shorter production time: Production time is reduced from a weeklong project to a single afternoon of planning, talking, editing, and mixing. With a quick and simplified production schedule, delivering a podcast on a regular basis — say, every two weeks, weekly, or twice a week — is easier.
  • Fast downloads: You can be assured — no matter what specs you compress your audio file down to — that your podcast subscribers will always have fast and efficient downloads.
  • Easy to stay on target: If you limit yourself to a running time of less than ten minutes, you force yourself to stick to the intent (and the immediate message) of your podcast. There’s no room for in-depth chat, spontaneous banter, or tangents to explore. You hit the red button and remain on target from beginning to end, keeping your podcast strictly focused on the facts. Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Considering his words, ol’ Bill would probably have podcast under 15 minutes if he were alive today.

Nothing’s wrong with keeping a podcast short and sweet. In fact, you might gain more subscribers who appreciate your efficiency.

A little length won’t kill you

Now with that quote from the Bard about brevity, you might think, “Shakespeare said that?! Before or after he wrote Hamlet?” That’s a good point because Shakespeare did have more than a few of his characters say, “My lord, I will be brief …” and then launch into a three-to-four-page monologue.

What if Shakespeare decided to be brief in his podcast? Would he get any subscribers if his show ran longer than half an hour? What if he broke the 60-minute ceiling? Would the Podcast Police shut down his show?

Podcatchers and subscribers, on reading your show notes and descriptions, should be able to figure out the average running time of your show. On a particular topic, some podcasts can easily fill two or even three hours. It’s hard to believe even avid podcast audiences would want to sit and wait for such a mammoth download, but huge productions have some definite advantages:

  • If the show is an interview, you have anywhere from two to three hours with an authority. It’s something like having a one-on-one session stored on your computer or MP3 player. From shows like SyFy Wire’s The Churn (see the upcoming sidebar, “Free-falling into The Expanse”), if a guest is part of the podcast, you can rest assured your podcast will go a little longer than 30 minutes — and sometimes it should.

    Be careful with this one. Shows and interviews that ramble aimlessly run the risk of losing audience attention.

  • You’re allowed verbal breathing room. Discussion stretching past the 30-minute mark allows you and your co-hosts or guests to break off into loosely related banter, widening your podcast’s focus and sparking discussion that can lead in other directions.

The cost of podcasts longer than 30 minutes is in bandwidth and file-storage — issues that smaller podcasts rarely, if ever, must deal with.

Finding that happy medium

Is there such a thing as middle ground in the almost-completely undiscovered territory that is podcasting? How can you find a happy medium if podcasters can’t agree on a standard running time?

The happy medium for your podcast should be a sense of expectancy or consistency. For example, in the Parsec-winning podcast of Tales from the Archives, the running times for each episode are across the board — the shortest clocking in at just over 30 minutes, and the longest weighing in at over an hour. His audience, however, understands this is a podiobook, an audiobook presented in a serialized format. Readers understand that chapters and short stories vary in size, so it’s no surprise when a podiobook follows suit. Some of the episodes are short and sweet while others push the length limits expected from literature.

Podiobooks aren’t the only genre that variable length works well for. If your podcast deals in do-it-yourself home improvement, explaining the construction of a bookshelf will be a far shorter show than one about adding an extension to your deck.

Give yourself some time to develop your show, your voice, and your direction. If you build some consistency and expectation for your audience, it’s easier to introduce a little variation or even a happy medium into your running time.