Podcasting Questions Have No One Answer

I was listening to to Sam Whitmore’s Tech Media This Week yesterday. In it, he made a statement not unlike what I’ve heard him say a few times, which is that “podcasts are too long.” His particular length that he ascribed “too long” to was 10 minutes. Good gravy, Sam! He is keeping his show shorter than that because of his particular tastes. My tastes swing the exact opposite way, in that I don’t want to listen to 75 different 5 minute shows in my day. This brings me to a larger point.

It is highly common to hear people proclaim how podcasts should be. They should be a certain length, they should be published on a certain schedule, they should sound a certain way. Friends, there is no one answer to these questions. The audience is too fragmented, and when you act like there is an answer it just makes you sound silly. If the value of the medium is that it can pertain to so many disparate people with so many disparate interests, why do you think they have a single characteristic?

Way back in the early days, Halley Suitt did a show for IT Conversations. In an early episode someone (Dan Bricklin maybe?) mentioned that he listened while he jogged, and at the half hour point his run was done. For the rest of her shows, Halley inserted a short musical break at the 30 minute point. That always struck me as pretty ridiculous. What about the people whose commute is 20 minutes, or 40 minutes, or an hour or 5 minutes? You can’t possibly meet all these needs simultaneously so why do artificial things to meet any of them? I’ve heard a number of “podcast experts” declaim very forcefully how important it is that shows be on a rigorous schedule. To this day, there are maybe 10% of the weekly shows I listen to that I could even tell you what day the new shows come down on. I’m sure a lot of people care, but a lot don’t. I certainly don’t.

Do the show you want to do in the way you want to do it. Do the show you want to listen to. Don’t put artificial constraints on your show based on a vague feeling because “that’s how it has to be.” If your audience is one that thrives on short shows and you want to serve that audience, you should do a short show. Don’t tell others that shows have to be short. Don’t tell them they have to be long. Don’t tell them they have to be the same length every week. There are no rules here, so take advantage of that freedom. Do what feels right, what seems natural, what creates the kind of show and environment that you would listen to. I repeat my new media axiom here: “The one sure way to know something someone tells you about podcasting is bullshit is that they are convinced that they can’t be wrong.” The most experienced podcast experts know only slightly more than the least experienced. If you march to their beat too closely, you’ll never invent your own dance moves.

Just for fun, I present the list of files on my crappy mobiBLU cube today with their times. This is a different mix than it might be on other days, and this list includes the very last file from the Penn Radio cache I had squirrelled away last fall. Only one show (Secret World Chronicle) has more than one episode although often I have multiples of shows, just not today. You can see my mix leans toward the longer form.

Writers Almanac – 5:35
NoiseBoxx – 11:43
Fnordcast – 25:05
An ITConversations talk – 17:29 (short by ITC standards)
In Our Time – 42:37
Irrational Public Radio – 2:45
Longboards and Longhorns – ~1 hour
Girl Meets Girl (AKA Makena) – 53:58
Mental Escher/Cyberpunk Radio – 9:08
Needs No Introduction – 43:15 (this was the episode that convinced me to unsubscribe)
NeoFiles – 26:46
New Forces – ~1 hour
Penn Radio – 43:40
Skepticality – 35:28
Smart City – 52:35
SXSW panel – 57:16
The Onion – 0:52
Secret World Chronicle – 6:14
Secret World Chronicle – 21:11
Bat Segundo Show – 51:01

Update: Sam himself responded on his blog. I’ve been listening to Tech Media This Week ever since I met him at PME 2005. It’s one of those things where the subject matter of his show is of a slight bit of interest, but mostly I like Sam and want to spend a few minutes a week with him.

9 Replies to “Podcasting Questions Have No One Answer”

  1. Re Halley’s early shows: We were experimenting, and we dropped the mid-show break after just a few episodes. In those early days, we thought podcasting had some relationship to radio, but it doesn’t. Radio uses breaks for two reasons: (1) because it’s real-time, not time-shifted, and (2) to stretch a program to fit the clock.

    We also learned — duh! in retrospect — that unlike radio, you don’t need to remind listeners of whom you’re speaking with, etc. No, “We’re talking to Dave Slusher…” That, too, comes from radio, where listeners may join mid-program. Podcasts, by comparison, are linear: Everyone enters from the start.

  2. This is a very interesting post (and I thank you for the link). I’ve never understood why one has to place a limit on a conversation or a musical break in the middle of a conversation. I think the more prudent podcasters understand when a conversation has run its course and they will halt the podcast accordingly, whether in person or in the editing process. There’s no reason to keep on talking if you’re going to continually address the same points over and over again.

    I can understand putting in a commercial if you have sponsorship. But should not a show simply be what it is? Why must we adopt the old radio models, particularly when people are, as you ponit out, often listening to these podcasts on their commutes? My own podcasts have ranged from 25 minutes to over an hour. The only reason I split some of these hour-plus conversations into multiple parts is because of file size and bandwidth issues, prohibitive on both listeners and podcaster.

    I also agree with Doug Kaye’s wise words about constant reminders to the audience, as well as the troubling tendency of radio interviewers to treat their audiences as if they are imbeciles (“So let me get this straight. You say [what has just been uttered and what is clearly understandable because it has just been said].”) I assume that those who are kind enough to listen to my conversations are also sharp enough to keep up with any troublesome ambiguities. (And, hell, unlike radio, if there is a point of confusion, you can actually skip back a few minutes to clarify what was just said. Or you can even email the podcaster or leave a comment and ask and generate the kind of conversation that you just won’t see from the big media guys.)

    These podcasts are often on niche subjects for niche audiences. Can we not then treat them with the respect and intelligence that they deserve? Is not a varying length an advantage for this very reason?

  3. Great post, Dave. I have a bad habit of reaching a point and saying “OK, this show is going a little long so I’m going to stop now.” when I should just say “OK, I’m done talking now.”

    You are definitely right about listening to your audience. I’ve had times when I think that Comic Book Noise is going too long, but when I start talking about making the shows shorter, my audience lets me know that they aren’t necessarily fans of the short form. I have never gotten a complaint about the shows being too long, but I’ve caught all kinds of hell when making them too short.

  4. concur on the variability of podcasting length – its very much a to each his/her own thing & no one should try to dictate a length as “the” standard…

    i personally like longer ones, 45 to 60 minutes but it mostly depends on what i’m doing while listening…

    i too have met sam at a conference and liked him, but his deadhead podcast didn’t work for me – will check out his media tech one though since i bet i fit that demo 😉

  5. The next time anyone (listener or other podcaster) says our shows are too long, I’ll be pointing them to this article. Bravo.

  6. Man, I’m behind on replying. Sorry all.

    Doug (and Sam) – I wasn’t singling y’all out as poster boys but you were the most vivid examples I had to hand of something that was bothering me. The Halley thing I knew well because I listened to all the shows and knew the genesis. It’s all part of the feeling-out process, but I just wanted to get on to the table what has long been the Perl motto – “There is more than one way to do it.”

    Hey Ed! I don’t listen to every single one of your shows, but I pick and choose based on who the guest is. Some I have more interest in others. I really liked the Alison Bechdel interview and the Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve know Jeff for almost 15 years, since he tagged along to the studio when I interviewed his wife Ann. I do agree that the ability to be flexible with time and format is our advantage over radio, and to tell people that can’t use it is to forfeit the strong suit. I myself will sometimes break up interviews with a song but it is always for aesthetic and artistic reasons, not because I think people can’t handle it unbroken.

    Derek, I’m with you brother. When I did my experiment to keep the shows under 15 minutes, pretty much nobody like that including me. It is what it is, unfold it at its own pace and the people that stick with it won’t mind it being what it is.

    Sam, I wish Closet Deadhead could have continued. You pretty much did the impossible, making me care about the Dead and Dead culture. You rolled away the dew! I’m glad you took this in the spirit intended, which wasn’t a chide so much as a springboard to a conversation I’d been thinking about having anyway.

    Ewan, I looked at your blog and it took a couple of looks to figure out that was the string you were talking about. I kind of liked the way the graphic looked with that line. Looks like the guy is on a surfboard.

    Mike, you are smack in the tech media demographic so you should go for it. I like the longer ones too. Sam the people are speaking – 7 minutes of you are too little!

    Peter, I think it’s different hearing from your fans and listeners that its too long, than a generic statement across the board about all podcasts in general. That said, you should do the length you want to do. The better you make it, the easier that length goes down. I certainly have decided at the 1:20 mark that I’d had enough of that episode. Do what you feel good doing, and you’ll get the audience that digs it and all will be right in the world.

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