Podcasting is a booming medium fluid with rules written in invisible ink. Its broad tent and creative appeal attract creators, brands, and listeners whose preferences vary widely. That includes episode length, an issue that many podcasters struggle to get right. Although there's no one-size-fits-all strategy, it's essential to create podcasts that retain listeners through to completion.
Fortunately, many podcast listeners are loyal to their hosts and favorite shows, leading to strong completion rates in those cases. Edison reports that one-third of U.S. adults listened to podcasts in the past month, and about half of regular podcast listeners finish episodes. Most important for advertisers: When listeners get to the end of a show, they're exposed to promotional spots. But, when an episode runs too long, listeners might hit the stop button and miss out on brand messages and promotions for upcoming episodes.
What is "too long" for a podcast? While it might seem like a simple calculation, podcast length is actually a complicated equation. Unlike local radio or ad-supported TV, where producers are constrained by ad breaks and established episode lengths, podcasts don't have to follow set rules. The length varies by format, subject, and even a host's stamina. Podcasts can be just a few minutes or even hours.
Recently, all signs are pointing to shorter being better. Tune-in time is precious; brands and audiences want efficiency and entertainment, and podcasters need their support to survive.
To strike the balance, veterans say a podcast should be long enough to tell a story and keep listeners engaged until completion. If you only have 30 minutes of content, don't stretch it to 45 just to pack in more ads and unnecessary content. When it comes to media, Americans increasingly want bite-size content they consume on their schedule. Audio consumers value convenience and speed, which favors shorter podcasts.
In fact, podcast episodes are getting shorter, according to a study by podcast agency Pacific Content. In 2019, the average podcast episode was about 42 minutes, based on an analysis of 19 million podcast episodes. Gaming-related podcasts tended to run the longest, while business, comedy, and kids' podcasts were the shortest, the study found.
Many top business, comedy, and news podcasts feature shorter episodes. NPR's highly rated news podcast "Up First," runs about 15 minutes per episode, for example; The New York Times' "The Daily" typically features 20-minute episodes.
However, for some creators, shorter episodes can be limiting. Storytelling podcasts, including the red-hot true crime genre, usually opt for longer shows — as much as an hour or more, with ad breaks sprinkled throughout. Many of the top 20 podcasts fall into this category, including This American Life, Stuff You Should Know, and The Rachel Maddow Show, with episodes averaging about an hour. At the extreme end, podcast trailblazer Joe Rogan's The Joe Rogan Experience occasionally runs more than four hours per episode.
Despite the success of some hour-plus shows, podcasts that are too long cause some listeners to tune out or avoid the medium. Edison Research finds that among Americans who don't listen to podcasts, 40 percent said podcasts are too long, while 57 percent said they'd listen if they had more time. In another nod to shorter-is-better, Edison found that about one-quarter of podcast listeners said they speed up playback, allowing them to get through episodes more quickly.
Shorter podcasts mirror trends across the media industry. Publishers across platforms are experimenting with new lengths for both content and advertising. On Fox, six-second ads run in a split-screen during live sports, adding commercial inventory without cutting away from the action. On video streaming platforms such as Hulu and Netflix, creators aren't tethered to run times like their ad-supported TV competitors are, giving them the freedom to craft appropriate lengths for their content. On social media such as YouTube, super-short videos cater to young Americans' short attention spans and multiscreen, multitasking behavior.
To hit the right note in audio, Pacific Content recommends that podcast episodes run between 25 to 30 minutes, which it said is in line with the average American commuting time and gives podcasts a sweet spot for in-car listening. Podcasters could make similar calculations based on their niche. For instance, a podcast aimed at people working out could run between 30 minutes and an hour — the typical lengths of gym visits.
When it comes to determining the appropriate podcast length, podcasters should take the time they need to tell their story, but nothing more. Brands are drawn to podcasts' engagement, so if listeners abandon a show, they're not converting on that value proposition. Likewise, padding episodes just to add more advertising inventory could turn listeners away. As in so many other forms of entertainment, in podcasting, less is often more.
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