Issue 257,  published May 5, 2020

The Really, Really Short Podcast

Maybe it’s my diminishing attention span, or the seemingly endless supply of available podcasts these days, but whatever the reason, I’m finding myself gravitating more and more these days towards shorter episodes whenever I’m queueing up something to listen to. And by “shorter,” I mean significantly shorter, as in under seven minutes, often under five. A conventionally “short” episode probably lasts between 10 and 15 minutes, but to earn that extra status of “really short” for me, it’s got to be under five or nearly so.

There’s some evidence that I’m not alone in this inclination towards brevity. Research by Megaphone on shows that made the Apple Podcasts Top 200 list in a two month period in 2019 suggests that, over the past five years, episodes had been getting shorter as more podcasts try to fill what they termed “the 10-30 minute niche.” Pacific Content’s Dan Misener ran a similar study on a broader sample, finding that “monthly average episode length” has been declining steadily for at least a year, with a broader trend downwards since roughly 2016 (check out this graph). He still found that the average episode duration overall is 41 minutes, though, which is a long way from my really short sweet spot.

Part of this growth in shorter podcast episodes can be explained by technological changes and the shifts in consumption habits that accompany them. Smart speaker experiences prioritise bite-sized bulletins, and some podcast playlists — like the ones that Spotify are experimenting with — seem to prefer them too. It might seem obvious, but we’re increasingly listening to podcasts on constantly-syncing smartphones now, not mp3 players that have to be connected to a computer to download new episodes wholesale. We’re also leaning more towards mobile data to download or stream, rather than waiting for a wifi or ethernet connection.

The rise of the daily news podcast has had some effect on length too. It’s just not practical, even for a well-resourced team, to put out a show longer than about 25 minutes five days a week, and in any case, listeners don’t have time for that type of extensive daily length either. The Daily, along with its many competitors and imitators, has popularised the 25-ish minute format that manages to feel compact yet also comprehensive. Halving that, a show like This Day In Esoteric Political History sticks around 10 to 12 minutes, delivering one segment and then stopping.

But it is the even shorter episode formats that I find myself most drawn towards. From what I can tell, the “really short” podcast tends to fall into one of three broad categories: the Bulletin, the One Shot, and the Experiment.

The bulletin is self-explanatory: these are often news or current affairs shows doing regular (sometimes daily) updates on a given topic, with the aim being to deliver information as efficiently as possible. Think the Politico Playbook Audio Briefing, an audio version of the eponymous newsletter that stuffs their headlines into your ears in under five minutes every day. No frills, no tangents, and no distractions.

Although not so strictly factual, I would also put “quote of the day” or “poem of the day” feeds in this group too as providing a regular update in a particular genre.

While developing this piece, I poked around looking for more shows of this length format to sample, and one of the more interesting ones I’ve come across in this category is Was läuft heute? from the German production shop detektor.fm. Meaning “What’s On Today?”, this show provides three daily recommendations of things to watch or listen to in under five minutes. Founder Christian Bollert told me over email that they see this show as having “a more service-orientated format in opposition to most other podcasts, where you dive into a conversation.”

The One Shot is a slightly more subjective kind of really short podcast. The marquee show in this space for me is WNYC’s 10 Things That Scare Me, in which an interviewee lists… well, ten things that scare them. Episodes don’t always come in under my seven minute threshold, but the smart, snappy editing style — not every “thing” gets any elaboration or explanation, and any questions or prompting are removed entirely to make it a monologue — often makes it feel shorter than it is. The key thing is that the show has one topic and one aim, and doesn’t diverge from them.

Another podcast that does this well is Now for Tomorrow, a recently launched show hosted by Deepak Chopra that’s produced by Jesse Baker and Eric Nuzum of Magnificent Noise. Most of the episodes so far are between 6 and 8 minutes, and each has a single topic and actionable piece of advice (improving sleep, finding forgiveness, coping with stress, and so on). Nuzum says that the shorter form has made sense to him for a while now:

“As a broadcast veteran, we think in hour or half hour increments — but listeners’ lives don’t operate that way. When you think about how people are going to use this thing — and what their life is like…and what time they want to spend with it, then answer almost always leads you to ‘shorter is better’.”

In a recent Hot Pod Insider, I wrote about Listen Rinse Repeat, a feed that is curating 20 second moments from independent audio creators to help listeners time their required hand-washing sessions. That to me is the ideal one shot podcast — it has a purpose and it meets it with something surprising and fresh each time. See also: Chompers.

Finally, the “Experiment.” There’s a thriving vein of experimental audio being put out as really short episodes on podcast feeds, blending sound art and found sound with other techniques to produce brief, perfect little bites of creativity. Long Live the New Sound does a great job of curating some of this, and I also really like David Weinberg’s Random Tape (which is exactly what the title suggests it would be). A favourite newer discovery of mine, though, is James T. Green’s u+1f60c, which he describes as “an experimental audio zine”. Each file on the feed is a tiny collage that evokes a particular moment in time.

“I’m inspired by music and songwriters and the journeys they unlock in five minutes,” he said, when I asked him why sub-five minute podcast episodes were the right medium for this project. “I think of Caroline Polachek, Kendrick Lamar, Jenny Lewis, Roddy Rich, Maxo Kream, Jill Scott, Mike Dean — songwriters and producers that create sonic landscapes that road trip you on a full narrative and does so more efficiently and effectively than many podcasts that stick to the ‘arbitrary’ 25-35 minute limit. A podcast feed is a material and medium like oil paint and stone. The limitless nature of digital audio means it can be any length it desires. So when I choose short form audio as a medium, I think of it like giving myself a tiny, pulled canvas and asking myself, what can I tell in 5-7 minutes?”

Podcast producers can learn a lot from music producers, Green continued. (He highlighted this video of Travis Scott and Metro Boomin in the studio as an example of what can be achieved in such a short space of time.) There’s also value in placing time restrictions on the creative process, he said — he recently challenged himself to make a promotional video for a new show from Transmitter Media (where he works) in under three hours, just to see what would come out of that compressed process.

I don’t listen to shorter podcasts because I have less time to give to audio — I will frequently queue up half an hour’s worth of five minute episodes — but because I love variety and the feeling of being utterly transported in a short period of time. I think it’s a form that is deepening all the time, too, as new creators try it and listeners find out how well it fits into their lives. I hope to see more producers, upon contemplating a project with 20 minute episodes, stopping to think: could this work better if they only lasted for five?

 

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.