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How long should a podcast be?

Welcome to the world of the ten-hour episode.

A wise woman once told me that if you have a secret that you don’t want anyone to know about, the best place to hide it is in a podcast that lasts longer than an hour. There’s something about seeing an episode timestamp in hours rather than minutes that puts listeners off, or so the theory goes.

Tightly-edited, well-paced shows of around 30 minutes stand a much better chance of attracting an audience, we are told. It makes sense – as I’ve mentioned before when discussing podcasting’s “discovery” problem, potential listeners surely need to hear at least half of an episode before they can be sure whether they want to start downloading the show regularly. It follows that the smaller that initial time investment is, the easier it will be to attract new listeners. Two of my favourite shows from the US-based collective RadiotopiaThe Allusionist and Song Exploder – almost never put out episodes that are longer than half an hour, and mostly they clock in between 15 and 25 minutes.

Yet in general, podcasts are getting longer. From Josh Morgan’s September 2015 analysis of the past 10 years on iTunes US, we know that average episode length is increasing, from 25 minutes in June 2007 to 40 minutes in June 2015:

Morgan concludes that “in 2015, a typical podcast published two 40-minute episodes per month”. We can speculate as to why the average episode length is increasing (more amateurs putting out unedited discussion shows? More podcasters including music alongside the spoken word? A trend towards a “vlogging” style of podcasting?) but we can’t know for sure.

What we do know, though, is that it isn’t the case that podcasts only end up long by accident, when editors can’t be bothered to keep things tight. There are a handful of shows that have confounded the received wisdom about length, and made a virtue of the fact that their episodes outlast everyone else’s.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin, a former radio talk show host in the US, started the podcast in 2006. He takes a well-known historical event, such as World War One or the rise of Alexander the Great, and give it his “hardcore” treatment. He builds a compelling narrative around the basic facts, often including contemporary parallels or dramatic twists.

For instance, the first episode in the “Blueprint for Armageddon” series opens with a discussion of the similarities between Gavrilo Princep (who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914) and Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot President John F Kennedy in 1963. Although an enormous amount of research clearly goes into Carlin’s episodes, he always emphasises that he is a broadcaster, not a historian, and as such the show is has a companionable tone and never feels too “educational”.

The length of Hardcore History episodes has been increasing steadily over the years, from under an hour at the start right up to the latest instalment in Carlin’s “King of Kings” series, which runs to just over 5 hours. It works because the quality of production remains high throughout, and because Carlin puts a lot of work into planning his narrative so it doesn’t feel rambling. Listeners respond to the idea that you have to be “hardcore” to love Hardcore History because the episodes are so long; the show’s metal-influenced artwork and reddit fanbase demonstrate this.

Adam Roche, who makes the The Secret History of Hollywood podcast, told me that very long episodes are divisive. “The length of them has put people off – lots of people say they don't want a 600, 700 megabyte download suddenly appearing on their phone. I can completely understand that, I would hate that too, especially if you're running out of space.”

Roche’s episodes have lasted for everything from two hours to seven, and his three-part Alfred Hitchcock series ran to 20 hours. He started off doing his specials on individual film studios or directors as part of his regular pop culture podcast, Attaboy Clarence, but as the audience for the long episodes grew he split them off into a show of their own.

“That's what I like about podcasting, there aren't any limits,” he said. “I can say ‘this one's going to be five hours and this one is going to be ten hours’ and if people like it they can turn up and listen, and if they don't then they don't have to. I appreciate they're a bit of a grind but I do like the long format, and I like to lose myself in them.”

Like Carlin (of whom Roche says he is a fan), he uses a carefully-constructed script to keep his listeners engaged. He likes to go back beyond well-known events and tell the backstory of famous Hollywood figures, such as in the atmospheric opening to his “Bullets and Blood” series, which focuses on the travails of the Polish refugee family who ended up starting Warner Brothers.

Music and vocal effects are a big part of why the podcast succeeds in attracting listeners for such long episodes. “I use clips and music to reflect the mood of the moment, and I try to put sound effects so you feel that you're there,” Roche said. “It just makes for a more immersive listen for the audience.”

Roche’s is a podcasting fairy story: he is a sous chef at a restaurant in Berkshire, England, and he produces every aspect of the podcast on his own, in his spare time. “I am completely a one-man band,” he said. “From start to finish it's nothing but me.” It isn't always easy to find the time to get into his home studio (which is in his under-the-stairs cupboard). “I'm married and I have three very young children, and I have a full time job. I work split shifts, so sometimes I grab an hour of doing it in the morning, and sometimes I'm working on it until 4 in the morning.”

There is a lot of work in each episode: research, writing, recording, editing and promoting. It can be difficult to sit down and write a four-hour script after a long restaurant shift, but Roche told me that his love of early Hollywood cinema and pop culture is what keeps him at it. “For me, old films are more punchy. They get to the point, and they're slightly hammy and they're slightly awful, which I really like. I love B-movies, I love badly-made monsters, and I love villains with pencil moustaches. . . .The 30s to the 50s are just heroin for me, I can't get enough.”

Roche has now started crowdfunding, and thanks to donations and his regular supporters on Patreon, he’s been able to start taking fewer shifts at the restaurant and devoting more time to the podcast. “I have more time to work on [episodes], and I can release them in a more regular pattern,” he explained. The plan for next year is release shorter episodes on a schedule, rather than longer ones intermittently. However, this has been controversial with some of his listeners.

“Funnily enough, lots of people have complained about [the shorter episodes],” he said. “They've said they really like the long ones, and want me to keep going on with them. But [the new ones are] being designed to seamlessly interlock, so you can listen to them one after another and you won't know that they're separate episodes. If listeners want to, they can save them up.”

What Roche and Carlin do blurs the boundary between podcast and audiobook – both feature extended narration from a pre-prepared text, although the former frequently includes more audio than just one voice. Roche is quite comfortable with this transition. As he puts it: “I like audiobooks, [my show] is basically like an audiobook with effects.” Carlin, too, operates on this basis, removing earlier episodes from his free podcast feed and packaging them up for purchase just like audiobooks. His schedule is also erratic – he usually releases a new episode every three to five months.

Everything about these shows flies in the face of the common advice for starting a podcast: keep it short and keep it regular. But they have both succeeded in attracting large, loyal audiences happy to contribute towards their continued production. Ultimately, as long as a podcast is a good listen, people will download it – whether it lasts five minutes or five hours.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or things I should write about? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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