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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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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