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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 next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game