How we found our ideal episode length for The Distance
In the communities of podcasters and aspiring podcasters that I frequent on Facebook and elsewhere, a frequent topic of debate is the ideal length of an episodes—25 minutes? An hour? I also get asked from time to time how we came up with 15 minutes for The Distance. I’d love to tell you that we thoughtfully deliberated episode length during the planning process for the show, drawing on years of collective storytelling experience to arrive at our decision, but the truth is that the 15-minute guideline just kind of happened—and then became a useful constraint that’s guided our production ever since.
The Distance started in 2014 as longform written stories of about 2,500 words each. At the end of that year, as Serial was wrapping up its first season, we started talking about trying audio for our stories about long-running businesses. The consensus was to do a show that wouldn’t be overly complicated to produce. As a super basic test of this concept, Shaun (Basecamp’s video producer, who would eventually become the co-producer on The Distance) took the first-ever Distance story about Horween Leather and recorded himself reading it, audiobook-style. That clocked in at 10 minutes and 30 seconds, which he pointed out was a nice length for a short train ride or walk to the grocery store.
I admit that I dragged my feet a little on the podcast idea, mostly because I come from a traditional print journalism background and had no audio experience. Once I came around on the podcast, I decided I wanted to do actual audio stories and not just audiobook-style readings of the written articles. (After a few months of releasing both a written and audio version of a story, we went podcast-only.) Here’s what I posted in our Basecamp discussion:
Why did I suggest 15 minutes? I honestly don’t know. Probably because 10 minutes seemed too short, especially relative to most of the 30- or 60-minute podcasts I listen to, and because it’s natural to think of time in quarter-hour increments. Also, I was terrified of doing audio and 15 minutes already seemed like a daunting amount of space to fill.
So from day one, I had the 15-minute guideline in my head. And I found that even though I wasn’t timing my scripts as I wrote them, the resulting episodes would always be around 15 minutes. Maybe I’d internalized that time limit without knowing it, or maybe I’d gotten adept at gauging how big of a story I’d get from a particular subject and adjusted my story selection process accordingly. (If a subject yielded a larger-than-expected story, we could always do a multi-part series, but I wouldn’t pursue a story where it seemed like there wasn’t enough of an angle to sustain 15 minutes.) When I worked in newspapers and pitched stories to editors, they would usually ask, “How much room do you need?” This is because a print newspaper editor has to plot physical space on a page in terms of column inches. I got pretty good at sizing up stories in a literal sense, and these same instincts have served me well in audio.
As we’ve gotten past 50 episodes of The Distance (hurrah!), I’ve come to really embrace the 15-minute episode length. It forces a particular kind of economy in storytelling, making us ruthless in cutting anything from an episode that might be boring, tangential or self-indulgent. If an early version of an episode comes in significantly over 15 minutes, I have to justify that length. More often than not, I don’t miss what gets cut. It makes the stories better and more focused. And keeping the episodes at 15 minutes means that our workload stays manageable, especially as we’ve increased the production values on the show to add music and spend more time on editing. The Distance is just Shaun and me. We release stories every other week and don’t have seasons. If we were to, say, double our episode length while keeping our current level of quality, it would require a significant rearranging of our workflow—how I select stories, the amount of time I spend doing interviews, and then the editing process—that I’m not sure is sustainable as a two-person operation.
I’ve heard from some people that they’d like our stories to be longer, and there’s evidence to suggest that listeners prefer shows with episodes that run closer to an hour. But for now, 15 minutes is working well for us. As I mentioned before, we have the option of doing a two-parter if a story merits more time—and we’ll be doing just that later this month. Yes, there’s more prestige in longer stories, and I’ve been guilty of fetishizing length for its own sake too. But we’re in good company with our 15-minute episodes. I love shows like The Specialist and Curious City, which are also on the shorter end. There are lots of differently sized spaces in people’s days when they could be listening to shows. Sometimes it’s nice to have an episode that fits into a short errand, without the need to pause and pick up the story again later. The Distance might be about long-running businesses, but we don’t want to be long-winded.
Surely you have time during your day to listen to 15-minute stories about interesting businesses like a t-shirt printer or a wacky supermarket! You can subscribe to The Distance on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music or the podcatcher of your choice.