Establishing a target length for our podcasts

One of the more technical recommendations we’ll be making in our report is that of podcast length. How many minutes should these episodes last?

As we’ve been discussing in class, there are many examples we can consider: podcasts range anywhere from 2-3 minutes to more than 90 minutes.

In seeking to establish our suggested podcast length, we need to consider several factors.

What is the intended audience? At our session on 1/21, the class decided that we would primarily target middle grade educators and craft our podcasts to meet the corresponding national social studies standards. This tack would provide a core framework and also connect us to the myriad educators teaching the Civil War. (One of our groups is tasked with gathering these, and we’ll post them upon submission.) In addition, we reached consensus that this approach could also appeal secondarily to (or at least not exclude) families, park visitors, and others not visiting but seeking online connection. Of course, listeners will need to employ media (smartphones, MP3 players, internet-enabled devices, etc.) to access these podcast episodes. Are there other users, we need to factor in, too?

What is the purpose and context of the content? Not only are we employing the NPS themes to connect visitors to places — units of the national park system – we are also  provoking visitors to seek out more information, recognize value in/of these historic sites, and foster a sense of stewardship. Is our purpose informational, educational, interprettive, or a mix? Based on our audience, the listener will probably not be physically onsite in a particular park (right?), but being onsite would not preclude a listener — contextually — from utilizing the podcast. What are other concerns from the perspective of content purpose and context?

What is the primary means of accessing the content? How will it be available? By the very nature of a podcast, people will need to take an active step and access the content via the internet. Some may download it and others may stream it live, so file size is a concern. We want folks to be able to access the content quickly and easily. While the recording quality certainly factors into the file size, length plays a very important role, too. What role should this factor into our decision? Also, as mentioned above, there is equipment and a certain level of web savvy required to access this content.

How can we best keep our audience engaged? While our content will be provocative by design, we will need to ensure that our audience remains engaged throughout the length of each episode. We want to give them a taste, but not the whole dessert. We want to provoke them just enough that they want to connect more, or again, or in a different way. How would this factor into our proposed length?

Are there other factors that we would want to consider?

I posed this question of length to several colleagues, and received a variety of responses and links to studies. Brett Oppegaard, a colleague and adjunct professor in the Creative Media and Digital Culture Program at Washington State University-Vancouver, suggested several including this one that argues for 15 minutes or less, and this one that recommends 15-30 minutes. “And this is one that I really like, from the mobile perspective, which
has a ton of stats,” he noted.

Overall, Brett felt that “without direct research at your site, or with a similar case study, I would say start with 15-minute segments at most, and test your audience from there. … Yet I had a class in which my professor sent us a 90-minute – 2 hour podcast to supplement the regular lecture each week, and I found those quite interesting to listen to, at length, so, again, I think it depends on your situation and audience.”

Back to that audience thing, eh?

I also found this academic source which recommends that “[t]he podcast length must be related to its content and purpose. However, Cebeci and Tekdal recommend podcasts no longer than 15 minutes, because there is generally a loss of attention in listening and a decrease in comprehension after this period of time. Lee and Chan created podcasts that were structured as talkback radio style segments of 3-5 minutes. In the IMPALA project, most of the podcasts lasted ten minutes. Walch and Lafferty stated that a 10 minute podcast full of information that is quick and snappy is far more enjoyable than a 30 minute show with only 11 minutes of material. Based on a literature review, we conclude that the recommendations point to a short length: 3 to 5 minute podcasts or 10 minutes.”

In addition, our own Amy weighed in here, a portion of which I’ll quote below.

One of the top educational podcasts of 2010 was Dan Carlin’s Hard Core History, which is never less than an hour and is one man talking the entire time. Grammar Girl was third, which is about 5 to 10 minutes long, and also one person speaking. Citizen Radio is at the top of the People’s Choice podcast awards—two people talking about politics in a humorous, conversational way for over an hour.

So, do long, lecture-style podcasts work? Turns out, yes. A study of podcasts in university settings showed that students who listen to podcast in place of a lecture tested better and got better grades. To me, that indicates that a longer podcast doesn’t lose its listener halfway through. I also took a look at the CBC broadcasting study and found this:
1. most podcasters are male, under 40, well-educated.
2. podcasters prefer subscriptions—important for iTunes access
3. they prefer on-demand—so all podcasts should be available permanently after the initial broadcast.

The award-winning podcaster Buster Ratliff provides an outline for effective museum-based podcasting:
1. align the mission of the institution with the mission of each podcast
2. find good talent
3. identify the audience, including recognizing the mix of people within it
4. create an outline
5. practice the script
6. vet the podcast before broadcast

One and three are the most helpful for our purposes; numbers one and six are the most important for NPS, I’d say.

I took a look at other history podcasts here: http://www.onlinedegrees.org/top-20-history-podcasts/

They vary, and it’s clear to me that NPS is doing something very different that has not been done before: telling one huge story in many parts over a long period of time. In many ways, this series is more reminiscent of a mini-series than a podcast; and it’s much bigger than a museum-based podcast, as well, since the museum is the entire country. It is both terrifying and exciting.

So, what should we set as a rough goal for the length of our podcast episodes? As I noted in class, I don’t think we need to set up something hard-and-fast (like a 22 minute sitcom on television), but we do need to recommend a target length. What are your thoughts? Please share them below and we’ll discuss in class on Friday.

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About Greg Shine

Adjunct faculty in the History Department at Portland State University, where I teach historic site interpretation. Former Chief Ranger & Historian at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
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4 Responses to Establishing a target length for our podcasts

  1. Doug K-C says:

    Today, as I was digging deeper into the Richmond NPS site, I found this page:

    http://www.nps.gov/rich/photosmultimedia/index.htm

    Which linked to this podcast service which details Civil War travel podcasts

    http://www.civilwartraveler.com/audio/podcasts.html#moc

    I am seeing that most of these selections are 45 minutes to an hour-ish

  2. Melissa Swank says:

    I think that if our purpose and goal is to draw people to the parks and not to exclusively inform, then shorter is better and we should shoot for 15-30 minutes-ish 😉

    Melissa

  3. Doug K-C says:

    Couple of thoughts:

    What is the purpose and context of the content?
    Let us not forget entertainment as well. Wouldn’t it be great if these productions could be entertaining as well?

    I agree with Shawn that an outline of 15ish (and I stress “ish”) minutes for each podcast would be beneficial (and kind) to busy NPS staff. As long as theme, mission and some of the other things that Amy points out above are included, then there is no reason the specific staff member, once this outline has been received, couldn’t “super-size” the specific presentation and really expand upon the supplied outline. I see our “product” as an organic framework to take on and expand as the sesquicentennial plays out…

  4. Shawn Daley says:

    My quick take, after reviewing this post, is to shoot for between 20-30 minutes. Obviously the various studies give us reason to support either side. I believe that 15 minutes is too short, but I also think, for this project, that going past 30 minutes is pushing it.

    For these reasons:

    a) We aren’t recording all of these – we’re simply making scripts/outlines…right? That means we have to convince someone else to take our initial road map and produce it, whether that be the park itself or someone in the service (I’m correct on that, too, right). I just think that were I a busy person, asking me to create a 60 minute podcast, had I not had too much experience or done it before, would be daunting. If we want this task to “catch on” I think we have to make it as user friendly as possible, and I think that means going shorter than longer.

    b) As a class assignment, I have to be honest and admit that the idea of charting out plans for six or so hour-long podcasts may be pushing it in terms of time and attention. Were I only assigned to chart out 1 or 2, I can see going to the length of 60 minutes, as I could devote alot of time to making those 2 really good. As it is, I think that if I want to create quality podcast plans, I’ll do a better job filling 20 minutes with quality content than anything much longer.

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