#9: Why Are My Episodes so Long?
And why that won't change
I often get asked, why are episodes of The Seen and the Unseen so long? Who’s got time to listen to four-hour episodes? Why don’t I make one-hour episodes, or break these up into half-hour-chunks, or at least put timecodes? Make it easy for the listener!
Such questions tend to come from people who discover the show for the first time, and this post is for them. I won’t have to answer each of those queries one by one as they arise — I can just link to this post. The lazy Bengali in me likes this solution.
The Hunger For Depth
First up, let me take you through how this show evolved. When it began, I was under the impression that people have short attention spans. You gotta hook them fast and keep it snappy. I figured that 20 minutes was the optimal length for an episode — and one of my early episodes was just 11 minutes.
I was wrong, of course. The reason I believed this nonsense is that I wasn’t a heavy podcast listener before I became a podcaster — which sounds so absurd, doesn’t it? As I fell in love with podcasts, and listened more and more, I realised that podcasts were a unique medium for three reasons.
One, people tended to listen to podcasts while commuting, working out or doing errands. In other words, they chose to be a caaptive audience. When you watch a YouTube video, you can click on another tab, turn your head and talk to someone, pick up a book. But if you are out jogging, you will keep listening to whatever you chose to listen to.
Two, people listen at higher speeds. The brain can comprehend 500 words a minute, while we speak at about 160. Thus, many listeners listen at double speed or more. This seemed outrageous to me when I first heard about it, for wouldn’t voices sound squeaky? Wouldn’t conversations lose their natural flow? But the key to this is to raise your speed one unit at a time, and take the next step when that normalises. I went from 1.2x to 1.5x and beyond, and now listen to everything at double speed.
This means that when you are out running, a two-hour episode could get over in just an hour. An 11-minute episode would get over by the time you finish tying your shoelaces, even before you have warmed up.
But my third realisation was key. People crave depth. Everywhere else, the media is, in the words of my good friend Prem Panicker, a mile wide and an inch deep. This is understandable — the incentives are that way. Big media houses have to cater to the lowest common denominators, and go for numbers over engagement.
Even people who ignore the shallow media around us often don’t have the time to go deep into stuff. Most of us have busy lives, and we’re too tired at the end of the day to sit down and immerse ourselves in a book. But podcasts are a great way of getting deep insight into subjects and people.
I once did an episode with Karthik Muralidharan on Indian education that sort of became a cult favourite. It lasted around 200 minutes. You could listen to it in 100. He had it transcribed, and if I remember correctly, it came to over 40,000 words. That’s half a book. Where else do you get to take in so much in such a short span of time?
The Form Changes the Listener — and the Creator
My evolution as a listener guided my evolution as a podcaster. As I fell in love with long-form podcasts like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, and understood the craft of connversation better by listening to podcasters like Sam Harris and Russ Roberts, I changed my own game. And as my own episodes grew longer, the show became more popular. And it wasn’t just the absolute numbers that exploded. It was the engagement.
Podcasting is an intimate medium. The host’s voice is in your head. When two people talk in a podcast, you could be sitting on a couch besides them, listening in. And when podcasters are authentic to themselves, not contrived and projecting an artifical self, the listeners get drawn in. The podcaster becomes an old friend — and the podcast becomes a habit, even comfort food.
The kind of engagement I got from my listeners blew me away. I will not go into details, but it has had a material impact on my life. And I am so grateful to have stumbled upon this. Stumbled upon not just this thing I do, but the person I am now.
In an earlier post, ‘A Meditation on Form’, I’ve written about how the form of the podcast shapes the content of it, and thus shapes the host as well. Doing long conversations meant I had to listen better, research better, read more and become more contemplative. I would be a different person today if I spent five years setting myself up for five-minute conversations. I think doing The Seen and the Unseen made me a better person — more open, humble, curious.
No, I Won’t Compromise on Depth
When people who have just discovered the show ask for it to be shorter, they are making a category error. The Seen and the Unseen is not an explainer show, where gyan is given in crisp, digestible chunks. It is not an interview show, where a host asks questions about a subject to a domain expert. Instead, it is about long-form conversations — not interviews — which are meant to be discursive, to have thehrav, to explore the person as much as the subject or field. I love this, and I know listeners do — that’s why the show is what it is.
To change the form would be to change the content. One-hour episodes would not be as deep, and would not have the freedom to take unexpected digressions, or to let serendipity happen. If I was to even break it up into half-hour chunks, it would change the show, as I would be calibrating during the conversation where the next breakpoint would come.
An analogy I often give this this: some people like reading books, and some people just want to read articles. I won’t make a value judgement on this — whatever works for you. But imagine if you went to an author and said, “Please don’t write books. Write only articles I have the time to digest. Or at least break it up into small chunks for me.”
How do you think Tolstoy or Proust would respond to such a request?
I am not Tolstoy or Proust, of course, but I’m going to keep doing what I love. Give it a shot, and you may find you grow to like it. If not, no worries — we live in a world of overflowing content, and you will find what you are looking for.
The Podcast is Weekly. But This Newsletter…
Yes, sigh, guilty. I began this newsletter intending to update it multiple times a week, but weeks pass between each post. I am baffled by this myself, because between 2004 and 2009, when I blogged at India Uncut, I wrote thousands of posts at over five posts a day. I’ve struggled with energy and discipline this year.
Ironically, my writing students have been insanely prolific during this period, and have started many newsletter, blogs and even podcasts. I’ll link to some of them in my next post. I think they have something to teach me.
And now, please subscribe. It’s free.