Commercial Radio consultant Tracy Johnson on Short Attention Spans:

… in 2000, the average adult’s attention span was 12 seconds. It has dropped by 33% since then, to 8 seconds. That’s shorter than the attention span of a goldfish:

That means at most, you have less than the first eight seconds to engage listeners in your content.

At the eight second mark, they make a decision. Stay or flee. Tune in or tune out.

Bob Lefsetz on Why John Oliver is so good:

2. He’s not afraid to go long.

If I hear one more pundit say we live in a short attention span economy!

The truth is even though we’re beaten over the head with facts and people wanting our attention we truly want to go deep.

The same way a one night stand is not as satisfying as a relationship, we want more.

**When someone tells you to make it shorter think if you can make it better. If you can’t, then length is not an issue.**

I respect the views of both these men – and always look forward to their content.

So let’s consider this…

The biggest “OMG! – You gotta check this out!BUZZ happening right now is not about any of the vapid, pithy utterances happening on Commercial Radio.

Instead – the BUZZ is about a multi-hour, multi episode Audio Podcast called SERIALa_190x190

Serial is a single true crime story told over multiple weeks (episodic TV style) where episodes range in length from 28 minutes to 53 minutes long with no breaks.

It’s a bit like Dateline Investigation – but as a Radio show delivered over multiple weeks on the internet with the storytelling skills and aesthetic of This American Life.

Yes – the hottest “Radio” show right now takes longer to explain than the “average adult’s attention span”.

And yet, it’s getting about a million downloads per episode.

Check out what comedian Patton Oswalt said about it last month:

Patton Oswalt Serial Tweet

“Oh my God, people. The @serial podcast. It is, all at once, my favorite new TV show, movie & book. LISTEN YOU’RE WELCOME.”

Noticeably absent from Patton’s description is the word “Radio” – even thought that is exactly what Serial is.

Patton’s observation proves to me that Audio content historically called “Radio” can transcend the medium altogether and be considered on par with great Television, Novels, and Film.

That is the real “Power of Audio!”

AUDIO > radio

AUDIO > radio

As someone far more interested in the Message of Audio than the Medium of Radio – I find this incredibly inspiring!


To be fair – Tracy Johnson is not advocating “Shortness” at the expense of quality. In fact – he has an excellent post where he accurately describes that Tight and Short are not interchangeable.

Obviously (at least to me) Commercial Radio and a podcast like Serial are not even really playing the same sport – so it’s a bit unfair to pit them against each other.

Serial was meticulously crafted over a long period of time and will stand up to repeat listens over potentially many years.  Conversely, the average Commercial Radio “personality” break was most likely concocted in mere minutes, if not right on the spot; the life span of which won’t be much longer than the time it takes to hear it.

Still – I couldn’t help but hold Bob and Tracy’s seemingly opposing pieces of advice regarding Attention Span in my mind as I was being whisked away by another 40 minute episode of Serial.

Serial is undoubtedly well planned, well crafted storytelling that does hook you early – but not in 8 seconds.  No, it demands a little more. Actually – it demands a lot more.

And that makes me wonder – are Commercial Broadcasters aiming too low?  Here’s one of my favorite smart people – Seth Godin:

Once-great media brands that now traffic in cheesecake and quick clicks didn’t get there by mistake.

As the bottom gets more and more crowded, it’s harder than ever to be more short-sighted than everyone else.

If you’re going to need to work that hard at it, might as well put the effort into racing to the top instead…


Trying to grab a slice of the passive, un-engaged, low-attention span masses is no easy task.

Moving forward – I wonder if targeting this group with ever more pithy “content” will produce the kind of returns both the content creators and sponsors of that content expect?

We are already seeing diminishing returns here – and ever more ridiculous tactics being employed to extract every last bit of cash from the dwindling attention pool of the un-engaged.

Conversely – creating content so amazingly good and deep that people actively spread the word about it is no easy task either!

No matter how awesome Serial is – no matter how engaged the audience – no matter how loud the buzz – I can’t help but wonder how it was monetized? It took hundreds, maybe even thousands of work hours to produce!

One thing I do know – it was easy to remember that MailChimp sponsored this first round.  And I along with millions of others are anxiously awaiting the next episode of Serial.

Do you think that’s monetizable?


Having spent over 20 years in Commercial Radio and absorbed all it’s lessons about Short Attention Spans – it’s refreshing and exciting for me to see how vibrant, diverse and engaged the audiences are for Audio Content beyond what Commercial Radio thinks is possible to deliver.

I don’t know if Borrell’s predicted demise of  half AM/FM Radio stations in 10 years will come true – but now we all know this:  great Audio Content won’t care.

Serial: Episode 01: The Alibi

(compiled by The Verge)

The Vulture 5 Reasons Everyone’s Obsessed with “Serial”

The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson about the making of Serial.

New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose on Serial and the podcast renaissance.

The Vulture interview where Sarah Koenig says she doesn’t know how it will end.

NPR’s Linda Holmes on Serial’s up-in-the-air ending.

Nieman on storytelling and structure.

The economics of advertising on podcasts, which you can think about as you listen to that girl fail to pronounce “mail chimp” again and again.

Of course there’s a subreddit And of course they’re sleuthing away.

And a DailyDot writeup of some of the theories on it.

Slate has a Spoiler Special podcast about the show, if you want listen to a podcast about a podcast.

Serial’s own website is full of interactive maps, timelines, and photographs of pieces of evidence discussed in the show.

Split The Moon is the blog of Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who brought Adnan’s case to Sarah Koenig’s attention.

Header Imaging Above : Mashable Composite, Serial 

5 thoughts on “Serial Killing The Short Attention Span

  1. Jeff, thanks for tying together some loose end. Long-form storytelling has been a stable of public radio for a long time now, but it is fascinating to hear how this plays out with a fictional story. Many years ago, Stephen King pulled off a similar feat with “Green Mile,” released one little mini-book at a time. I found myself trolling through airports hoping the next installment had been released. “This American Life,” the Moth Radio Hour, and other shows prove that consumers love a great story – on the radio – told in many ways. Great writing & great prodution are at the heart of pulling this off. You aver that radio has aimed too low. I would suggest that commercial radio isn’t configured to produce this kind of radio/audio. And it’s been that way for decades. Commercial radio professionals aren’t trained or educated to do this. In public radio, a different story, which is why something like “Serial” can happen. Thanks.

    • I appreciate your comment, Fred Thanks!

      I agree that Commercial Radio and a podcast like Serial aren’t playing the same sport. Of course Commercial Radio couldn’t / wouldn’t / can’t produce Serial.

      But I believe there are a great many stops on the train ride from 8 second breaks to long form shows like Serial.

      Shouldn’t we stop off at a few and explore?

      We won’t if we’re afraid to ask ourselves:

      “Is Commercial Radio aiming too low?”

      “Are we catering too much to short attention spans?”

      “Can we create content that aims even a little higher?”

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment, Fred – it’s much appreciated!

  2. Pingback: It’s only Gloomy in Radio if you expect the future to look like the past | Jeff Schmidt

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