“I was trying to hash out with a friend what it would even take to propose a podcast and chill session to somebody,” I blurt out to Anna Sale, the host of Death, Sex, and Money.
There’s a long, prolonged pause, and I begin to feel like maybe I’ve said something truly taboo. And just as I begin to explain my fears—that I’ll never find someone who loves Radiotopia or NPR as much as I do, she chuckles and says, “First of all, you wouldn’t call it a session, I hope.”
I respond, a little embarrassed, “I know. I know. I wouldn’t call it a session.” I lie. I have spent the month emailing friends far and wide—a dairy farmer in Madison, Wisconsin; a rabbi’s daughter in New Haven; a cybersecurity specialist at Facebook; a Washington Post journalist—about this phrase. The subject line of each of these emails read “Podcast & Chill Session: Questions.”
In the first few minutes of our conversation, I lie many times to Anna Sale. I say that I have watched Girls, when she asks if I have. But, then I spill my guts. I tell her the intimate things that I wouldn’t dare put in a dating profile. I tell her that I really like listening to podcasts with my eyes closed. When she hears this, she pauses and asks, “Really? Like, you listen to a podcast in a dark room with your eyes closed?” I pause and emit a monosyllable, “Yep.” Silence. I add, “You know, I went into monk mode after my breakup.”
The truth is that I’ve been in monk mode for about a year. My aunt tells me a year isn’t a long time. And when she does, I defensively pull out my phone and begin to tally the thousands of podcast episodes I have listened to in the past 365 days:
2971 minutes of Strangers
4581 minutes of The Heart
10607 minutes of Reply All
I stop. Scrolling through my phone, I see the three podcasts that form the core of my emotional minefield: 99% Invisible, Welcome to Night Vale, and Mortified. I want to listen to them, but I can’t. Something stops me each and every time. These are the ex’s favorite podcasts, and though I have tried to slowly exfoliate him from my mind, I still can’t bring myself to listen to these shows, the very ones all my friends tell me are the shit.
I can tell you that there’s a weird withdrawal that happens when you lose a Podcast Lover. When our relationship ended, so too did our habit of sending each other podcasts, of introducing each other to new storytellers, of listening to nearly everything that rolled out of Radiotopia. For months, we wobbled and hobbled around our small town, avoiding each other, walking to our respective coffee shops as freelancers do, probably listening to the same episodes of The Heart. I would find unique sounds and stories and send them to friends—friends who would sympathetically listen to long, long episodes of Beautiful Anonymous, because they knew my intended recipient was off the grid, in that baffling and befuddling zone of No Contact.
In a year, I accumulated hundreds of questions for my ex, questions I stashed in a Google Doc just in case. Has he discovered Rabbits yet? Did he change his listening habits after the election? Is he addicted to NPR Politics and Trumpcast like I am? Would he ever consider calling into Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People? Has he—a New Jerseyan—ever given the now defunct The Christie Tracker a try? Has he found someone new to binge on Reply All with? Did he know that Crybabies was basically made for him? I let my Google Doc sit and gather virtual dust. I stop myself from inviting him to collaborate.
After the breakup, everyone explains that I’m supposed to find a substance to wash the pain away. I’m supposed to binge on Häagen-Dazs ice cream, The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert, cigarettes, a good bottle of Bordeaux wine or even Tylenol. But, instead I drown myself in sound.
I turn to podcasts almost robotically. Silence, I steadily learn, is a thing than can sting more than sound. So, I return to my standbys: The New Yorker Radio Hour, Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin, Hidden Brain, Planet Money, Dear Sugar, More Perfect, and Criminal. I play “Bobby,” an episode from The Heart on repeat.
It is a weird thing to be able to trace a relationship over a series of podcast episodes, but I can. I do.
Many of us have a “holy shit” moment in relationships. In the early days of dating in November 2015, the Podcast Lover texts me a link to Aurora singing on NPR’s Tiny Desk Music. We hadn’t talked audio. I hadn’t yet confessed my great and utter love for public radio. I remember staring at my phone, shaking my head, smiling giddily. I’d found a guy, who had a thing for NPR, and I wasn’t even looking for him.
Later that year, the Podcast Lover tries to get me into fiction podcasts. He nearly succeeds. He pulls his phone out late one night, when we are both mad, crazy stressed, and plays a single episode of Night Vale. He tells me how he once tried to pitch a script to the producers. And it is then that I know I love this audio nerd. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I still do.
Even the best of storytelling cannot distract us from all of the trials and tribulations in the modern world, from debt, from depression, from the deep-rooted incompatibilities that divide even the most avid of podcast listeners. They don’t teach this lesson in fancy liberal arts colleges though. There is no “How to Get Over a Podcast Lover” course anywhere in America, but I tell myself that someday I’ll be a prof and convince the dean of some department of Communications Studies to let me run wild with my fascination of podcasts, dating, and intimacy. Forgive me. I’m a millennial, and when I take melatonin, this is what I dream about: a syllabus about relationship podcasts for the brokenhearted.
As things deteriorate, I flail and flounder. I listen to “Love Hurts—Two Years Later,” an episode of Strangers, where Lea Thau eloquently argues with her partner about the meaning of commitment. I want to fight for the thing that we have, but all I can do, all I have left in me, is the energy to find this podcast that says the things that I cannot and text it to him. Days later, he responds. And that’s when I learn that though we both love Lea Thau, the love we once had for each other, it’s gone, in the ether somewhere. I receive his last text, and I enter willingly into a monastery, where the only thing allowed inside my room are my favorite podcasters: Helen Zaltzman, Anna Sale, Kaitlin Prest, Andrea Silenzi, Lulu Miller, Phoebe Judge, and of course, Lea Thau.
Don’t get me wrong: I may be a monk, but I have done some crazy things in my singlehood.
Back in October 2016, after listening to “IRL-ASMR” on Chris Gethard’s Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, I get totally inspired; I decide it might be therapeutic to walk around my small town listening to a very long clip of kissing sounds. It is fun for about a day, maybe two, but the second I hit pause and glance at the silly mp3 file on my phone, I remember the gaping hole in my chest.
Later, while winding through the streets of Connecticut, I played episode 8 of Andrea Silenzi’s Why Oh Why for my dad. His response to her dating advice was simple. “Her mother must’ve taught her all this shit,” he said. I sigh. Maybe listening to relationship podcasts is a rabbit hole I wasn’t ready for yet.
I ask a college ex—a Tinder user I might add—if he might ever invite a prospective date to “podcast and chill.” We freestyle how he could advertise this interest on various dating apps. I text, “Into podcast and chill, but nothing televisual…” He adds, “…cause I only have eyes for you.”
I call up Kaitlin Prest, the creative director of The Heart to chat about my broken heart. And, she has hope for me. She wants me to be open-minded, if not upbeat.
“I would say that there’s a podcast lover inside of everyone,” she declares. “I remember I would force my friends to listen to things. It’s a lot easier with just one person, because in a group of people, they can get kind of bored. You can show someone the light, you know.”
Maybe she’s right, but I’m skeptical, buried beneath books, hiding out in my monastery built for one. Still, talking to her is somehow empowering. That evening, I pull up the audio of our conversation and consider sending it to my ex, the Podcast Lover that got away. But instead, reason prevails. I pull up the latest episode of 99% Invisible, close my eyes, and hit play.
Raised on a strict diet of NPR and C-SPAN, Muira McCammon is a war crimes researcher by day and a podcast reviewer for Paste Magazine by night. She can be found on Twitter @muira_mccammon or walking about the woods of western Massachusetts. Her writing has previously appeared in Slate, Waypoint by VICE, Atlas Obscura, the Massachusetts Review, and other publications.