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How Podcasts End

Sometimes the end comes swiftly, because the media organisation that published your favourite podcast suddenly pivoted to video, or ad tech, or something else entirely. Sometimes it happens more slowly, with episodes gradually becoming more infrequent and the reruns stacking up in-between until one day the feed just stops updating altogether.

Whether there is a lengthy explanation or none at all, the loss of a beloved podcast listened to over many years can feel melancholy, even hurtful. The much-vaunted intimacy between podcast host and listener cuts the other way too. When we welcome our favourite shows into every part of our lives, it’s that much easier to feel their absence when they are gone.

For one reason or another, I’ve been thinking about endings quite a bit recently. Of course, there are lots of reasons why a podcast might have to cease production that has nothing to do with its creators — although, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it will still be the hosts who have to communicate that news to their audience. For the purposes of this column, I’m assuming that the show is ending on good terms with its listeners. Podcasts that conclude under other, less peaceful circumstances are a whole other issue.

Where I think this gets most interesting is when a podcast ends voluntarily. Longtime readers will know that creator burnout is a topic I’ve been interested in for quite some time, and I’ve felt for a while that the constant pressure of a regular publishing schedule and the need to upload consistently is part of why many in the audio industry have experienced it. (Other regularly publishing products, like newsletters, are of course susceptible to the same effect.) Cutting back on releases, taking a break, delegating work — these are all good techniques for managing burnout. But sometimes… you’ve just got to stop altogether.

And this is where that intimacy between the host and the listener, or the illusion of it, breaks down. Perhaps the podcast creator has been keeping quiet about what has been going on behind the scenes, putting a brave face on their difficulties. As far as the listener is concerned, shows go on forever, until that happy thought is contradicted by the announcement that the end is nigh. In the end, the fundamentally one-sided nature of the relationship is exposed, and it can be very disruptive.

These parasocial relationships are something that I read pretty obsessively about, and I’ve increasingly settled on the view that the concept is completely applicable to the podcaster-listener dynamic. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, I recommend checking out this great piece by Fadeke Adegbuyi, which outlines the phenomenon and how various platform mechanics encourage fans to feel invested in creators’ lives as a way of driving higher engagement. With audio, no such trickery is needed — merely the fact that you carry a voice around in your headphones and it feels as if they talking only to you is enough to form the connection.

Given this, it’s understandable that so many shows choose to go out with a slow fade rather than addressing the demise head on. If you’ve ever been in the situation of needing to bring a beloved project to a close, you’ll know that there are no good options available to you. It can feel like there are only two options: Either you ghost your fanbase and field bemused messages for years, or you lay it all out and field disappointed messages for years. A graceful exit is typically out of reach.

I’ve been thinking about the mechanics of this periodically since 2018, when I had to end a show with a moderately sized but extremely passionate fanbase. My co-host Anna Leszkiewicz and I made a pop culture chatcast for three and a half years, but when I left the company we both worked for, there wasn’t a viable way to continue with the show. We opted to give our listeners some warning, rather than just letting the podcast fade out with the end unacknowledged, and told them at the top of the penultimate episode that there would only be one more. Then we gathered as many friends of the pod as we could to make a final holiday special and let that be the last thing on the feed.

The majority of listeners who got in touch were delightful, expressing only regret because they had liked the show. But I still, nearly three years later, get a smattering of emails from people who want to understand why we didn’t carry the show on in our free time, free of charge, and when I was on book tour in 2019, there was someone at most of the events who waited behind afterwards to ask something similar. I had thought by giving the show its eschatological rites it might feel as if a line had been drawn beneath it, but no.

That show was only active for a bit over three years, and even then, we had changed so much as people while we were making it to the point where it didn’t fit into our lives quite so neatly anymore. This is the part of ending a podcast that is the hardest to acknowledge, I think. There’s a way in which having an eager, engaged audience keeps you frozen in the moment they start listening to you, even if a lot has changed behind the scenes.

When I spoke to Hillary Frank in 2019 about her decision to end The Longest Shortest Time after nearly a decade, she articulated a version of this really well. She started the parenting podcast “to feel less alone” after a difficult birth and relocation, but nine years laer, everything was different. “I’m in a different place in my life now, and somewhere along the way, the show became a symbol to me of my past trauma — something I don’t want to be reminded of on a daily basis,” she told me then.

Recently, the hosts of Answer Me This, a beloved British comedy podcast, announced that their 400th episode — which comes out this week — will be their last. Helen Zaltzman, one of those hosts, rationalised the choice perfectly. “We’ve been doing this since 2007,” she said. “How many of you have been doing the same job since 2007?” It’s a very good question.

The next time I end a podcast — and for the one listener to my current audio endeavour who is reading this, don’t worry, I have no plans to stop at the moment — I think I’ll follow the example set by the British novelist David Lodge in his 1975 novel Changing Places. A whimsical and formally experimental writer, with this book he was very preoccupied with how even if he did his best to disguise it, the reader would know that the story was coming to an end because there wouldn’t be many pages left to turn. The physical form of the book would betray him; “[the novelist] can’t disguise the tell-tale compression of the pages” as a character fumes late on.

Lodge’s solution to this was ingenious: In the final chapter, he switched from writing in conventional prose and instead rendered the last scene as an extract from a screenplay. There might not be many pages remaining in the hand, but the reader is intrigued — what does this formal shift indicate? It’s not how a novel usually concludes. Then the screenplay then cuts off in the middle of the action, with the final stage direction left hanging. A character shrugs, and we’re told that “the camera stops, freezing him mid gesture.” That’s all. It’s over.

In accordance with Larry David’s famous Seinfeld mantra, there’s no hugging or learning. While I’m not necessarily saying that all podcasts should end mid-sentence, I do think that creators should be allowed to break off, semi-permanently or indeed permanently, when they want to without it coming across as “ghosting.” To come back to the theme of burnout, I think this is an essential part of reducing the prevalence of this problem. It’s time to normalise ending things.

The end.