Hillary Frank, the public radio veteran whose first story aired on This American Life in 1999, started The Longest Shortest Time, her podcast about parenthood and the universe therein, back in 2010. And it’s coming to an end this year, with the first episode of its final season coming out tomorrow.
To mark the show’s wind-down, I reached out to Frank over email to talk about her decade-long experience making the podcast.
Hot Pod: When you started The Longest Shortest Time (TLST), did you think it would run for almost a decade?
Hillary Frank: Not at all! When I started the show, it was unthinkable that you could make a living through a podcast. Only a handful of people were doing it, and I can’t think of any women who were. Before TLST, I had always been a freelancer. But after I had a kid, I wanted the stability of a full-time job. The show was supposed to be my work sample to prove I still had chops after taking some time off post-baby. In the beginning, I made it in 20-minute spurts during my daughter’s naps. It was hard to imagine even thinking past the next episode, let alone 9 years.
HP: What made you start thinking it was time to bring the show to a close?
Frank: TLST began as a catharsis project for me. I had suffered a pretty severe childbirth injury, and then moved to a town where I knew nobody. The show was a way for me to connect with other moms and feel less alone. But 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. That’s part of why I passed the host torch to Andrea Silenzi a couple of years ago. When Andrea told me she wanted to stop hosting, I knew it was time to put the show to bed. It’s a way of closing the door on a rough period in my life.
HP: Do you have any regrets about leaving this podcast behind?
Frank: None. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished. We have facilitated real change in people’s lives, and we have normalized parenthood as a beat. That’s not something I set out to do in the beginning. But the naysayers lit a fire under my ass and I became determined to prove that this topic is big and important and relatable. I feel like I’ve achieved that, and now there is a growing landscape of reporting on parenthood, and motherhood especially. That said, I never wanted TLST to be my job for the rest of my career; I like hopping from project to project. I’ll miss making the show and connecting with listeners but I’m also excited to switch gears.
HP: The episodes will still be available — do you have plans to stay active in the listener community?
Frank: A few months ago, I started collecting middle school memories from our listeners. We’ve gotten over 300 responses so far, and they are amazing. I’m hoping to weave those answers into a future project. It’s a real gift to have listeners who are so willing to share their extremely personal stories with me.
HP: How has podcasting, and radio, changed over the time you’ve been working on TLST?
Frank: In so many ways. First, it’s a much more crowded field. In 2010, it seemed like the only people making narrative podcasts were veteran radio professionals. Now all kinds of people with all levels of experience have podcasts. Another thing I don’t remember existing are podcasts as vehicles to promote businesses, books, and other creative endeavors. There was also no such thing as a podcast network. And audio fiction felt very fringe.
Before I started TLST, I launched The Truth with Jonathan Mitchell and it was hard to get public radio folks on board with airing our stuff. Now fiction is a booming category in Apple Podcasts. I think what really blows my mind is that podcasting has gotten so big that it can be parodied on SNL or the butt of a joke in an Amy Schumer movie.
HP: You said in the announcement of the show’s ending that the things you want out of work have changed since you started the show. Could you talk a bit more about that?
Frank: Yes. When I started the show, I was using work as a way of processing trauma. I’m grateful that I was able to do that through reporting and storytelling — it’s been incredibly rewarding. These days, though, what I’m craving from work is escapism. Parenthood is an emotionally intense topic to cover, not to mention an intense thing that I live every day as a mother and a daughter. The news these days is also overwhelming. I’d like to make something that gives my brain a break from the stressors of everyday life.
HP: Burnout is a topic that comes up a lot when I speak to podcasters with really long-running shows. Is that something you’ve ever experienced?
Frank: For a long time on this show, I was working at a pace that was unsustainable. I was getting sick a lot due to stress and fatigue, and I can hear it in my voice when I go back and listen to past episodes.
A few years ago, though, my editor Peter Clowney and I worked together to design a new way of making the show. It was pretty simple, actually. We figured I had the bandwidth to do only one or two highly reported episodes each season. The rest would need to be basically two-ways with just a sprinkling of narration. We had to be super rigorous about this. Once we picked our heavy-lift episodes for the season, we had to say no to any others — or push them to another season. Even if it was a story we really liked. The result was that I got my nights and weekends back, and so did my producers. Best of all, this switch didn’t sacrifice quality in the show; some of our most popular episodes are also our easiest.
HP: Can you tell us what’s next for you?
Frank: I have zero plans at the moment. Right now I’m focusing on our final season, especially something fun we have planned for our last episode. I’m going to take a little time after TLST ends to decompress and figure out what’s next. Maybe a podcast about middle school. Or I might do some editing. I like to take on editing gigs between projects because it exercises a different muscle than when you’re creating. But whatever I wind up doing, I want to continue to push boundaries in this very cool, evolving medium.
Find the final season of The Longest Shortest Time, as well as the show’s full archive, on its website.