I’m not an early adopter. I’ll only start wearing new styles of clothing once they’re practically out of date, and I won’t move into a neighborhood until it’s fully saturated with upscale coffee shops. I was the last person I know to download music and to stop paying for long-distance phone calls.
Podcasts were different. I took to them instantly, or at least as soon as I noticed them on my computer. Before long, listening to podcasts was almost medicinal.
This was partly because I’m an expatriate—an American living in Paris. I didn’t just miss specific people back home, I missed knowing what Americans were doing, thinking, and talking about. After more than a dozen years away, my cultural references were dated, and I often spoke in turn-of-the-century slang.
Movies and TV shows were little help. Most were heavily produced, and usually arrived in France after a lag. But podcasts downloaded everywhere simultaneously. And many were essentially just long, unedited conversations. I could take a bath in Paris while listening to someone in Los Angeles complain about her dating life. Podcasts immersed me in colloquial English and put me back in the American zeitgeist.
At first, this seemed like a virtuous habit. Unlike the time sink of binge-watching a TV series, podcasts actually made me more efficient. Practically every dull activity—folding laundry, applying makeup—became tolerable when I did it while listening to a country singer describing his hardscrabble childhood, or a novelist defending her open marriage.
Sure, most of my conversations soon consisted of small facts that I’d heard on a previous day’s podcast. But my obsession was educational. I was learning American history by listening to Presidential, which devoted an episode to each president.
And as a mother of three with a full-time job, podcasts gave me the illusion of having a vibrant social life. I was constantly “meeting” new people. My favorite hosts started to seem like friends: I could detect small shifts in their moods, and tell when they were flirting with guests.
Unlike actual friendships, which were tinged with jealousy and resentment, these were stress-free. A good podcast conversation was like a dinner party full of fascinating people, but without the risk of saying something stupid and embarrassing myself.
I soon realized that my real-life friends were listening to podcasts too. “Terry sounds a little bored. I think she's not an animal person,” one emailed me recently, while listening to Fresh Air host Terry Gross interview a wildlife photographer. (Gross perked up once the photographer described how being away at photo shoots affected his marriage.)
Last summer, I discovered the most important advantage of podcasts over people: You can doze off in the middle of a podcast conversation without offending anyone.
The first time this happened, I was listening to a TED Radio Hour podcast about the nature of time, and woke up eight hours later. I’d taken sleeping pills on and off since entering my 40s. But once I started listening to podcasts before bed, I didn’t need the pills anymore.
My challenge was finding the right before-bed podcast. It couldn’t have jarring theme music. And it had to be intelligent enough to lift me out of my own thoughts and worries, but not so gripping that it would keep me awake. True-crime series had too much suspense. This American Life was simply too interesting.
I couldn’t fall asleep to podcasts that made me anxious about my social status or had a party-you’re-not-invited-to vibe. The various Slate Gabfests were out: They featured female writers in my exact age and demographic, only smarter.
The ideal podcast was the adult equivalent of a bedtime story: older people with calm voices, discussing a topic that mildly interested me. Think David Axelrod interviewing Madeleine Albright about her career, or a B-list comedian explaining how she overcame her cocaine addiction. When I found a podcast that worked, I’d listen to it night after night, until I practically knew it by heart.
My habit peaked in the months leading up to the U.S. election, when I switched to a roster of political podcasts. I was so anxious about the election, hearing people analyze the news was the only thing that calmed me down.
Like all addictions, podcasts helped until they didn’t. I was barely interacting with my husband. And I realized that I’d panic a little when I couldn’t find my favorite headphones, or when it was just me alone, without any voices in my head. Podcasts still lulled me to sleep, but I’d be awake again five hours later, needing to hear another one.
And there was something vampiric about devouring a person’s whole life in an 80-minute podcast interview, then moving on to someone else. Increasingly, I retained little of what I heard. I’d spend a gripping half-hour learning about the presidency of Martin Van Buren, but the next day I couldn’t tell you anything about him.
Soon after the election, I decided to go cold turkey, at least at night. I switched from podcasts to melatonin. My life felt eerily silent at first, and I had some sleepless nights. Eventually I found that it was enough to insert the earphones, plugged into nothing, before going to sleep. It was the equivalent of carrying around a pack of cigarettes without smoking them.
Still, my birthday is coming up, and I’m planning to give myself a special bedtime treat: a sleeping pill and a 40-minute podcast. Just this once, it can’t hurt.