I walk a lot. I run a lot. And if I’m interested in learning more about a topic, my go-to move is to download a bunch of popular podcasts about said subject and see if any of them stick. This is how I ended up spending several years listening to podcasts like Slate’s Political Gabfest and the Around the NFL podcast. But a relationship with a podcast is like any other. Sometimes it has to end, but it might be difficult to understand why.
Around the NFL is best described as the NFL equivalent of the Giant Bombcast. It features people in a room talking passionately about football, and importantly, they don’t pretend to be objective analysts. Sure, they love football, but each of them roots for a specific team and goes through the same cycle of hope and heartbreak that every irrational fan can sympathize with. It’s easy to feel like you're eavesdropping on a conversation between friends at the bar. And as my personal investment in understanding football beyond fandom grew into my 20s, so too did my bond with the hosts. I even started listening to a side project about music by one of the co-hosts, and I don't even really care about music.
(Boy, that sure sounds like an echo of a future me, starting a podcast about sports and home improvements...)
I had unknowingly built what we now call a "parasocial relationship" with the hosts, which is described as the dynamic where an audience becomes personally and emotionally invested in a media creator or persona. The ironic part is that I was already familiar with the concept. I was part of the Giant Bombcast for several years as its fifth wheel, and it was Giant Bomb where my career unexpectedly pivoted from journalism to personality. While I can acknowledge that this is entirely the reason I still have this career, it was uncomfortable to notice it. People become invested in you and the work, but the split is always more about you than what you make.
In the case of Around the NFL, I was the one with the parasocial relationship, even though I wasn't consciously aware of it — it just happened. I was tickled whenever one of the hosts would like one of my replies on Twitter, even though none of my tweets were good enough to warrant a follow-back. I flipped out when the podcast’s once-annual segment, Team of ATL, picked the 2018 Chicago Bears as the team to collectively root for each week. That was the last time it felt great to be a Bears fan, and it was a year that ended in tragedy (remember the double doink?). It was a treat to watch the Bears kick ass on Sunday, then rush to download the group’s reaction. Their reactions to my emotions operated as a form of silent validation.
Like many podcasts, Around the NFL has different eras. The era I’m talking about featured Gregg Rosenthal, Dan Hanzus, Marc Sessler, and Chris Wesseling as hosts. Chris, specifically, was a huge part of why I fell for the podcast. He was a lapsed Cincinnati Bengals fan who did what all of us are too cowardly to do: give up on his team. He stopped being emotionally invested after a lifetime of watching the Bengals fail to put together something worth rooting for. He was smart, insightful, witty, and goddamn, he was funny. He reminded me of the late Ryan Davis, someone I can personally attest to being exactly as nice in real life as they seemed on the Bombcast. Being a personality is a performance, but thankfully, it’s not always a false one.
At the start of every year, I sort through my podcast feeds and unsubscribe from a few. I’m someone who likes inbox zero and podcast zero, so when the episodes start stacking up, it’s often a sign that my time with a podcast has run its course. In the case of Around the NFL, I’d simply started listening to more NFL podcasts than I could keep up with, like Hoge & Jahns (which covers the Chicago Bears exclusively) and The Athletic Football Show (a terrific show that covers the entire league and helps you understand the language and minutia of the sport).
Despite my lapse, I made listening to Around the NFL, which dropped episodes multiple times a week, a ritual again, and set that year's Super Bowl as the point where I would remove it from my feed. But it was becoming clear, first in whispers and soon explicitly, that Chris was sick. It was cancer, or as the podcast jokingly called it, “The Big C.” This wasn't new for Around the NFL listeners; Chris went through cancer treatments a few years ago, and came out the other side happy, healthy, married, and welcoming his first child into the world.
But The Big C is a bitch, and this time, it was too much.
When my father died, I vowed to move back home within a year of his passing. So one year later, I was sipping a beer with my family on the porch of my parent’s lake house in southern Wisconsin. I kept sending a phone call from Vinny Caravella, my friend and former colleague at Giant Bomb, to voicemail. I figured Vinny was calling to check on me, knowing the anniversary was coming up, but I didn’t want to talk with anyone. That could happen tomorrow. Finally, Vinny texted and said it was about something important, at which point he revealed that Ryan, too, had passed.
The same day as Dad. A cosmic joke by Ryan, to ensure I’d never forget.
The news of Ryan’s passing was kept quiet for days before a post appeared on the Giant Bomb website. I remember watching my Twitter feed explode with equal parts surprise and anguish, and all the emotions I’d been trying to process in the past week — about my dad, about Ryan, about moving across the country and coming home — came flooding out, and I couldn’t stop crying. Of course, the moving truck from California showed up at precisely that moment.
Ryan Davis was my friend in real life, but he was a friend to his listeners, too.
Chris Wesseling wasn’t my friend in real life, but he sure felt like a friend as a listener.
That's when it clicked.
I'd originally intended to drop Around the NFL because the other podcasts in my life were fulfilling new roles. But in reality, I moved on from Around the NFL because Chris's absence was too painful. In that sense, my own parasocial relationship with the podcast became my own undoing, and it made me better understand why, after Ryan Davis passed, others did the same with the Bombcast.
I remember listening to the podcast when they announced Chris’ passing, which I'd been dreading after he barely made it through his last podcast appearance. I was in my kitchen, an AirPod in my ear, doing household chores. Hearing Chris had died took my breath away, and I had to brace myself against the counter as I held back tears. I couldn’t fathom how I’d explain what was happening to my wife or children, so I hustled away and took a deep breath.
The devices we use to watch and listen these days are tiny and intimate, and so become our relationships with the people on the other end. Usually, I’m the person people are listening to. In this case, I was the listener.