friends of the pod

Call Your Girlfriend Is Happy to End on Their Own Terms

Ann Friedman, Aminatou Sow, and Gina Delvac. Photo: Describe the Fauna

Starting a podcast to maintain a friendship has long been common practice in the medium, but Call Your Girlfriend was among the very first to prominently adapt the concept into an intentional creative enterprise — not to mention a lucrative business. Built around the friendships of Aminatou Sow, Ann Friedman, and Gina Delvac (who produces the show), the “podcast for long-distance besties everywhere” made its debut months before Serial hit the charts in 2014 and has pretty much continued publishing as a defiantly independent operation ever since.

To pitch Call Your Girlfriend as a “podcast featuring two women chatting” is a little like describing Daft Punk as “two French DJs.” Sure, it’s literally correct, but come on. Over the years, the team has fashioned the podcast into an instrument to explore the wide universe of their interests — from politics to feminism to race to gender to power and so on — and forge new forms of creative collaborations with each other. Through the show, they’ve pushed deep into interviews, produced reported pieces, and worked to start conversations. They always knew there could be more. In 2019, we named it one of the ten essential conversation podcasts that shaped the genre.

Call Your Girlfriend is now coming to an end. On an episode released last week, the trio announced their decision to wind down the show, saying that it basically felt like the right time to do so. They’ve changed as people, as has the world around them, and the components that once aligned to make the podcast exciting to them as a collaborative professional endeavor are no longer so. It’s also been seven and a half years; people get antsy. A final batch of episodes is planned for the first few weeks of next year, but after that, it’s curtains.

One of the major themes driving Call Your Girlfriend over the years, which was also explored in Big Friendship, the best-selling book that Sow and Friedman published last year, is the notion that there are many, many more ways of being than what we’re generally told there are. You can have different relationships that matter more to you than conventional relations might. You can build a different structure of work. We can have a different world. And as they wind the podcast down, they’re submitting that there can be different kinds of endings too: not just amicable, but perfectly natural.

I checked in with the trio not long after the announcement to talk about the decision, what they’ve learned about public friendships, and what the legacy of Call Your Girlfriend will be.

Tell me about the decision to wind down the show.

Gina Delvac: It was a long time in the making. I think we gradually recognized that the time commitment, combined with where our respective creative energies were going, was not necessarily serving the show. I was also ready to figure out what the next phase looked like.

Ann Friedman: There were all kinds of little factors that are personal to each of us about why now was a good time to end. We all have competing pressures on our time that we didn’t have when we started. So there was a collective truth, and then everybody had their own, like, “This is what’s going on for me.”

The show was originally devised to consume an amount of time that just two people chatting would take. And honestly, part of the thing for me was that I got kind of bored with the format. I love chatting with my dear friends, but I feel I don’t need to do that as part of a professional thing anymore.

Aminatou Sow: I know I’ve asked myself and the two of you a few times over the years: “Do we want to keep going?” And the thing that has always struck me is how safe that question felt. There was never a fear of, “Can I ask my collaborators if they’re okay with this?” We built a collaboration where that question was never the most dangerous thing you could ask.

I thought there might have been a lot of guilt about it in a very real sense, because it was very much like I was ready to leave, but I was also completely okay if the show went on without me, you know? So being able to vocalize that was really important to me, and the care and kindness with which Ann and Gina always engaged me with business or creative questions also meant that there was never a point in doing this podcast where I felt I couldn’t say exactly what I think, or be exactly who I want want to be, or voice out a frustration. That is a very new feeling for me. I don’t think I can say that about all employment situations I’ve been a part of.

Also, the show was never any of our main gigs. It was very much a labor of love, even though it was a labor of love that made a lot of money. It was never positioned as this end all be all. That’s really important to me, because, and we say this all the time, if the proposition eight years ago had been: “Come do a podcast with us, let’s run a small media company,” my immediate answer would have been no. I’m just not interested in that.

As much as we’ve changed, it’s also fair to say that the podcast industry has changed a lot in those eight years. Today, it’s professionalized in a way that I don’t have a ton of interest in. So that makes leaving feel good as well.

Delvac: Also, and I’m going to paraphrase something that was said in the episode: It’s nice to end something when you love your collaborators, and when you know you’re not just going to run the thing completely into the ground.

I imagine the show being a public product built around your friendships puts a kind of tax on the time you spend with each other as friends. As you reflect on the show, what do you think you’ve learned about how having public friendships affects the actual friendships?

Sow: Speaking for myself only, the reason I continued to work on the show for as long as I did is because I never once had a belief that the show itself was more important than any of our friendships. I had a belief — which is documented in the book we wrote — that I felt confident in our relationships that if there was a moment where it was like, Oh, actually, burning the show to the ground will keep us friends, we’d do it. If I didn’t have a belief all of us felt that way, I would not work on this show.

To your point, there is a tax, right? A lot of it is just time. As sad as I am about not spending all these hours working with these ladies, because they are legit geniuses and so fun to work with, as much as I will miss all of that, I’m really looking forward to spending all this time with them without the veneer of work at all. To just genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

The answers about all of this are so complicated because I chafe naturally at the implication that you shouldn’t work with your friends, or that public friendships are complicated. Here’s the thing: All kinds of relationships are complicated. The trajectory of our show is also interesting because when we started making this product — and it is a product — there were no blueprints to this thing. It’s really easy to be cynical about it, but when we set out to make a two-ladies-chatting show, there wasn’t a blueprint for, “Here’s what a public friendship looks like,” “Here’s how you have a parasocial relationships with all of them,” “Here’s how social media intersects with all that.” We basically grew up alongside all of it.

Friedman: Working with two people who I already love so much outside of the working environment allowed me to show up for Call Your Girlfriend with more generosity and more of my full self than I think would’ve been possible with collaborators who were just collaborators.

I was going to say there are challenges to being in a public friendship,  which sounds like such PR speak, but I think all of us have gotten pretty good at recognizing what’s real and what’s chatter. It doesn’t really feel like that touches much of what we have going on between us right now.

Delvac: I also think to a certain degree, especially in the early days of the show, a lot of the attachment our audience developed to the show was about their feelings about their own friends that hadn’t been given a lot of voice to. That enthusiasm around what’s happening between Aminatou and Ann is truly the same as trying to keep track of your own close friends, that kind of devotion. I think we opened up a crack for people to feel and express a kind of love in a category that hadn’t been fully acknowledged.

Glennon Doyle said in her interview with Amina that her sister was one of the great loves of her life and that her friends are some of the greatest romances she’s ever had. I know that I felt this way about Aminatou and Ann many times, and so many people in our lives do.

A lot of that swirl of internal, emotional energy got brought into the passion for the show. We’re so much about that. This is such our shit. You once compared our show to a zine, Nick —

Friedman: Still the best characterization ever.

Delvac: — and having that passion of creation, that kind of closeness with the audience is a really up-close and intense experience that’s also super-cool. That same energy carried us through making the show even more episodes than we might have wanted to for business reasons, because we know how the audience-retention game works and what it takes to fund a program. We would’ve kept xeroxing off little copies quarterly, and when it wasn’t possible to do that, it was like, Okay, let’s be respectful of what the model is and what expectations we’ve set.

You’ve mentioned this a few times already, but could you talk more about feelings on the podcast world as you step away from it?

Delvac: Well, for me, I’m not stepping away from audio or podcasting. It’s the opposite. I’m running an original content studio for Spotify. That was opportunity that was directly engendered by the visibility that Aminatou and Ann offered me in every step of this project, of getting to be a co-owner in something that taught me how to grow a business, how to have a definitive creative vision, how to set a certain standard for work that after working with these two, which — love to my Spotify colleagues — no one can meet. So, yeah, I’m not going anywhere.

Friedman: As I said earlier, the chat-show format we started doing years ago is just not that exciting to me creatively anymore, and it’s been funny to watch it become ever more bankable. But I don’t plan on going anywhere either, in the sense that I will have some audio component to the work that I do indefinitely. I don’t exactly know what that looks like, but it will not be a chat show.

Part of this choice is about prioritizing my creative interests over my professional knowledge of what would be the most lucrative thing, which would be for us to just do this into eternity with some corporate partner. I’m still really interested in audio in general. I’m just so excited by the creative space that stepping away from Call Your Girlfriend is going to free up.

Sow: I’m very much bored by the chat-show format too. But that’s true in general. I’m bored by chat shows on television. It might be a phase in my life. It’s hard for me, because I genuinely enjoy shows where people are being interviewed. Even with Keep It or The Read. Both are amazing chat shows that I still listen to and get excited about, but I have to confess whenever they’re individually interviewing people, I get so much more excited about it. I spent the entire pandemic listening to every single episode of The Ezra Klein Show. Minnie Driver also has a podcast that I really like. Lovely interview shows are things I get very, very, very into. For me, it is less about the format and more about where my own passion lies, you know?

That said, as someone who came to doing podcasts not from the media world but as a person very much observing how media is made, there are things about the podcast industry that really make me roll my eyes. So we own every part of our company, farm to table. There’s a reason for that. We could have sold if we wanted to. Those opportunities came. The reason we kept the company the way we did is because we have really strong values around how we do capitalism. Capitalism isn’t great. I don’t love it. In order to sleep at night, there are rules we like to play by.

I’m really proud of the business we built. I know what it’s like to pay everybody a fair wage. I know what it’s like to say, “These ads are not great. We’re not going to run them.” So it’s hard not to roll your eyes at people who tell you it can’t be done. That it’s inevitable there will be union busters. That any kind of accessibility captioning is so hard to do. We know how hard it is. That’s why we kept the company at the scale it was at.

There were really hard decisions we made every day on a small scale. As you know, as the space has become more professionalized, more and more and more people are coming to work in it. I’ve done a lot of smaller podcasts for other networks, and I think a lot about my role as a host. I think so much about how the host gets all of the shine when it’s really the editors, the producers, and the writers who are doing the heavy lifting. They are the undersung heroes of this industry, and we really don’t have a fair and consistent way of recognizing their work. That’s an industry issue that makes it really hard for me to enjoy showing up in good faith, because it’s not a space that rewards everyone equally.

And as a Black person who works predominantly with white people in a medium that seems very much like it’s consumed greatly by white people, there’s also the tiredness of being that person all the time. I see how people who are not white creating media on the back end get screwed. I know that very intimately. Everyone is complicit in that, from the listeners all the way up to the CEOs of companies that acquire companies.

I’m not saying podcasts are somehow worse than any other industry or enterprise we have. It’s just that, as humans, we all get to make choices and we all have agency, and the choice that I’m making is leaning into taking a big break from this. Because it will be nice not to get pointed emails from listeners asking me to explain some race thing to them. It’ll be nice not to be patronized by other podcast peers who think of us just as, you know, the “ladies in the space.” It’ll be nice not to get patronized by companies that try to acquire us and then really lowball us on price. We know what’s going on here, and we make choices with that knowledge, and everyone can do that.

What do you think Call Your Girlfriend’s legacy will be?

Friedman: It’s funny — one of the initial motivators for us learning to podcast was that, when we first started, there were millions of comedy bros who were basically the only people we can point to who were doing this. And in a way, it feels like those are still the people who the profiles are written about.

Not 100 percent, but I’m thinking about publications…

Sow: Like Conan discovering podcasts three years ago? Remember that?

Friedman: The cynical part of me thinks that we’re not going to be a part of Phase One of podcast history. Maybe we’ll just be a media footnote, like when I read about zines or noncorporate publications by feminists from earlier generations. You find them and you go, “Oh shit, they were writing about this not long ago.” Maybe that’s too cynical, but that’s my gut response.

However, for the people who were invested in our show, because of what Gina said earlier about providing a space to really value not just friendship but all kinds of concerns that were and are central to our lives, I think we’re going to be remembered for specific conversations that we helped enable those listeners to have.

Also, we’ve gotten a fair number of emails over the years from people who were like “I was living in a place where I didn’t know anyone, and your show was my stop-gap until I made friends.” I really love that sort of upside of those tough questions about parasocial relationships. I love that we can be someone’s, like, weird friends in absentia, and we’ll be remembered by that person for that thing we did for them in this little hard period of their lives. That’s a legacy I’m really proud of.

Sow: I think I’m worse than you, Ann. I don’t even think we’re going to be a footnote. We see this all the time. People will talk about how men have been doing podcasts for centuries and no one will remember that we did —

Friedman: “Have you heard of How Long Gone? They’re doing something really new.”

Sow: I actually really like that show. It’s great.

You do?

Sow: I like that show a lot. It’s funny, now that I’m no longer doing a podcast, I actually listen to podcasts more. I’m like, Wow. Some of these men, actually, sometimes, you know, worth listening to.

Friedman: You know your burnout is dissipating when you’re listening to podcasts again.

Delvac: To men again!

Friedman: “Listening to Men Again: The Aminatou Sow Story!”

Sow: Listen, some men make good podcasts. What can I say? [Laughs.] Not all of them; slow your horses. Truly, though, I will say the best podcast made by a man is The Ezra Klein Show. It’s very, very, very good.

Anyway, I’ll say this: I think the cynicism is warranted, because we’re watching it happen in real time. Who is producing podcasts? Mostly women who went to liberal-arts schools. (You know, radio-people problems.) Who’s getting written up for making podcasts? Mostly white guys. Of course, profiles about podcasts are not the entire truth, and I so want to be careful about not positioning those external signs as the things people should be chasing. We all know those things are a scam anyway.

I do hope that one of the legacies of the show for the people who really listened was that sense of community, that you can actually do whatever you want to do. We ran a really successful business for as long as we wanted to. We didn’t have to ask some corporate radio daddy to be let out of our contracts. Like, never give it to the radio daddy because, you know, some of them went to jail. Some of them went to social jail. It’s all bad.

But I feel really proud, honestly. I feel proud of our corporate practices. Of the ways that we showed up. Of the ways we were a pain for every single corporate entity that had to deal with us. It is a true honor to be remembered as a difficult lady in this space, because people have very low standards for speaking up in this industry. The business we ran — I really hope that this is a model for whoever wants to still do it. I don’t know if that’s still possible today, but I hope that it is.

Call Your Girlfriend Is Happy to End on Their Own Terms