Frisky Q&A: Anna Sale Of The Podcast “Death, Sex & Money”

If you’re a fan of podcasts, odds are pretty high that you’re as obsessed as I am with WNYC’s “Death, Sex & Money,” a podcast about “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” Every other week, the show’s creator and host Anna Sale sits down with a guest (sometimes famous, sometimes not) to talk about the tough questions and transitional moments in our lives that we tend to avoid in everyday conversation. In an increasingly fake and glossy world, “Death Sex, & Money” is one of those rare reminders that real life isn’t so polished (nor should it be!), and that the private struggles that we believe isolate us are actually what connect us the most deeply to others. I caught up with Anna earlier this week as she was gearing up to take part in WNYC’s first women’s podcast festival, “Werk It: How To Be A Grown Ass Producer.” Anna shared some insight with me about the unexpected lessons she’s learned from her guests, the surprising story of the podcast’s beginning, and her advice for women climbing the ladder in male-dominated fields.

The Frisky: How did “Death, Sex & Money” get started?

Anna Sale: “Death, Sex & Money” really got started when I was walking my dog! At the time I was covering politics for WNYC, and I’d been doing that for a number of years, and I was thinking about what I liked most about that job and what parts I was getting tired of. I thought a lot about the conversations that I had had with voters during campaigns, and about when they had gotten to a deeper place about what was going on in their lives, and why they were feeling anxious about this or that, and what their families were going through. I started thinking about how I wanted to have a show where that was the story.

When you’re covering politics, you use maybe a little sound bite from a voter at the top to create dramatic tension and then it becomes a story about which candidate is up or down. I started thinking, “What if we had a show where that was the point?” Just to swap stories about what was happening in our lives in a way where we were actually talking about the difficult moments of transition, the things that we privately and quietly think about but don’t always feel a sense of community around. From there it was like, “what are those things in my life that I think about and don’t talk about a lot?” The name “Death, Sex & Money” came to me, and I thought it was sort of funny – what would happen if you had a show where you were really blunt and said “we’re gonna go there, we’re gonna go to these difficult places but do it in a way with sensitivity and humor so it felt safe?”

And that was the beginning of the idea. I actually pitched it to WNYC through a contest. They were having a contest for everyone that worked at the station. They had an open call for new ideas. So I had this structure and a set of questions to answer about what the show could be like, and what it would sound like, and why it was needed. So that was really good to help me work through from this little nugget of an idea and a feeling to something more concrete. Then I was one of the winners of the contest and got the opportunity to pilot it and try it out. 

When you first told people you were working on a show with a name like “Death, Sex & Money” did they react strongly to the title?

Yeah! And that was the first moment of needing to summon up some courage because I’d been more of a traditional reporter for a lot of years and then had to say “actually, what I want to talk about is these more taboo things.” But it’s good because it’s a conversation starter! I remember I was at a dinner party or someplace before it launched and I said the name, and somebody was like, “Well I would listen to that!” I thought, “Gsood, I want that to be your first impression!” 

Is it scary to walk into a room with someone and know that you’re about to ask them about some very personal topics? Your guests seem so open and willing to discuss very vulnerable things that I can’t imagine them talking to just any interviewer about. Is that intimidating?

You know, I think it’s all about how you communicate what you’re trying to do. With each person that I talk to, whether it’s a famous person or some who’s not famous, I say, “We have these conversations and I might ask you some personal things, but I’m not asking them to be gratuitous or to be provocative. It’s more about the idea that these are all things that we encounter at some stage in our life, so I want to know what was happening in moments of transition in your life and how you figured out what to do.” I sort of explain it that way because it’s about exploring the universal questions but in very personal, concrete ways.

I also tell people, “If I ask something that you don’t feel comfortable talking about publicly, we don’t have to go there.” The biggest thing in a “Death, Sex & Money” interview is establishing that sense of safety. I think that happens in one way by saying, “Here’s what I’m trying to do and here’s why I’m asking you these questions.” But I think it really happens because I listen. It’s interesting to see what happens when people are telling their stories when they’re really feeling heard. I think that leads to a process of being more willing to give details and be concrete. 

As a listener, one of the biggest takeaways of the show is that feeling of connectedness with these guests who I’ve never met in real life. It makes me think about how we all go through the same issues without ever really talking about it. Does hearing these stories from people change how you go through your day? 

Oh, totally. Absolutely. When I started the show, I was in my early 30s, I was divorced, I was in a relationship but I wasn’t sure where it was going, I wasn’t really sure where I was going with my career, and it felt like for me I was at this really pivotal stage where I needed to figure out some big stuff. Whether I was going to be a parent, whether I was going to stay in New York, what my work was going to look like. I kind of had this idea that once I got through that period of my early 30s, there would be a settling in and it wouldn’t be quite so crazy. But I think what I’ve learned from doing these interviews withDeath, Sex & Money” is that you never get to a point in life where everything gets locked down. It makes me sort of forgive myself and feel a little bit more relaxed about feeling that I’m just going to appreciate what’s happening now, and know that something else [unexpected] might come up soon. I’m getting married this summer and that’s awesome and that feels really exciting, but I also know that other things may come up, you know? My parents are getting older, what’s that going to bring up for me? So it’s more of an awareness of being okay with the fact that you’ve just got to figure it out as you go along. 

I get the impression that radio and podcasting is a mostly a male-dominated field. Do you find that to be true? What is it like to move through this field as a woman?

Yeah, when “Death, Sex & Money” started in 2014, podcasting was still overwhelmingly dominated by men, in particular in terms of who was hosting. If you looked at the iTunes charts before “Death, Sex & Money” started – tech podcasts, comedy podcasts, they’re all sort of male-dominated. Then the public radio podcasts that were the most popular – “Radiolab,” “This American Life” – they’re hosted by men. So it felt like a real opportunity, there was some space for more women voices and I think that was in part why I got the opportunity at WNYC. I think they recognized that there needed to be more women and more women’s voices. Working in public radio for my whole career – basically it’s been about ten years – the newsrooms where I’ve worked and the producers that I’ve worked with have probably been more women than men behind the scenes, but it’s the men who’ve been up front. So it’s not an unusual experience for me to work with women. I’ve worked with brilliant, incredible women that I’ve learned a lot from throughout my career, but the experience of being the woman who’s leading the conversation, that has felt like a new thing for me. One that I’m really excited to have the opportunity to do. 

In a “Death, Sex & Money” interview with comedian W. Kamau Bell, you and he spoke about how appearance can impact how we experience the world and the ways we accommodate others with our presence. I remember you mentioned that as a woman, you sometimes laugh at jokes that aren’t funny to make men feel comfortable. Do you think being a woman dictates the tone of interviews? 

I loved that moment, because W. Kamau Bell was talking about how as a big Black man over six feet tall, one of the things he’s noticed about himself is he will be very friendly and smile a lot to try to make people feel comfortable around him. I was like “oh, that’s interesting,” because it’s a totally different thing happening with me, but I know that I laugh at people’s jokes or am very friendly to try to make them feel comfortable socially. It was interesting because we’re doing the same things but for completely different reasons and with different histories.

But definitely, I think that being a woman, you’re socialized and trained to be very attuned to the reactions and the emotions of people around you. In some ways that can mean that you’re laughing at jokes that aren’t funny, but in other ways it can mean you’re trained to hone in on what someone is feeling as they’re trying to tell you something. I’m glad that I was socialized as that as a little girl because I think it makes me a more effective interviewer, because I’m listening for those cues of where to ask the next question. The feel I’ve tried to think about with the show is, “What do I want this space to feel like? How do I make people feel okay and comfortable listening to conversations that bring up challenging emotional topics?” So I think that that’s actually been a gift.

Do you have any advice to women who are hoping to move forward in their career and are coming up against inequality?

I mentioned the WNYC contest, and I think that actually was really pivotal in helping me think about “Death, Sex & Money.” If there had not been an assignment and if someone had not said to me, “Anna, if you could do anything in radio what would you want to do? And here’s the six questions we need you to answer to do it,” I never would have done that. I would not have marched right into my boss’s office and said “I know I’m covering politics right now but let me start a show, and here’s why.” But because there was someone who created the invitation to think about it and to think really big, it became homework, and I know how to do homework.

So that was really interesting thing for me to think about in terms of management and women. WNYC created the environment where I didn’t have to, you know, raise my hand and blurt out “let me host a show!” But they said “if you have an idea, tell us your idea” and so I think that that was really cool, because it was just the on-ramp that I needed to think big. One of the questions I had to answer was, “If you’re pitching a show idea, who would host the show?” And I can remember writing the sentence “I would host the show, and here’s why I would be the best person to host a show that I have an idea about.” And that was uncomfortable. It’s not something that I think women are necessarily always taught how to do. But I’m so glad I did.

I so relate to that!

The other thing that I’ve really thought about a lot since I started “Death, Sex & Money” is moving from traditional hard news to doing stories about the details of people’s personal lives, and feelings and emotions and the private lives that we have behind the public appearances. And I’ve thought a lot about how I really like making the argument that that’s also really important journalism. The stuff that our lives are really made of matters, and I think there’s a long history in feminism of making the argument that what happens in our family lives and in the private sphere of our domestic lives is worthy of exploring with serious rigor. So for other women, just remind yourself that the stories that you’re drawn to are really important, and there’s a reason you’re drawn to them. Tell yourself, “If I’m drawn to it and if I’m interested in exploring this or doing journalism about this (or whatever the field is), that makes it important.”

Was there one guest on the show that you’ve identified with most?

You know, I don’t think that there’s one person. I think that the thing that I love about doing the interviews is that mix. Sometimes there are people who on paper look like they’ve had a similar life trajectory as me, and then I’m surprised that they’ve had a completely different reaction to, you know, the question of financial security or getting your first job and how much money you needed to make. Because I was traumatized by the idea of not making money when I was first out of college, I was so scared of that, and that some people would just have a more innate trust that they’re going to be okay is fascinating to me.

Then there’s somebody like Domonique Foxworth, who is a former NFL player, and our lives could not look more different. He was a millionaire by the time he was 30 after playing in the NFL and grew up a Black man in this country, and I really related to where the interview ended up, which was this question of like, “now I have money but I find myself still trying to figure out how to feel like I’ve earned respect,” and thinking of that as a driver of ambition – it’s not just money, it’s also feeling like you’re being recognized for what you have to contribute to the world. So I really like that mix of being surprised by what I completely do not understand and what I relate to that surprises me. 

What’s around the corner for the podcast now that it’s reached its one year anniversary?

We have so many ideas and are so excited to just keep making more shows. We have a really, really long list of people we want to talk to and the stories we want to explore. Also, we just started getting together in real life with our listeners. We did our first live show in Brooklyn and I was just out in Portland, Oregon so we did kind of a pop-up meet-up in an ice cream store that was owned by a listener. It was really cool! What was really special about that was it was a bunch of strangers who listened to the podcast on their own with their earbuds in, and they showed up at this ice cream store and we sat down at these tables out front, and very quickly it became a very intimate conversation, about work and people’s lives and divorce and having kids. It was very cool to realize, “oh, the show has prompted you to feel okay sharing and swapping stories about this stuff.”

So I want to do more in-person stuff. We have an incredible email inbox – stories that we hear from listeners that episodes have brought up, or responses people have, or just story ideas and questions people have. So I feel like we’re leaving so much and that there’s so much more of an opportunity to share that with our listeners and to get listeners talking to each other, not just through podcast episodes but through other digital forums. So we’re thinking about that too, because it feels like a really cool community that we’re building together.

Do you WNYC’s “Werk It” festival will have a similar effect of bringing lone listeners together to connect? 

Yeah! I hope so. I’m also really excited to be in a room with my heroes. I was talking about how podcasting was really male-dominated when “Death, Sex & Money” started but I also want to say that in the last year, it’s just been incredible to see the emergence of so many new shows that are badass and innovative and changing what we think of and what’s possible for podcasting. “Serial” is one, “Invisibilia,” and also “Another Round,” I love “Another Round.” There’s a new one that I’m listening to called “Millennial” which is produced by a radio producer in Maine who’s kind of all on her own, and she’s producing these really great stories. So I think it’s going to feel really great to be in a room with a bunch of women who are doing this thing that we sort of do in different clumps – some people do it on their own and independently and some people do it with very small teams – and to celebrate what’s happened in the last year. It’s really exciting.

WNYC’s “Werk It: How To Be A Grown Ass Podcaster” is taking place at the Greene Space in New York City on June 4th & 5th, featuring Anna Sale, Roxane Gay, Jessica Williams, Heben Nigatu, Tracy Clayton, and many others! You can stream it live right here! Learn more about “Death, Sex & Money” and stream episodes here or subscribe on your preferred podcast streaming app or platform.

[Images via Amy Janice Yi/WNYC]