Anna Sale is the host of Death, Sex & Money — a podcast from WNYC Studios that uses personal experience to dive deep into the sorts of stories we generally ignore in polite company, from a prison guard who comes out as transgender to a man who discovers he is not his daughter’s biological dad. The show turned three this year. We caught up with Anna to hear more about the editorial process behind the show, how she likes living on the West Coast, and her alternative career.
Was the radio a big part of your childhood? What did you and your family listen to when you were growing up?
I definitely grew up in a public radio household; we always listened to West Virginia Public Radio. There’s a road where I grew up — it’s very curvy and takes you the back way up the hill we lived on, through forests and woods. I have this very vivid memory of driving home from youth symphony rehearsal with my dad up this long curvy road, listening to Terry Gross.
Death, Sex & Money has a thriving community on Facebook and Twitter, and listener stories are often included in the show and newsletter. How does listener input impact the editorial process — that is, what topics to cover, and how to cover them?
Honestly, I didn’t envision or understand how much listeners would be a part of our editorial process when we started. At early meetings I remember discussing “listener engagement” strategies and it felt like such a meaningless buzzword — and instead it’s been this incredibly profound community. Listener engagement isn’t just a tool; it’s very much what the show is: a place where our listeners gather to share, to help each other, and to find comfort in a community where things that are private or difficult can get worked out. At this point, listener input is really baked into our entire production process.
From the very first episode that aired we had people writing to our inbox talking about how the story impacted them — which at first really surprised me — and that continues today. We also get contacted by people who are going through something specific and want to know if we’ll do an episode about it. A show this spring that was a result of one of those inquiries: a woman whose husband was paralyzed after he experienced a serious spinal cord injury just weeks after they got married wrote to us, and she wanted to hear other stories from people who had been through something similar. I ended up interviewing her and we turned it into a show. It was an amazing, incredible episode, and it all started with her saying, “I need help; is there an episode I can listen to?”
We also ask the audience direct questions — we recently asked people to share how much they owe on their student loans and we had a huge response! The sense I got from the emails we received is that the amount people owe is incredibly difficult for them to talk about, and despite being so prevalent, they feel very alone in their feelings. Collecting those stories has been very moving, and hopefully helpful as well — there is a practical element to handling debt.
Where do you get podcast recommendations?
Hm, I get a lot from Twitter, and also just word of mouth.
The shows I listen to as a matter of routine has changed since I moved from Brooklyn to Berkeley, largely because my commuting patterns are different. Lately I’m also really into the limited series shows that are coming out — I loved Making Oprah, and I think what WHYY is doing with Cosby Unraveled, covering Bill Cosby’s trial, is really cool. I like going deep on something that’s not Washington politics. (And actually, on that note, I recommend WNYC Studios’ The United States of Anxiety — it’s a nice companion to the news because it’s people’s stories, so it really provides context and takes a longer view of things for when you want to flip off from the headlines.)
If you didn’t work in radio, what might you do?
My secret fantasy is to be an Americana country crooner (I don’t even play the guitar, so this is not happening). I was a history major, so even if I weren’t working in radio I think I’d be telling stories in some other way. I feel so lucky that I found radio a year after graduating college, because I love the medium. What you can do with it to tell stories and create connection is completely special and unique.
You recently moved to Berkeley. How do you like living in the Bay Area?
It’s been really wonderful.
It was scary for me to think about leaving my team at WNYC — we’re a close group that makes editorial choices together, and I wasn’t sure how that would change if I was based across the country. Fortunately, it’s been a lot less logistically challenging than I thought it would be. Once thing that’s been especially great, but that was not intentional, is that I’m a parent working east coast hours so I finish my day at 3pm. It’s this amazing life hack because now I get all this time with my daughter before her bedtime.
I’m also enjoying being a part of the radio community in the Bay Area. I share space with Reveal, and 99% Invisible, KALW, KQED, and Snap Judgment are all nearby, so I feel very much surrounded by audio people.