A Conversation With Anna Sale About ‘Death, Sex & Money’

by Joshua Michtom

Death, Sex & Money is a new podcast by WNYC’s Anna Sale and you should probably be listening to it. As the name suggests, its raison d’etre is discussing those taboo topics that are frequently on our minds but seldom in our conversations (just like The Billfold!). The first three episodes address topics often addressed here, like realizing you can no longer afford to live in New York, pursuing a creative career despite financial hardships and long odds, and, of course, having a former Republican Senator intervene in your love life. (That last one was featured on This American Life.)

Anna was good enough to take some time to talk with me about the podcast, taboos, shame, and the challenges of adulthood.

Josh: First, Anna, congratulations on hitting the podcast big time with the Ira Glass shout-out.

AnnA: Thank you.

J: Death, Sex & Money was the top downloaded podcast?

A: It shot to number one on the iTunes top charts.

J: That’s like the platinum record of NPR and radio.

A: Yeah!

J: So how did the whole idea for Death, Sex & Money start, and how did it go from some idea — I hang out with a lot of radio people, and they sit around over beers and have great ideas for great shows all the time, but — how it did it get from there to being a fully fledged podcast, with a staff, theme music, and a cool URL?

A: About where the idea came from, it’s pretty simple but maybe a little unexpected. I’ve worked in public radio since 2005, mostly covering politics, I covered campaigns, including the presidential campaign of 2012 and the mayoral race in New York City in 2013, so in the last couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to voters. When you’re doing campaign coverage, you’re trying to collect personal stories as way to tell the story of who people are going to vote for. What I was really struck by, approaching people and saying, “Tell me how things are going in your life, and in the lives of your family,” those stories were really interesting, and to just sum them up as, “So, as a result, this voter is voting for X,” felt a little bit reductive. So I knew that I wanted to figure out a way to create a space to just listen to stories about how our lives in America are changing. And money has a big part to do with that. Because of the shifts in the middle class and what it looks like in America and what the sense of opportunity is, and what the sense is of whether people growing up now are going to be able to do better than their parents, those are big, major questions that people are feeling really deeply, but there’s not a lot of public conversation about the feelings around it.

That was really where the nugget of the idea came from, and the sex and death — sex, also because another change happening in all of our lives is what family looks like in America and what relationships look like, and what two-career households look like, and all of the different ways that people can have kids and have families. All of that is shifting, so that needs to be explored. And then death, I threw in there because death gives it a sense of, this is really important stuff, this is about the stuff that makes up our lives, this is about how we feel about our time on the planet. So the name “Death, sex & money” just kind of came to me, and I was like, “Well, that’s provocative.” But it also says, “We’re going to talk about things that often get left out of polite conversation.”

J: And how did that idea become this new podcast?

A: It’s pretty specific to having the privilege of working at WNYC. I was a political reporter at WNYC and I was in the middle of covering the mayor’s race, and the station opened up this contest to the entire staff and invited people to pitch show ideas. I pitched this show idea and after a couple of months of them looking at different proposals, I got the opportunity to spend a few months piloting it. As a result, I got great help from the station, and the musical geniuses in house. The Reverend John DeLore, who co-wrote our theme song with Steve Lewis, he is not only a great musician, but he’s also the engineer for Studio 360.

J: How much of your time is now devoted to the podcast, versus other journalistic duties?

A: This is my full-time job, working on this podcast. I do some other things, like help out on the talk shows, and do fill-in hosting when I’m needed, and sit in a chair during fund drives, which I love. But this is my full-time gig.

J: Let me go back to what you said before, a question about throwing death in there, about that trifecta of topics. There were things that, as I grew up, I was sort of surprised to learn were taboo, maybe because of how I was raised. I remember a friend showing me her new apartment, and I was like, “This place is amazing! What’s your rent?” and she said, “I’d rather not say,” and that was just from another world for me. Were there any things that you found either surprisingly hard for people to talk about or, well, let me put it this way: In your experience, what’s the most taboo topic? Death, sex, or money?

A: When you’re asking people to tell specific stories with details, the hardest thing to talk about is money. And I think that’s because, for whatever reason, in this moment in American culture, we’re comfortable emoting in public about moments of difficulty in our relationships or even gabbing with girls over drinks about sex, but it’s much more rare that you gab with friends over drinks about, “Oh my God, I might be short, and I’m going to pull out my credit card for the last $200 before my paycheck.” That’s a more uncomfortable conversation because it brings up all of these questions: Are you independent? Are you self-sufficient? Are you successful? Are you worth something? Money is so emotional, and that’s one of the first episodes, with Heidi Reinberg, who was a Brooklyn resident. She talks beautifully about that, about wanting to live in Brooklyn and not being able to afford it. And what I think that episode is about, and why there’s just an immense response online of people’s own stories about the decisions they’ve made about staying or leaving New York City because of money, and life choices they’ve made because of money, the reason it hit such a chord is because it wasn’t just about, “Oh, I had a really hard time making ends meet in Brooklyn.” She also talks really honestly about all the shame and the way that manifested socially for her. She didn’t want to tell her friends about this, because she didn’t want to be in that position, that discomfort of, “Oh gosh, are they going to think I’m going to ask them for money? Are they going to think that I’m a drag and that all of a sudden I’m dependent on them?” All of these things that come up with money don’t come up with sex and death in quite the same way.

J: I was wondering about that, in terms of whether we are changing, as a society, as we share more and more. It’s curious because those things have this shame, like you say. When you tell people you’re low on money, they put you in a category and you’re worried about how it’s going to affect you. In my own experience — I’m 36 and divorced, roughly the same age as you and in the same situation — and I don’t like to tell people I’m divorced, it feels as though they’ll make a judgment and put me in a category.

A: Definitely.

J: And it doesn’t make any sense with money or divorce, because most people end up divorced — I mean, more than stay married —

A: We’re just achievers, we get things done faster.

J: [Laughing] Right. Exactly. We got it out of the way. But it’s weird because I know that people get divorced and everyone knows that, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed. And I think everyone knows that everyone’s in debt. And yet! We continue to feel ashamed. I wonder, when you hear people talking about how much more we share now on Facebook and whatnot, is it maybe just a question of a brief confluence of youth and technology, and by the time we’re in our mid-40s, we’ll be gritting our teeth and smiling and hiding our debts and marital unhappiness, just like our grandparents did? Do you think we’re changing, or are we like we’ve always been?

A: I don’t know what’s happening. That’s what’s really interesting about seeing what the response has been to our first three episodes. My sense has been that there’s been, like, the response to me telling the story of how to get over commitment fears after divorce, people are writing me emails and telling me things about their personal lives that I never knew. People I knew professionally, people I knew over Twitter who I don’t know, they’re saying, “Oh, this really struck a chord with me because I’m going through the same thing,” and they’re sharing very personal stories. At the same time, I don’t think that we share our difficulties on social media. We perform on social media. I know when I got divorced, it was a whole question of, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to slowly roll this out, that I’m not married anymore?” I didn’t want my status change to just go out to everybody I knew all at once without any kind of follow-up showing how fabulous my life was even though I’d gotten divorced.

J: I went to a family reunion, a year and a half after I got divorced, and there were people who were like, “Where’s your wife?”

A: Yeah! I mean, figuring out how you tell people about things in your life, changes in your life, is difficult, so it is a rich topic to be explored. Once you do say it out loud, it does feel cathartic, because then you realize you’re not the only person who’s gone through it. That gets to one of the goals of the podcast, which is to be a companion that somebody can turn on and listen by themselves and feel like, “Wow, I thought I was the only one, I thought everybody would think I was a failure if I decided to leave New York City.” So, to have Heidi Reinberg say that out loud, it doesn’t change anything in the facts on the ground, but it makes you feel less alone.

J: Was it weird for you, especially in the third episode, the one with Alan Simpson, where you talk about your relationship, where you are part of the story, as a journalist, was that weird — not that you were telling deep secrets but to say, you’re divorced —

A: Oh yeah.

J: — that you want to have kids, things like that, that you were in a relationship that broke up and got back together? I know, from the perspective of the listener, I don’t even … there’s not room in my brain for the idea that Steve Inskeep wrestles with private demons, you know what I’m saying? I wonder how that feels from your perspective.

A: [Laughing] It’s scary. It’s scary to shift from being the kind of narrator of facts, which is what a public radio reporter traditionally is, like, I go out and I gather stories and I interview people but I stay relatively out of it as a character when I’m doing news stories. But pretty early on I knew that I wanted to do a story where I talked about me and what I’d gone through, just as a way to signal to the audience that I’m no expert when it comes to this stuff, I’m figuring it out right alongside you. This is a show where it’s OK to admit that you haven’t always know exactly what to do.

J: Where do you want to go in terms of other related topics, not from your own life, but along those lines, in terms of what you want to do and signal to your listeners in that way?

A: As far as other topics, with a show called Death, Sex & Money, I’m not going to run out of ideas any time soon.

J: [Laughing] No.

A: There’s a lot there, and these are pretty universal questions. Like, how do you feel safe in the world, how did you find love in the world, how did you find purpose in the world, it’s all variations on those themes. Hearing different people and how they navigated this big stuff, that’s the goal of the show. I’m looking forward to more episodes that are more directly dealing with death and loss in our lives, because I think, just in conversations that I’ve had with people in developing the show, that is something that is absolutely life-altering at an individual level, when somebody experiences loss, but it’s very difficult to figure out how to communicate that in your everyday life, to the people around you, and it feels like it’s a pretty isolating thing. Having a sibling die, twenty years ago, and the way that makes you think about your aging and then you think about your sibling who didn’t get to age alongside you. That’s something that people think about who’ve gone through that, and there’s no place to talk about that.

J: For whatever reason, in my family, we don’t have that issue about death. We just talk about it and everyone kind of accepts it, so that’s one of those ones that surprised me growing up, to learn that people didn’t even want to say “dead” out loud. It makes me think of other topics that are not technically death, sex, and money, but they’re those kinds of things. Another one for me, that I didn’t learn ‘till my twenties was taboo, was talking about miscarriages. Apparently, that is something that people feel shame around, and I didn’t know ‘till someone told me. Would you reach out, not necessarily to do a story about miscarriages, but into those other things that are just attended by shame, for whatever reason?

A: Oh, yeah. Fertility, miscarriage —

J: I guess, in a weird way, it’s related to sex and death.

A: Yeah. Exactly. And it’s about wrestling with the things we have control over in our lives and the things that we don’t have control over in our lives. I think that women my age, for example, think about this question all the time. Are you or aren’t you going to be a mother, and how do you feel about that? How is that going to affect your life choices? Along with that intense existential analysis comes the fact that there’s only so much of that that you can control. That has been my experience of feeling like, that’s what adulthood is, acknowledging that there’s a lot you can take responsibility for in your life while also —

J: No matter what, it might yet go wrong.

A: Yeah. Accepting the limits of your ability to direct how your life is going to go. One other thing I want to point out, because of the way you’ve been mentioning your family and what was taboo and what wasn’t taboo, I think that that’s really fascinating because, I don’t want to presume that for everyone, money is the most taboo topic. I had a great conversation with a cab driver the other day, who was from Bangladesh, and he was telling me all about how his kids had been so successful in New York City, and was telling me what they were now doing for a living and how much money they were earning, and how he was so proud of them, and it just struck me: my family would never talk about money that way, but that’s very culturally specific, because we’re sort of white, WASP people, where money is taboo to talk about. Even investigating the different cultural attitudes we bring to talking about sex, death, and money is something the show can investigate.

J: I know there’s a custom among some folks from South Asia, that when they emigrate, they send back pictures where they pose with their most prized and expensive possessions. Those are the pictures that go on the mantel piece at home — someone posing with a large television.

A: Yeah. I mean, that’s one way to signify status. The way I signify status to my family is I send them back, you know, links when I’m covered by the press. It’s very culturally specific, the way that we show the people who love us that we’re doing things that are important.

J: What’s next, as far as the future of the podcast? Might it someday become a radio show, This American Life of Shame?

A: That’s a good question. It’s interesting, because I’ve worked in radio my entire career, and this shift in thinking, between producing for broadcast signal versus producing for a digital audience, it’s been really different. The case you have to make to a listener when you’re dealing with a digital show, is, you have to make the argument that it’s worth pressing play, listening, downloading this episode or streaming it. On a broadcast signal, you don’t have to make that argument, because if somebody’s listening to WNYC, they will hear whatever I’ve produced if they’re listening when it airs. We haven’t really looked at it in that way, like what is this. It’s more like, what are the stories we want to tell, and then putting it in places where it fits. So it will always be a produced podcast, and when there’s a great story that fits with a show like This American Life, we will pitch it to them. When it’s a conversation that fits with one of the other WNYC shows — like Soundcheck, our music show, I’m going on their show this week to talk about the Bill Withers interview — so it’s kind of about thinking a little less literally about what the stories are, and just thinking about, what are the different way we can get this to the audience? And the other thing to point out is, it’s remarkable when you are putting content out as a digital show, the potential audience is much bigger than what you can reach in the broadcast signal. I’m getting emails, and somebody serving in the Air Force in South Korea, telling me he’s downloaded Death, Sex & Money and how excited he is about it. That person would never have found us if we were just on WNYC.

J: And are all the episodes even the same length, like a radio show, or can you just do whatever you want when you’re doing a podcast? I listened to them, but I realize now I don’t know how long they were.

A: They’re not all the same length. That’s the other thing that’s kind of cool, you’re not filling a broadcast hole. You have some flexibility. But I will say that, in designing the show, I want them to be less than 30 minutes, so between 20 and 30 minutes, so it’s something you can sit down with, maybe listen to all in one session while you’re going about your day, while you’re making dinner, walking to the subway, driving in your car, etc.

J: There’s nothing better than three episodes for driving from Hartford to Stamford.

A: Good!

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photo Credit: Amy Pearl

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