The Media Today

Q&A: Anna Sale on the second coming of Death, Sex & Money 

May 1, 2024

It’s not every day that canceled digital media products get resurrected. Especially podcasts—a once booming industry that is now facing uncertain times. The team behind Death, Sex & Money, a beloved earworm and staple of WNYC, the New York public radio station, thought that it was gone for good. Last year, WYNC announced a change of strategic direction and cuts to various podcasts. Death, Sex & Money, along with other shows, would be canceled. 

Over the past decade, Death, Sex & Money established a reputation for its intentional, intersectional analysis of private issues, in families and relationships, that, as the show put it, are “usually kept out of polite conversation.” Episodes followed the evolution of a man who was incarcerated after he killed a bystander in a movie theater when he was seventeen, then was released and became a journalist with the Marshall Project; the show hosted interviews with the late Bill Withers, who reminded listeners that we all have a purpose on Earth and that “nobody comes here to hide,” and with a teacher who talked about the demands of the job since the pandemic hit. In December, as the show’s cancellation loomed, its host, Anna Sale, and producers planned a live memorial in New York, alongside oft-returning guests. Aptly, the event was dubbed “Four Interviews and a Funeral.”

But Death, Sex & Money did not die. Earlier this year, the show found a new home at Slate; it officially relaunched last month. Ten years after its first episode, the show has a second wind, albeit in different terrain from broadcast public radio. (Among other demands, it now aims to entice listeners to pay for Slate Plus, a subscription with exclusive perks.) For Sale, a public-radio politics reporter turned podcast host, the transition has been as personal and deeply considered as her conversations with guests on her show. Recently, we spoke about Death, Sex & Money not staying dead, what its new life looks like, and the end of the “golden age” for podcasts. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Credit: Mindy Tucker

AR: You had a successful, well-loved show on WNYC, a well-known platform. And then you were told that it could not continue. You later wrote on Substack that after going through emotions and fear about what might happen next in your career and financial life, you also felt curiosity, exhilaration, even relief. Talk me through those feelings. 

AS: I received this news about ten years after we started the show. I had been feeling this sense of: Where are we in our life cycle right now? And what are we building? I was feeling that at a time when it was really clear that, not just WNYC, but every company that was in my part of the podcast ecosystem had less to work with than it had during the golden era. You’re making something, and you feel like you’re making it in an environment where there’s diminishing returns. I think I knew something was going to have to shift, but I didn’t know how. 

When I learned from WNYC that they had to make this choice, it was sort of like, Okay, here’s an opening to reflect. What is it that I have loved about making this show? What am I proud of? Is there more gas in the tank for me and for this show to warrant another life? You know when you can feel a change coming around the bend, but you don’t know what’s going to be the thing to make you face it? WNYC made me face it. So maybe that was the relief. When you make something for ten years, there have been a number of discrete phases inside of that. We made a lot of episodes in the first two years of the pandemic. We produced more than we ever had before, and we were really in our listeners’ lives. We were trying to be with them in real time. It was heavy work, and it was hard. And I had a book come out in the middle of that. I needed an energetic and creative reset.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

When you say you have less to work with in the podcast industry, how do you mean?

We started this show in 2014 with modest expectations. Then within two years, it felt like I could write down any wild dream I had of what I might want to do—as an audio-maker, as a host, as an interviewer, as a writer—and I could figure out a way to try to do it. People had good jobs and they had good salaries. Then the era of total possibility was over. There were constraints on resources. Everything came back to Earth. 

What was it like pitching Death, Sex & Money to other companies before you finally landed at Slate?

It was basically a really wild, emotional reporting project. It was emotional because I had skin in the game. I cared about the outcomes, but I learned so much about how different podcast distributors think about things like how you resource a show, how you pay for a show, how the ads get sold, how many ads you’re going to put in an episode, what sorts of expectations you have for financial support from listeners. I talked to people who had to start new feeds because they weren’t able to get the IP of the show that had made them famous; they had to start over. I learned about people who have figured out how to run their own media companies and spend very little time on the business side, because they figured out how to automate a lot of it. 

What I learned specifically about Death, Sex & Money was that we were an interesting business opportunity because we had both a really established RSS feed [a way for publishers to upload, and audiences to track, work in a standardized format] with a loyal listener base that was big, and four hundred or so episodes of archives that you could continue to sell ads on. And we make a lot of episodes each year, so we could be an always on show. We have a very different business model than something that’s a deeply reported investigative narrative series, where you have fewer episodes a year and they’re very resource-intensive.

How did you land at Slate?

It felt good. I enjoyed my conversations with people across the organization. I was stimulated hearing about how the business was working and how Slate made money last year when many other digital media companies did not. I was stimulated by my editorial conversations with people who were leading the audio department. I was moved by their sense of mission. It just felt like a really good match. 

I am very interested in the business side of not just my podcast, but podcasting in general. I’m interested in what listeners think is worth paying for when they’re inundated with too many asks. In the move to Slate, I’m more included in some of those conversations, which is important to me. I want to be included because I have opinions. But I also want to be able to explain to our listeners why we’re doing the things we’re doing.

How is your relationship with your listeners evolving now that you have moved from a public media broadcast model to subscriptions? 

There’s a lot of experimentation happening in podcasting and in digital media generally, around “bonus content”—which is kind of a boring name for what is interesting, which is making stuff, especially for these listeners who have signed up to be closer and to get something just for them. What’s interesting to me creatively about it is that I came at storytelling from a broadcast model—the assumption that you’re making something and hope that it gets the widest reach possible at all times. [Now we’re] thinking about what audio would be interesting to a smaller subset of people who have opted in. And then, what do you say when you go back to the broader audience? What kind of hints do you give them about what’s happening in the back, if only they become Slate Plus subscribers? What would entice someone to be like, “Oh, I gotta hear that”? 

Do you feel like you’ve landed on something so far? 

For the first time, I work at a place where there’s a robust print audience who aren’t necessarily coming to Slate to listen to audio. I can reach them by writing an essay that is related to an episode. The other thing that Slate has is a whole universe of podcasts, some of which have been producing since the dawn of podcasts, that we are [using] to introduce ourselves to those listeners. That’s why I’m bullish about our reach through Slate. 

You’ve written about how you’ve been thinking about how your work can be of more journalistic service and have a mission, adding to the conversations around democracy that you are having right now, especially in that other media aren’t reporting on those topics well. How should we report these stories? For instance, white rural rage is a keen topic for you…

I think what I’m working out is how to bring more of myself into my interviewing and the universe of my journalistic curiosity, specifically around issues [concerning] rural communities in America. I am from West Virginia, and I was disappointed with the early coverage of White Rural Rage, the book by Paul Waldman and Tom Schaller, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller. [That coverage] felt incurious and dismissive of what I think are some pretty nuanced policy, economic, and historical challenges in rural communities in America. To dismiss all of those big issues in 2024 as a function of reactionary rage among white rural people is unhelpful, in my mind, and just less interesting than reality. 

For Death, Sex & Money, it means continually trying to model humility in the way that we ask questions, broad curiosity, and an intention to highlight voices from outside major metropolitan areas. I’ve noticed how, in my media diet, I can read six outlets and I can kind of predict the take of each one based on their record of how they tell stories and how they want to demonstrate to their audience that they are oriented to their particular audience’s worldview. I am more interested in mixing it up, in getting close and intimate and precise with details on the ground. What I want a listener to think or feel after listening to an episode is, Gosh, this is more complicated than I knew, or Gosh, isn’t it hard to sit in ambivalence? I want to help listeners move out of places of absolute certainty. The world is complex, and your individual lived experience leaves out a lot of what other people are experiencing. 

You went from being a hardcore politics reporter to being a storyteller with a journalistic slant, if you will. Some journalists struggle with this. How did you make that shift to a place of comfort and confidence, without feeling like you were giving something up? 

I think that’s the question that I have long struggled with in my journalistic identity: Am I giving up my ability to be a “serious” journalist if I let more and more of myself in, particularly as a journalist who is a woman who is interested in stories of the choices we make in the private sphere—in our families, in our relationships, etc.? I think these are very important journalistic questions. However, they’re not thought of as serious topics to explore. There has been a process of continually telling myself this work is meaningful; it is of service for people. And also when it’s not particularly, if it’s an episode that makes people smile and brings people joy, that’s also something that’s of value to add to the world. 

If you had to keep one overarching theme—death, sex, or moneywhich would it be?

It changes. I don’t know. I think they’re interesting together, and I like the places where they meet; I don’t think of them as discrete. But I do think money is the one I’ll choose if I have to. It includes our anxieties and unspoken beliefs about status and how we measure up, and how we prioritize our own individual needs over those of others. Also, what we inherit: materially, from people before us, and also belief-wise, around what our responsibility is to others. What’s our responsibility to our family members? What is important in life? What do you do with the money you have? Those are all expressions of what you think is important.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Driving and surviving

Ayodeji Rotinwa is a CJR fellow.