Anna Sale: Death, Sex, & Money

"'I know how to research. I know how to tell stories. I don't know what to do with a microphone or audio editing, but I want to learn,' and they hired me, and that's how my journalism career started in 2005. And it was incredible to start and learn there, because I was in a shop where I was surrounded by really talented editors and reporters who taught me a lot about not just how to find stories and how to report, but also, how to do service-driven, mission-driven journalism, which is something I feel really attached to, having come up in public media. I really want my work to be meaningful in people's lives, and to serve a purpose."

"'I know how to research. I know how to tell stories. I don't know what to do with a microphone or audio editing, but I want to learn,' and they hired me, and that's how my journalism career started in 2005. And it was incredible to start and learn there, because I was in a shop where I was surrounded by really talented editors and reporters who taught me a lot about not just how to find stories and how to report, but also, how to do service-driven, mission-driven journalism, which is something I feel really attached to, having come up in public media. I really want my work to be meaningful in people's lives, and to serve a purpose."

Help us welcome Anna Sale to What's Your Why!

Anna is the creator and host of Death, Sex & Money, the podcast from WNYC Studios about, “The things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” After debuting at the top of the iTunes chart in 2014, Death, Sex & Money was named the #1 podcast of the year by New York Magazine in 2015. Anna won a Gracie for best podcast host in 2016 and the show won the 2018 Webby and 2021 Ambie for best interview show.

A West Virginia native, Anna graduated from Stanford University with a degree in history. Even before launching Death, Sex & Money, Anna covered politics for nearly a decade, and became a published author. The book? It's called, Let's Talk About Hard Things.She grew up in West Virginia and now lives in Berkeley with her husband and two daughters.

Thank you, Anna!

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Emy diGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question "why?" We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's Your Why?

Emy diGrappa (00:38):

Today, we are talking to award-winning podcaster, interviewer, journalist, and author Anna Sale. Her podcast she created and hosts is called Death, Sex and Money, and her new book that is just out, is titled, Let's Talk About Hard Things. Welcome, Anna.

Anna Sale (00:59):

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Emy diGrappa (01:02):

I am really enjoying your book.

Anna Sale (01:05):

Oh, thanks.

Emy diGrappa (01:07):

Oh, absolutely, and the stories and conversations are so captivating that you're having with people. And so, I just want to first start out by having you share your personal journey, where you grew up, and what was your journey into entering into podcasting, especially this podcast?

Anna Sale (01:30):

Well, I grew up in West Virginia in Charleston, West Virginia, the capital city, and went to high school there, left for college in California, and then at the end of college, I didn't really know what I was going to do. I was a history major and didn't really know how that translated into a job, but I felt sort of pulled back home. I had noticed during my time in Silicon Valley, in the late '90s and the early aughts, it just didn't feel like home, and that felt important at the time.

Anna Sale (02:05):

And so, I was trying to sort out what kind of work I wanted to do in West Virginia if I went back, and I did some nonprofit work initially, that didn't quite feel right. I'd always been a fan of writing, and knew I was a writer, and didn't know how, but I really wanted to work in public radio, even though I had no journalism experience or broadcast experience. But one of the great benefits of kind of starting out in a small market is you can sell yourself as somebody who is really excited to work really hard, and really excited to be taught, and when a job came open at West Virginia Public Radio, that's what I did.

Anna Sale (02:52):

I brought my history thesis that I'd written about 1960s and '70s West Virginia, and sort of plunked it on the desk of the news director at the time, and I said, "I know how to research. I know how to tell stories. I don't know what to do with a microphone or audio editing, but I want to learn," and they hired me, and that's how my journalism career started in 2005. And it was incredible to start and learn there, because I was in a shop where I was surrounded by really talented editors and reporters who taught me a lot about not just how to find stories and how to report, but also, how to do service-driven, mission-driven journalism, which is something I feel really attached to, having come up in public media. I really want my work to be meaningful in people's lives, and to serve a purpose.

Anna Sale (03:53):

And so, I covered politics, I covered culture, I did all sorts of things for both public television and public radio. I eventually left West Virginia Public Radio and covered state house politics in Connecticut, moved to New York, and covered sort of national politics, became kind of a politics reporter during the Obama years. And then I just sort of noticed that I was getting a little bit burned out of the kind of coverage that I was doing a lot during elections, which was paying a lot of attention to polls, trying to tell listeners who's up, who's down, and why, and I was feeling like I wanted to return to the kind of journalism that I'd done when I started out, which was a little bit more, I don't know, just human-focused, a lot of stories about people, that I hoped would resonate with other people, and that is sort of what led me to pitch the idea for Death, Sex and Money.

Anna Sale (04:52):

It was around the idea of making a show that the sort of argument for it was to do serious journalism about moments of uncertainty or transition in our lives, built around these big themes of things that we all deal with in very different ways, but that we all deal with, and often don't have a lot of company while we are moving through them, because they can be all awkward to talk about. And that was the idea, and I pitched it, and at the time, I didn't know if it was going to be a radio show or a podcast, but they let me try. And at the time that the show launched in 2014, podcasting definitely already existed, but it was a much different time in media history, as far as how crowded the field was, it was a much more open field. I had the benefit of really good timing, and people found the show, people felt connected to the show.

Anna Sale (05:57):

And so, since then, it's been my day job to get to interview people, both famous public people, and people who aren't famous public people, about these really critical issues that kind of make up the most important building blocks of our lives, but again, that we often don't talk about publicly because we don't know how. And I hope the show has become a place where people feel less alone, they feel more community, and they learn about different ways to do life, because with a lot of the issues that we investigate on the show, there's more than one right way.

Emy diGrappa (06:36):

When I was thinking about the title of your podcast, Death, Sex and Money, and then in your book, you added family and identity, I thought, "Whoa, now she's hit all the high notes," and I was just thinking Death, Sex and Money is intense as it is. You added family and identity in there, I was like, "Oh my [inaudible 00:06:58], how did you do that?" So talking about your book, why did you add those two extra? I mean, because I've listened to your podcast, and I love where you go with it and how people come from all different walks of life, and the conversations are so diverse, but why did you add family and identity into your book?

Anna Sale (07:21):

Well, I felt a little bit like... I mean, I think the benefit, the great benefit of having a show called Death, Sex and Money is that you can basically do anything and find a thread that connects to one of those three things, and anything in life connects to death, sex and money, or usually more than one of them. But I did find when I thought about, "Okay, if this is a book about having conversations about the things in life where we often feel like we don't have words, or they're conversations that we feel nervous about or tension around," I did think that family and I identity deserved a special look, and the family chapter is a lot about families of origin.

Anna Sale (08:05):

So, the families that we grow up in, how those relationships evolve and change as we become adults, and how to have conversations that acknowledge the importance of shared history and the importance of what is familiar, and also make space for change, and individuation, and maybe disagreements, and finding space for you to be an individual in a family, and instead of feeling like you have to comport yourself to a more confined identity within your family. And that takes little by little incremental conversations where you're sort of, kind of reintroducing yourself to family members, which can be really tricky, because these are the people that we think we know through and through and know the best, but often, how we felt known by our families of origin can be like, "Oh, they treat me like I'm still the 13 year old version of myself, instead of the 41 year old version of myself."

Anna Sale (09:08):

So, that's the family chapter, and identity, I wanted to pull out the thread of the difficulty of conversations where you're talking, not just about identity, but primarily when you're talking across differences in identity, and when I say "identity," I mean the categories, the sort of blunt categories that we use for both how we identify, and how we are identified in the societies and the communities where we live. So, things like gender, things like race, things like where you feel belonging and where you don't feel belonging, and how to have conversations that make room for difference, where if someone is saying something that has not been your experience and sounds unfamiliar, that you have the ability to hear that and let it also be true, even if it has not been true for you and your individual experience.

Emy diGrappa (10:08):

As you were talking, I was thinking, yeah, I can see how each one of those, death, sex, money, family, and identity, they all intertwine and cross over each other, and are kind of embedded in every part of our life in one way or another.

Anna Sale (10:27):

Yeah.

Emy diGrappa (10:28):

That gets to the next thing, because when you think about how they are embedded in every part of our life, and I feel like it's been really heightened lately with COVID, and what's going on with our economy, and a lot of focus on LBGTQ issues, right? So all those topics have been really heightened right now to talk about hard things. I don't know that people are talking about hard things, and maybe that's why people aren't talking to each other.

Anna Sale (11:00):

Yeah. I mean, this book came out at a time where there are a lot of hard things collectively and individually in a lot of our lives, and also, the capacity that many of us feel to talk about stuff and to problem solve together is maybe at a [inaudible 00:11:21], we don't feel like our skills of being able to talk about hard things and build consensus across difference is in great shape, and that's for a number of reasons. The ways that we socialize is different, the impact of social media, the impact of profound social isolation during the pandemic, political polarization, that stuff is very real, and in one way, to write a book called Let's Talk About Hard Things, it might sound a little packed or sort of like, "Let's just do this, we're naive."

Anna Sale (11:57):

But I really believe having made the show that we've made together over the last seven years, and having had a lot of these conversations, both in my work life and in my personal life, there are real skills to develop that each of us can sharpen, that while all of this sort of collectively has become more difficult and it might feel like we're less able in both our local communities and as a country to talk about hard things together, we have to, and each of us has a personal responsibility to take that on and to learn how to be better citizens, because as a lot is fraying, we need to be a part of reinforcing and building back how our communities operate, and that takes conversations about hard things.

Anna Sale (12:58):

And part of the argument I make in the book is that of course, hard things are not new. There has always been death, there has always been difficulties around sex and relationships, there's always been difficulties around money, and who has what and why, but the way that all our sort of institutions have changed and become less prominent in American life over the last 50 plus years, there used to be more rituals and institutions that sort of stood in for a lot of these one-on-one conversations. For example, you could go to your church and there was a set of rituals to be done to support people you love who are in grief, you know what to do. Of course, people still go to church, but the participation in regular church attendance has declined significantly over the last several decades. It used to be that you had a community banker maybe that you walked in and said, "Ugh, help me figure out what's the right thing to do with my money," and now, so many of us, it's us and our Google searches to figure out how to manage living in a very complicated capitalist moment.

Anna Sale (14:13):

And so, when those sort of institutions have frayed, it means that each of us needs to step up and needs to step through the discomfort of like, "Ooh, I don't know if I want to talk to my fellow mom friend about how they're affording childcare. That's kind of a weird thing to bring up. Is that rude?" But when you do have that conversation on the playground where you're like, "Oh gosh, I'm really trying to figure out, how did you all do this when you had one kid in preschool and one kid was still at home? How did you make that work?" And when you open up those conversations and create spaces for sharing and swapping tips, it creates important connective tissue that can sort of push back on some of these other big forces that are making us feel more alone, more isolated, and more afraid.

Emy diGrappa (15:13):

As an interviewer, how do you get people to open up? How do you get people to share their stories? Because in my mind, as I'm thinking about what you were saying about those built-in institutions have really gone away, and now we need new ways to deal with how we feel about these hard things, money, and then I was thinking that sex is so complicated because a lot of women find it very comfortable to talk about sex with their girlfriends, but not with their husband, right?

Anna Sale (15:53):

Yeah. I mean, I find that, to your question about how do you start these conversations or create the conditions where the person you're talking to feels comfortable opening up, and not like they're being sort of surprised and cornered with a really hard, stressful conversation, something I've found both in my work and in my personal life, is to just say, "I want to talk to you about something important, and here's why." and in my work, that takes the shape of saying things like, "Here's what our show is. Our show is called Death, Sex and Money. We talk to people about out these personal moments in their life around moments where they felt uncertain, and I may ask questions that feel personal to you, and I want to tell you why, and that is because I hope that if you share something that somebody else has gone through and felt really alone about, they'll feel like they have up more community as they're going through it. And at the same time, if I ask anything that you don't want to talk about publicly, just tell me, and I'll move to the next set of questions."

Anna Sale (17:03):

So, it's sort of like setting ground rules. It's like, "Let me tell you why I'm doing this. Let me tell you how this is going to be a conversation that you also have some agency in, and you can help guide me on what feels okay," and then that creates the sort of conditions where you're collaborating together and you're building something together. And instead of often, particularly for people who don't talk to journalists in the media often, it can feel like you're on the spot and like somebody is getting ready to interrogate you, and that it's not a safe experience, and that's not the kind of journalism that I want to do. I want to do the kind of journalism where when people are sharing things with me that maybe are sort of counter to my assumptions or things I've never heard before, but that make me see the world more clearly, and I want them to feel comfortable sharing the specifics of their own experience, so I can see, a more complicated version of just how the world around me is working.

Anna Sale (18:10):

And in my personal life, when there's a conversation about hard things that I'm sort of feeling in the pit of my gut, that like, "Ugh, I'm going to have to bring this up." You know that feeling? It's the same thing, it's like looking for that moment when everybody's well-fed and hydrated, and you're not sort of going to start a conversation with a passive-aggressive comment that just... Where frustration just sort of boils over, but instead, trying to be intentional and saying like, "I've been thinking about this thing, and I wanted to talk to you about something important. Is now a good time?" And that's how I start hard conversation with my husband, that's how I start hard conversations with friends who I live far away from.

Anna Sale (18:57):

I've had a lot of those conversations during the pandemic where you're having to start a conversation, and not knowing where the other person is, like what's going on in their lives, and I find it so helpful to just say, "I've been thinking about you, and do you have time to talk? I've been missing you, and I've recognized that it's been hard. A lot's been going on and I've been having a hard time, and I've been thinking about you and wondering how you're doing." And so, when you create the conditions for people to share, and to also know that you want to have a kind of different sort of conversation than everyday small talk, chit chat, but instead really sort of dig in together, I find it sort of unfolds.

Emy diGrappa (19:41):

That's really interesting. Are there times when you get uncomfortable about what people are sharing, you get [inaudible 00:19:48] conversation and then you get uncomfortable?

Anna Sale (19:51):

Yeah. I mean, I think that happens a lot, and there's a lot of different varieties of how that happens. The one I feel the most acutely is when someone is sharing something in my personal life, and maybe they're saying something about how they've experienced something and it's making me feel defensive, or I don't agree with it, or it makes me feel called out in a way that I don't feel is fair. That's when I can feel like, "Ugh," the sort of reactive emotions sort of well up, and one thing I try to do when I notice that is, to say like, "Wow, I notice this is making me defensive. I wasn't expecting that," instead of just saying like, "No, no, no," which is also something I have done, but to just kind of narrate what my reactions are.

Anna Sale (20:41):

If I'm in a work context where I'm interviewing someone and they disclose something to me that is very troubling that I didn't know, and I don't know how much support they have in their own life to deal with it, in those moments, I really try to sort of slow down, I sort of reset. I say like, "Oh, is this okay to talk about? Are you okay talking about this on tape? I just want to acknowledge that something is happening that maybe neither of us expected." And then another really important part of how we work as a show is to just be very clear about like, "Okay, here's what's going to happen after this interview is over. We are going to take this tape, it's going to be edited. You will hear from us while we fact check, you will hear from us about what's included in the episode before it comes out, so you'll be prepared. It won't just show up in your Apple Podcasts feed and surprise you without warning."

Anna Sale (21:48):

And I also ask like, "Can you tell me what you're doing after I hang up the phone? What's your plan for the rest of the afternoon? Is somebody going to be around?" Just because when things come up that are really painful, I'm a journalist, I'm not a therapist, I'm not a social worker. It is not in my skillset to help people who are in deep, immediate trauma, but if we hear or feel like it's being signaled to us that someone is in crisis, we try to make sure they know the places where they can go for immediate help.

Emy diGrappa (22:30):

That's excellent, and it must be hard when you do hear that, and you feel like you need to take the next step to inform somebody that you can sense and hear that someone is in trouble.

Anna Sale (22:48):

Yeah, and I want to say though, I guess you sort of might assume that that comes up a lot when your day job is to talk to people about hard things, but most often in my work, it is people sharing about things that they haven't talked about maybe openly in a lot of spaces, but that they've reflected on a lot that have been very pivotal in their lives, and that they feel a sense of sort of empowerment around saying, "Listen to what I got through. Listen. Oh, let me tell you about how my aunt showed up in this really critical moment when I was really having a hard time."

Anna Sale (23:30):

People can feel quite proud to share how they've gotten through hard things when you give them space, and it is a rare thing to feel deeply listened to at length in life, at the pace that we live right now. And so, most of my work is I feel like witnessing people who are ready to share and feel that feeling heard is really important, and it's not about being in immediate trauma, it's about sharing something difficult they've been through, and wanting to share about how they got through so others could be helped by it.

Emy diGrappa (24:17):

So Anna, even though I heard you say you're not a therapist and you're not a psychologist, you're a journalist, do people come up to you on the street and just want to have a conversation?

Anna Sale (24:33):

They do, but it's in this very beautiful way that's not, "Anna, I need to talk to you about this, because I need help." They don't come to me like I can help them with something hard. It's often sometimes they're sharing something really hard that they went through, but they're sharing in a way like, "This happened to me, and when I heard this episode or when I read this in your book, it so helped me to have words to talk about this in my family." I've heard that a lot about the chapter about death in my book, and it just makes me feel... It's this very strange mix of, oh, I feel so proud to be useful at such important moments in people's lives, I feel very proud, and I also feel very sad at what people are going through and how difficult it is, and the weight of that, that it's something that all of us are going to, if not have run into, are going to run into, like losing people we deeply love, and facing our own mortality.

Emy diGrappa (25:48):

Right, so they really approach you in a way to just share?

Anna Sale (25:52):

Yeah.

Emy diGrappa (25:53):

That's wonderful, because they really are in another way saying, "You helped me," even though what you're saying is "I'm not a therapist, I'm a journalist," but what you do in doing what you're doing in your podcast, is you're helping other people connect, and sometimes that is very healing for someone, like you were saying, that they know there's someone out there in the world that is sharing, or going through their own experience that they're going through, and that can be really healing for people to know they're not on their own, they're not by themselves.

Anna Sale (26:34):

Yeah. I mean, there are reasons that humans have shared stories since we were humans. There is something profound about sharing stories of what we have gone through, and one of the most profound things is often, when we are in pain or struggling, the first feeling that comes up is shame, of like, "How did this happen to me? How did I let this happen?"

Anna Sale (27:02):

And so much of what listening to the show and reading the book, I hope what it does, is it kind of pulls out threads to show people like, "Here's some really broad patterns of how these kinds of dynamics can show up in our families of origin. Here's some patterns of what can happen when we are facing death of someone we love, or lose someone suddenly." When you're in that first acute experience of grief, you can feel like you are losing your mind, and to just read a story and hear someone else talk about how they experienced that moment, it just can be... What a load off to be like, "Oh, what is happening in my life makes me feel totally alone and out of sorts, but now I see that some of this is a pattern and a built-in dynamic based on what's happening to me or where I am in life."

Anna Sale (28:07):

And I think that that's what I try to do a lot with Death, Sex and Money, is to kind of look at these big, big, big, big issues, and sort of show, here's some big structures and sort of broad themes that occur again, and again, and again, that we all might feel some resonance with, and then at the same time, getting very, very specific with the individual details of someone's life so that you can see, "Oh, there's a lot of ways that this unfolds that depend on the kind of resources you have, where you live, what, who's in your life," and all those sorts of things, so you can see both this wide, broad picture, and very specific, precise picture at the same time.

Emy diGrappa (28:56):

And was that the reason you wrote your book, is because of all that learning that you were going through? And I'm sure growing yourself as a journalist and a listener, listening to people's stories, especially hard stories. What jumped you to the next place to write the book?

Anna Sale (29:12):

I mean, the book was like you know when you have been doing something and you notice that there's a certain style that you have, or your intuition has guided you to do it in a certain way, but if you haven't taken the time to sort of reflect on what you're actually doing and put words to it, there's something that's not kind of nailed down and articulated about what's happening? And so, I wanted to do that with trying to understand, "What does happen in the kinds of conversations that I have on the show? What does lead to a more satisfying conversation about hard things, both in my work and in my personal life? What have I learned, and what have other people learned that I want to amplify and share?" So it was sort of like I wanted to make the space to reflect on what happens in hard conversations and understand it more deeply, because I've sort of witnessed it, but I've sort of witnessed it with this kind of level of awe at what can happen, and I wanted to try to describe it with words.

Emy diGrappa (30:27):

I think it's wonderful what you've done, and it's so fascinating too, because working for the Wyoming Humanities, and of course, everything we do is about the human experience, and documenting the human experience, and storytelling. And so, it's just so fantastic when one, you hear a podcast called Death, Sex and Money, and you're like, "Well, that covers it. What else do you want to talk about?" So, congratulations is what I want to say to you, and also, how can people find your podcast and how can they find your book?

Anna Sale (31:09):

Sure. Well, the easiest way, my name is Anna Sale, and you can just go to annasale.com, and there's links to both the book and the show, and if you listen to podcasts, wherever you go, you can just look up Death, Sex and Money, and it'll show you the podcast feed, and you can listen to the most recent episodes, or you can scroll down and go back deep into our archives. We've been doing this for seven years. We've got a lot of history, a lot of stories for you to check out. But yeah, the best way is to just go to annasale.com, and all the links are right there.

Emy diGrappa (31:43):

All right. Well, thanks, Anna, and thanks for talking to me today.

Anna Sale (31:47):

Sure. Thank you for having me.

Emy diGrappa (31:48):

All right. You take care.

Anna Sale (31:50):

Thanks.

Emy diGrappa (32:02):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why?, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from the Wyoming Community Foundation, and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe, and never miss a show.