When Community Comes Together in Crisis

Anna Sale, Courtesy of WNYC Studios
Anna Sale, Courtesy of WNYC Studios

Death, Sex and Money Host Anna Sale talks about supporting and being supported by listeners.

When Anna Sale set out to create Death, Sex & Money for WNYC six years ago, her goal was lofty yet simple: to explore the things we “think about a lot, and need to talk about more,” as the show’s opening explains.

With a focus on the taboo topics and difficult truths that often go unsaid between people, Death, Sex & Money’s format is flexible from episode to episode, featuring not just interviews with well-known public figures like Jane Fonda and Katie Couric, but also focusing episodes entirely on listeners. That flexibility has made the show particularly adept at responding to moments of widespread, global change, including the recent coronavirus pandemic.

“We knew that we wanted this to be a show where we were in conversation with our listeners about the most private and personal parts of our lives,” Sale says. “The show is about [the fact] that our personal lives are worthy of exploration together, and serious journalism. And sharing together is a big part of telling those stories.”

We sat down with Sale recently to talk about how Death, Sex & Money built that listener support over time, and how the show has approached reporting on coronavirus.

Building a community

Over the years, many of Death, Sex & Money’s episodes have been composed of listener-submitted voicemails on delicate topics from student loan debt to drinking to infidelity. And the sharing isn’t a one-way street: “From the very beginning, we made the choice that as a journalist, I was going to not just do interviews and ask questions, but I was going to reveal parts of myself where I’ve had moments of hard transition or uncertainty as a kind of way of opening the door to saying, 'And I too have felt these things,'” Sale says. “I think it’s allowed us to have this really rich and continuous dialogue with our listeners.”

The universal themes of Death, Sex & Money’s episodes have also created opportunities for its audience to be in conversation with each other—a dialogue the team that creates the show has helped to facilitate. One effort came out of a 2017 episode centered around breakups. “When you’re in that place of heartbreak and restarting, you do just really want concrete things to do,” Sale reflects. Alongside the episode, the team created a public, editable Google spreadsheet, accessible via the episode show notes and on the Death, Sex & Money website: a Breakup Survival Kit, with crowdsourced suggestions of things to do, think, read, watch, and listen to.

“The thing that I love about that spreadsheet in particular is that it’s kept having a life,” Sale says. “I talked to somebody last fall, years after the episode came out, who had just gone through a breakup, and then she found herself back on that spreadsheet.

“We’ve communicated to our listeners that we’re always listening,” Sale continues. “People just reach out to us when they have stuff going on in their lives. I feel like where our show really has a sweet spot is when there are really intense personal ramifications, or ramifications in our private lives having to do with very big public things.”

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

In early March, the focus of the Death, Sex & Money inbox shifed rapidly to one topic: coronavirus. After putting out their usual Wednesday episode on March 11, “that Friday, we were like, 'Oh, we just have to open the phones,'” Sale says. The team hosted the call-in on Facebook Live with Sale’s The United States of Anxiety cohost Kai Wright, and it quickly became clear that the show’s editorial focus would need to shift from planned episodes. “We decided, let’s just be responsive, and let’s see what people want to talk to us about,” Sale says. Listener feedback from the call-in program resulted in the focus of the show’s next episode—one about navigating sobriety in isolation—and the team also put together another Google spreadsheet, a dedicated Pandemic Tool Kit.

The longstanding dialogue between the listeners and the show informed the team’s next area of focus. “We got a really clear message from a listener,” Sale says. “Looking at this spreadsheet of all these things to cook and do at home made [her] mad because that [wasn’t her] reality right now. She was someone who worked in healthcare.” The team then put together an episode on essential workers, focusing not just on healthcare workers but also including the perspectives of postal workers, flight attendants, and grocery-store employees.

“We [put out a call] in the feed on a Friday, and on Wednesday, we put out the episode,” Sale says. “So over the course of three or four days, we just got this deluge of really personal, detailed voice memos. And it reminded me a bit of when we asked about student-loan debt. It was like, 'Oh, we are asking a question that these listeners have been waiting for someone to ask them. It was a real urgency.”

And for Sale, that urgency goes both ways. “For me, what’s really important as a journalist [is] to hear from the variety and diversity of people in our inbox that we get,” Sale says. “It makes our journalism that much richer. It’s interesting to me to hear people who are in a similar life situation as me, but to hear people who have very different realities, getting into the granular details with me and with us at the show. I love that, because it just helps me, especially at a time of isolation, to feel like other people are letting me in.”

—Katie Ferguson