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The Creative Genesis Of WNYC’s “Death, Sex & Money”

Host Anna Sale recounts the stroke of management genius that led to her popular and provocative podcast.

The Creative Genesis Of WNYC’s “Death, Sex & Money”

Anna Sale is the creator and host of WNYC’s remarkably named podcast, Death, Sex & Money, where she brings up decidedly uncomfortable questions with interview subjects both celebrated and anonymous. Having recently celebrated its first birthday, Death, Sex & Money is frequently among iTunes’s top podcasts, and has earned places on “best-of” lists around the Internet.

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Anna SalePhoto: Janice Yi

Sale was a panelist at WNYC’s first-ever women’s podcast festival last week. We caught up with Sale to learn more about the conception of her podcast, and why it’s a good idea for managers to ask their employees what their dream job would be.

Can you tell me about the moment you got the idea for Death, Sex, & Money?

WNYC had a contest. They sent an email that said, “If you work for WNYC, we want to know your show idea.” I was covering politics at time. I was walking my dog, it was winter and snowy out, and I remember the moment I thought of the name, Death, Sex & Money. It just came to me, trudging through the snow. I can still picture where I was on the street corner when I thought of the name, and it made me laugh out loud. I thought, that’s the name of the show. Now what is it gonna be?

How did the WNYC contest come about?

That was really good management. The fact that there was an email at all that said, “We want to know your dream job. We want to know your ideas.” I never would have taken the time to say what show I wanted to start if I was in the middle of the crunch of going about my work. But all of a sudden, there was this structure. The other thing I really liked about the email was that it said in particular, “We’re looking for new sounds, sounds that you might not have heard in public radio before.” It gave permission to be fun and free. Then, it was like a treatment: Here are six questions we want you to answer. Why does it need to be in the world? What would it sound like? Who would host it and why? It was interesting to say, “I want to make the show, and I want to be the host.” That was a bold sentence to write, but I wrote it.

Did pitching the show feel risky?

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It certainly was a risk. I was a serious political journalist in the middle of covering a campaign that was ongoing, and I wanted to continue to have the respect of my peers and bosses. I wanted to show I was taking my job seriously, but I was also telling them, if you really want to know what I want to do, it’s making a show about death, sex, and money.

How fierce was the competition?

It was fierce–something like over 75 different ideas got pitched. There were three finalists, and those have taken on different shapes. It was cool to see, when you asked people, “What is your dream job at WNYC?” they all looked very different. It wasn’t everyone pitching an interview show. There were very different ways to approach a story, different sounds.

What was it like hearing the dream jobs of so many colleagues?

It was a useful exercise all around. For me, it allowed me to hone in on my voice more. Even before making Death, Sex & Money, it allowed me to have more confidence in the work I was already doing. I think you’ve seen that in the other people who put show ideas forward. With some of them, the texture of what’s coming out of WNYC has changed. It has allowed people to have more comfort doing more personality-driven storytelling. It was also incredibly empowering for the organization to say to the people who work here, “We know we have people with brilliant ideas right here in the building, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you what yours were.”

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I’m reminded of Google, which famously has “20% time.” But reports emerged a few years ago that management seemed to be restricting it a little.

You can’t only tell your employees to follow their bliss. It’s good to say, if you could follow your bliss, what would it look like? Then it’s a management puzzle, once you find out what most people would want to do, how that fits with the goals of your company. Death, Sex & Money exists because it’s a podcast. There are conversations that are more appropriate for a medium where people get to opt in to listen to.

The advent of podcasting is a transformative moment for radio. Is it more appropriate to invite employee creativity at certain “entrepreneurial moments” in a business or industry? Or is it always a good time to do this?

It’s always a good time to make your employees feel like their ideas are valued. I do think there are entrepreneurial moments, where there’s a potential for a real flash. When a company acknowledges that what it’s currently doing is not enough, there’s much more potential for ideas to get support. I worked in journalism during the contraction of the late 2000s, and I know it’s a special thing when a journalism company says, “We want to do more things, we want to add resources.”

When you won the contest, did you encounter jealousy from colleagues who didn’t win?

That’s actually something I’ve thought about a lot. I haven’t. No one has been openly resentful.

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Once you won the contest, were you scared about actually pulling it off?

Pretty much the day after I found out I’d get to do this, it became a panic: Where do I start? The first moment where I felt like, “Ah, this is what I want Death, Sex & Money to sound like,” was when I interviewed a woman about getting priced out of her apartment. There was a moment where I asked her a question, and she paused, and there was this huge exhale. You heard the quiet, and you heard her say she didn’t know where she’d end up. I thought, “That is the sound.” It wasn’t about complicated sound design, it was about, what do I want the relationship of the listener to be? When I would play it for people, you could see the way their body moved, hearing their own worries about whether they could afford to live life in New York City. I built the show from that clip. That 90-second clip is what I played when I’d go to a meeting to think about logos, or when we were setting up the iTunes account, figuring out what the description would be.


This interview has been condensed and edited.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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