CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Anna Sale apparently has a hit on her hands.
Last week, the Charleston native and radio journalist’s new podcast “Death, Sex and Money” was the No. 1 downloaded podcast on iTunes, beating out Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” and “Freakonomics Radio.”
It was the third episode of the show, and the 33-year-old said she never expected the kind of response she’s received.
“I got a tweet from a 20-year-old airman stationed in Korea,” Sale said. “He said he’d just discovered the podcast and couldn’t wait for the next episode. He’s not the audience I was expecting, but it’s so cool that he’s part of the conversation.”
In essence, “Death, Sex and Money” is a conversation about the big topics that tend to haunt the thoughts of most people, which is a lot more than just death, sex or money, but life, living and sometimes struggling.
The George Washington High School graduate said the idea for the show had been in development at public radio station WNYC in New York for well over a year, and the basis for it had been coming for much longer.
Before “Death, Sex and Money,” Sale was covering politics for WNYC.
In 2012, she covered the presidential election and then the mayoral race in New York.
“I was having a bunch of conversations with voters, asking them how they felt about their lives, if they felt things were getting better or worse,” Sale said. “When you’re covering elections, the questions just boil down to which candidate they’re leaning toward.”
In her mind, the sum total didn’t necessarily equal more than the parts she was being given. “I felt like that all of these stories I was collecting kind of warranted attention on their own, outside of the campaign/race sort of frame,” she said.
In talking to all of these people and examining her own life as a single woman in her 30s in New York, she felt as if the life she led didn’t really resemble the lives of her parents.
“America is a lot different than when my parents had me and were raising me,” she said. “It’s not only what families look like, but when and where you have kids, how you take care of them, how many people in the home have to work and what middle class really looks like.”
Everything is in flux. Everything is in transition.
Now, seemingly, more so than during her parents’ generation.
“I wanted to give a little attention to that,” Sale said. “I felt like when I talked to voters everyone felt like they were encountering big changes on an individual scale. They were feeling like it was just happening to them and not really seeing that a lot of people are struggling with big questions like, How do I take care of my family? What do I want in my life? How do I live a life with purpose?”
“Death, Sex and Money” opened up the floor for the kinds of conversations people should have but probably don’t have enough.
Her first episode was a conversation with soul music legend and West Virginia native Bill Withers about fame, family, fear and getting at what’s really important.
The second episode was about the struggle and sadness of getting priced out of a home and neighborhood.
The third was about relationships, commitment and intimacy, which hit close to home for Sale. Her guests were retired U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, and his wife, Ann.
During the last few years, Sale and her boyfriend, Arthur Middleton, a wildlife biologist in Wyoming, had maintained a long-distance relationship. Eventually, though, it became apparent that that geography was going to impede such things as getting married and raising a family.
She lived in the city.
He lived on the plains.
With thousands of miles of land between them, there didn’t seem to be a middle ground.
So, a few months ago, they split — amicably — but Middleton had second thoughts and reached out to Simpson for help.
To pretty much everyone’s surprise, he called Sale, and the journalist flew to Wyoming to meet Simpson and his wife to chat about relationships, marriage and even the Anita Hill hearings.
Sale said, “I don’t think there could have been more perfect people for us to talk with about commitment and intimacy and the work of having a successful, long-term relationship.”
Still, bringing her personal life and some of her own history into the show was scary.
“I come from being a traditional reporter where you don’t use ‘I’ in stories,” she said. “I’ve never talked about my personal life in my work, but I decided early on I wanted to include it in one my first episodes.”
Sale wanted to signal to the audience that the show was about honest, intimate conversations, and she was part of that conversation.
She said, “If I’m going to ask my guests to share personal, intimate stories of how they got through different moments in life, I want the audience to know I’m willing to go there too.”
But “Death, Sex and Money” isn’t an advice show. It’s not a self-help show. It’s about sharing experience and taking whatever lessons there might be.
The next episode, Sale said, is a conversation with alt-country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, about sobriety, success and managing a relationship when both people in the marriage are traveling in different directions.
“That goes up on Wednesday,” she said.
Sale wouldn’t say if on-demand podcasts like “Death, Sex and Money” were necessarily the future of public radio, but it’s an attractive medium. The audience can pick and choose what sort of show they want to listen to and what kind of news they want to hear.
Producers of podcasts also aren’t limited by the usual constraints of radio, which typically include time and having to fit within a very specific window of opportunity. “It’s very liberating,” she said.
The podcast also expands her reach from New York City to include the entire world into her show’s conversation, which she finds incredibly exciting.
But it’s not easy. Finding an audience online can be tricky. “You have to create something someone is going to want to press play. How do I make that argument?”
That’s her challenge, but Sale said there are many, many conversations to be had and a vast ocean of people out there with stories to share.
“I feel like hearing other people’s stories helps me when I’m making decisions,” she said. “It helps me feel not alone.”
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.