A Podcast Memorial Service

On Saturday afternoon, a crowd gathered at Caveat, a subterranean space on the Lower East Side, for Four Interviews and a Funeral—an event mourning and celebrating “Death, Sex & Money,” Anna Sale’s long-running podcast from WNYC Studios, which, owing to steep budget cuts, will end in its current form this month. Attendees sat at little round tables, eating popcorn and drinking ginger beer. Many of them wore glasses and held giveaway tote bags. “This crowd feels very public radio,” a man at my table said. “But, in the spirit of podcasting, a little less geriatric.” Several attendees worked for companies that had recently had major layoffs, audio and otherwise, and who didn’t know what their own futures held. The mood was elegiac, anxious, appreciative. As the show began, the WNYC-affiliated Outer Borough Brass Band—saxophone, trumpet, trombone, tuba, drums—played New Orleans-style jazz, and Sale, forty-three, danced onstage, in a sleeveless navy dress and red shoes. The crowd’s cheering was intense.

“It’s O.K.!” Sale told the room, as the cheering settled down. “I’m not dead, the members of the ‘Death, Sex & Money’ team are not dead, and we don’t even know if the show is dead. However, we know something is ending.” In 2023, there were dramatic layoffs at New York Public Radio and WNYC, Pushkin, NPR, and many other media companies. Last week, Spotify, which had already dismantled much of what remained of the once-great podcast studio Gimlet, which it acquired, in 2019, for two hundred and thirty million dollars, essentially finished it off, cancelling two of podcasting’s most beloved shows: Connie Walker’s “Stolen,” which this year won both a Peabody and a Pulitzer, and Jonathan Goldstein’s “Heavyweight,” one of the best podcast series ever made. Around the same time, Tyler Goodson, the struggling small-town-Alabama protagonist of “Serial” ’s “S-Town,” from 2017, died after a shoot-out with police. In the podcasting community, the sense of loss was palpable. The “magical moment” of “expanded possibility, when audio exploded, about ten years ago”—the so-called podcast boom, when “Death, Sex & Money” began—“is closing,” Sale said. “Something new is coming up. We don’t know what that is yet. So we wanted to have a party that feels a little bit like a variety show and a little bit like a memorial service.”

“Death, Sex & Money” is about “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” For more than four hundred episodes, it has embodied the best of what public radio and the podcast form can do. Sale is a thoughtful, deliberate interviewer, with a kindly voice and a knack for getting people to open up; she’s gently funny and knows how to keep a conversation moving. The funeral—which, like the show, looked a hard subject in the eyes with warmth and grace—featured interviews with prior guests, centered on accepting change. Ellen Burstyn, ninety-one, read a Mary Oliver poem, “In Blackwater Woods.” Sale held the microphone for her. They made eye contact at the phrase “the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,” and shared a tender look after the poem’s encouragement to “let it go.” Lawrence and Ronnine Bartley, a married couple who have navigated Lawrence’s incarceration and release, parenthood, careers in journalism and education, and a move from New York City to Connecticut, laughed about good problems to have: work-life balance and housework. The comedian and actor Chris Gethard, forty-three, talked to Sale about approaching middle age, and moving from a performing-arts career to the nonprofit realm, with a candor that this middle-aged attendee found gratifying. “I can’t have my kid’s health insurance depend on my ability to book roles, like the weird janitor on ‘Space Force,’ on Netflix,” he said. Sale asked the mover Adonis Williams, “What do you do when you get to someone’s home and you can tell that they’re not quite ready to move?” Williams smiled. “I always say, ‘Don’t worry, this is normal,’ ” he said. “But it’s not normal, and I’m thinking, This is going to be a long day.”

Sale gave a eulogy for the show, now having to be especially vulnerable herself. “When you don’t know what’s coming,” she said, “there’s a tendency to rush past the ending and just try to get shit locked down.” But she hoped to resist this impulse. She shared her mixed feelings—sadness, gratitude, pride, fear. She also shared some favorite memories, including interviewing people who have since died—Bill Withers, John Prine, Norman Lear—and played audio of listeners’ thoughts about the show. “It fundamentally changed the way I talk with the people in my own life,” one said. Sale spoke about facing facts, “productive discomfort.”

“A lot of endings in our lives, we don’t have control over,” Sale said. “When the train is coming, you just have to get on.” She introduced the beaming subway announcer Bernie Wagenblast, of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 train-platform fame, who had bobbed hair, a black V-neck dress, red nail polish, and a strand of pearls. “Bernie, you’ve been publicly living as a woman for the past year,” Sale said. After this year, she asked, “Do you feel less afraid of change?” “Oh, definitely,” Wagenblast said. “When I’m doing something for the first time, like appearing onstage in New York City”—more applause—“there’s a nervousness that goes along with that. But, every time that I’ve been nervous, I’ve found that it turns out just fine, and there was no need to be nervous in the first place.”

Sale asked everyone in the room to think about endings. “There’s something in your life, I’m betting, that has ended, and maybe you’re still holding on to it, or maybe you’re fearful of it coming,” she said. Like a minister or the voice of a guided meditation, Sale gave us a moment to focus and consider. “Bernie, help us to let go of needing to understand and predict and know what’s coming next,” she said. “In your subway voice.”

“The next uptown 2 is approaching the station,” Wagenblast said, in tones that evoked sense memories of concrete floors and tunnel headlights. “Please stand away from the platform edge.”

“Let’s take a ride, everyone,” Sale said. The crowd cheered again, and the Outer Borough Brass Band played the “Death, Sex & Money” theme and “I’ll Fly Away.” ♦

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