Podmasters is a weekly column where staff writers Andrea Alfano and Laura Rosenfeld highlight the podcasts you need in your life. Every week, they tackle a new genre, recommending everything from well-known series to little-listened-to-gems that will make you laugh, cry and learn.
This week, Laura Rosenfeld spoke with Death, Sex & Money host Anna Sale about "In New Orleans," the podcast's new series that tells the stories of five individuals 10 years after they experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Anna Sale has been bringing listeners intimate portraits of individuals from all walks of life through her WYNC podcast Death, Sex & Money for a little more than a year now. Talking with everyone from Jane Fonda to a funeral director to a corrupt cop, Sale takes listeners into the minds of her interview subjects, teasing out their hopes, fears, triumphs, failures and futures in usually 30 minutes or less.
As you can see, Death, Sex & Money has covered a lot of ground in its one year in your podcast feed. However, it has never before done anything quite like "In New Orleans," a special series featuring interviews with five individuals about their memories of the day Hurricane Katrina hit and what has happened in their lives since, which is now available for download through Death, Sex & Money's website and other places where podcasts are usually found on the Internet, like iTunes.
The series marks the 10th anniversary of the storm, which touched down in southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. Knowing that this important anniversary would soon be coming up, Sale and her Death, Sex & Money team started planning several months ago how they could report on the disaster in a way that would fit the point-of-view of the podcast but also set itself a part from how other news outlets would be covering it.
"We sort of thought this is absolutely something that fits right into what we try to explore with Death, Sex & Money, which is like what happens in these critical moments of life transition when you've got to rebuild, make new choices, you know, something happens that you never expected? Death, sex and money all come up when you talk to people about what happened to their families, their loved ones, their communities in the aftermath of the storm," Sale said in a phone interview with T-Lounge. "How do we do it? How do we make sure it's special and it's not just piling on to whatever everybody else is doing about Katrina and New Orleans?"
Sale and her team enlisted the help of New Orleans Public Radio producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson to find characters to profile for the series. She connected them with Terri Coleman, a wild child-turned-educator and mom who talks about the changing demographics of a post-Katrina New Orleans in the first episode of the series. Coleman told the Death, Sex & Money team about Simone Bruni, perhaps better known in New Orleans as the Demo Diva, and Sale chronicles her story of finding a new life for herself in the demolition industry after the storm in the second episode of "In New Orleans." Sale and her team similarly found Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor who stayed inside and worked in New Orleans' Charity Hospital for six days before being evacuated, and Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the recently elected city coroner, by immersing themselves in the local culture.
"We just started by talking to people on the ground and asking them what they thought the interesting stories were," Sale said. "It seemed like an opportunity where you could really tell an interesting story if you did a deep dive with one person and then you strung them together into a series and to use that to give you a sense of the place and a sense of the community. You'll hear different people echo different sentiments. You'll hear one person has this take that's very different from someone else. I like that we gave this more nuanced picture of what this community has gone through."
Big Freedia, a famous pioneer of the New Orleans bounce style of hip-hop, is the most high-profile out of the five featured in the "In New Orleans" series. Sale wanted to speak with Big Freedia (who does not identify as transgender but is referred to by feminine pronouns in the podcast because she said that's how her fans seem to usually identify her) after reading her recent autobiography God Save the Queen Diva! But even though Big Freedia is a celebrity, she still let listeners into the most personal parts of her life just as Sale's other interview subjects do, talking about growing up gay and the recent loss of her mother to cancer.
In fact, it's personal details like these that show "In New Orleans" is as much about how each of these individuals dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as it is about how their lives went on in the years since. For instance, Sale went into the interview with Kurtz-Burke expecting to focus mostly on her evacuation from Charity Hospital, which was never reopened after the storm, and her new life working in the VA hospital right across the street. However, when Kurtz-Burke began talking about her journey of adopting two children since the storm and the difficulty of finding one of their birth parents, Sale found it just as important to include as what Kurtz-Burke went through during Hurricane Katrina.
"What I think is so interesting about looking at an experience 10 years post is of course Katrina transforms the lives of everyone who's in the series, but other things in life happen, too," Sale said. "All these people in this series went through this collective trauma of Katrina, but they also have continued trying to rebuild in ways that have nothing to do with the storm."
It's this that allows "In New Orleans" to provide a more complex look at the people and issues of a city devastated by Mother Nature a decade ago and seems likely to differentiate it from how much of the media will be looking back on the disaster. It also may help make these episodes just as evergreen as Death, Sex & Money's typical installments, providing compelling storytelling and an account of Hurricane Katrina long after the 10th anniversary of the storm has passed.
"I still think they're stories that hold up if you discover them in October or next year," Sale said. "They're still really intriguing characters that I think the episodes will have staying power beyond what flashes across national headlines with the anniversary coverage."