This is Dating: What Happens When You Decide to Break "The Rules" And Put In the Work to Get to “No”
In the summer of 2020, we set out to make a reality podcast about dating. Since then almost everything about that project changed. Today we want to share the story of why.
Welcome to Dispatch #21 of The Audio Insurgent.
Hello and welcome. The Audio Insurgent is now 21, which means it is now old enough to buy its own beer. But it doesn’t have to. You can buy the beer. You get this for free, but it makes me smile every time someone uses the buy me a beer link. It never gets old. Feel free to try it!
I love doing things that show the folly and limitations of conventional wisdom–how we are victims of the rules we live by and how often the best creative choices come from rejecting “The Rules.” Today’s dispatch of the Audio Insurgent is solely about one prime example of that.
This week, our show This is Dating rolls out into the world. What follows is not a commercial for the show but an exploration of the unconventional decision making that went into it.
Whenever someone asks me to describe it, the first word that comes to mind is always “inventive.” This dispatch explains why.
So let’s go!
[TODAY’S THING: A STUDY IN WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DECIDE BREAK “THE RULES” AND PUT IN THE WORK TO GET TO “NO”]
This week is a big one for us at Magnificent Noise. We launched a new show called This is Dating. We launch shows regularly, but this one is unique in what it means to us.
This is Dating follows a group of modern dates on a series of real, bonafide first dates with strangers. We hear it all, the good, the bad, the chemistry, and the cringe, We also hear them getting dating coaching from the talented behavioral scientist Logan Ury, a lot of real-time “back-stage” reactions from the show’s staff about the dates and daters.
The idea of an entertainment program made up of matching daters isn’t new, dozens of variations have been produced over the past sixty years. But despite this tradition, This is Dating is very different. It breaks a lot of “The Rules” of podcast-making: it doesn’t have a host, it doesn’t have a format, despite receiving offers we didn’t sell it to a network or distributor, and several other deliberate steers in the opposite direction of what successful podcasts normally do. And each of these decisions was painstakingly deliberate.
This all got started during an evening phone call in the early summer of 2020, while everyone was still figuring out how to live and work from home and even the most pessimistic of us thought this whole pandemic thing would blow over by Labor Day, my business and creative partner Jesse Baker said to me, “Hey, I have an idea, but it isn’t fully formed yet.”
After the tiniest bit of encouragement, she shared: “I think we should make a show about dating, where we set people up on dates and get to listen in.” Even though she said it wasn’t fully formed, I could tell as I listened that it actually was; she had invested a lot of thought into this. A half hour of conversation and tweaking later, we’d made a commitment to try it.
This week, almost a year and a half after that late night call, we released the first two episodes of This is Dating. It’s still a reality show about dating, but since that call almost every formatic, creative, and business assumption we had that night changed–and often in a way that deliberately goes against “The Rules” of how podcasts are supposed to be made and distributed. We received multiple offers to distribute the show, and we turned them all down.
Today, Jesse joins me to talk about how and why.
There are a thousand podcasts debuting today, and every one of them has an origin story. At least half of those stories are a variation of “My buddy and I got drunk and downloaded Anchor,” but we thought we’d share the story of one other, ours.
What follows is taken from a conversation Jesse and I had Sunday morning, where we talked about the important moments that guided us on this journey. If you like, you are welcome to listen to a recording of the conversation on which this is based.
The Importance of Putting in the Work to Get to “No”
Eric Nuzum: We started this conversation by each coming up with a list of lessons we each take away from This is Dating. And your first one surprised me: That you were glad we put in the work to get to “no.” And you weren’t talking about getting a “no” from a network, but rather us saying “no” to them.
Despite where it landed, this show didn’t start very differently from other projects: We thought through the concept and talked it to death, but then we started to realize that we had to do some real work to shop this…getting a network or distributor to buy or green light this project. We asked ourselves, “What will it take to get someone to say ‘yes’ to this?”
Because the show is very different from other podcasts, we weren't expecting someone to be able to look at a piece of paper and imagine what this show could be. We felt both from a creative perspective and from a business perspective, that we were better served by having concrete things for them to hear and see so that someone could review this and say, “I get it.”
Jesse Baker: You're thinking that you want to get to a ‘yes.’ You want to find a creative partner or a distribution partner that wants to say, I love this, let's do this, this is genius, whatever.
Eric Nuzum: The participants in the show are all vetted and cast, and casting will be hard–so let’s do all the casting now, up front, so networks can see who the daters will be. Let’s figure out all the logistics of the dating process. The whole point was to leave as little margin for confusion and error around the imagination of those who are reviewing it.
Because I think the reality is that people who do commissioning at networks are not imaginative people, or the imagination has been beaten out of them. There are very few people in the podcasting space right now who can look at something different, see its value, and double down on the fact that this is new and innovative.
The people who are largely in these jobs are commissioners who are told: “Find me a hit. Make me a hit. Find something that feels safe, that feels sellable.” They're constantly being watched over their shoulder by people drumming their fingers waiting for the next hit.
Jesse Baker: I think you're right. But I also think it’s hard to ask someone to see your vision. Someone, a total stranger, who you don't know, who eats pitches for breakfast every day to see this thing that you have in your head.
Yet, ironically, I feel like all the work we put into defining the show, recording test dates and experiments, getting really into the weeds. We spent eight months kind of figuring out what we thought the show was going to be: going out, doing dates, getting tape. All because we thought we were getting other people to “yes”--but instead it got us comfortable with saying “no” to the offers we received because we felt they weren’t good offers. Because “no” was the answer we needed to make the show we wanted to make on our own terms.
Eric Nuzum: It just built our confidence in the idea that we were creating and ended up empowering us to say “no” to them. We looked at the deals they offered us and didn’t think it matched our ambitions or what we felt was fair to us as partners and creators.
Jesse Baker: That the “no” was freeing…and the “no” was really scary. And you and I ticked and tocked back and forth to how we felt about declining offers, because we understood how much time this show was going to take, and time is money. This was going to be an expensive endeavour and that meant we’d have to take on a couple of projects that we probably wouldn't have picked up had it not been for the fact that we knew what the cost of the show was going to be.
[Interrupting note from Eric: Magnificent Noise is totally bootstrapped. We had investment offers when we started, but we declined them. So we don’t have piles of VC money sitting around to invest in projects.]
Jesse Baker: And so this was going to be an expensive endeavor. It took us a year and a half to really figure out what this was, what it needed to be, and then get it there. And I’m not saying it’s 100% golden. There's work that still needs to be done. I think the show is still in its evolution.
But it was still hard. It was hard until it wasn't. It was hard until we just said, “Fuck it, let's try this.” Let's figure out if we can do this and be smart about it.
Eric Nuzum: If memory serves correctly, both you and I went back and forth at various times as to whether we wanted to accept a bad deal. We loved the show so much that I felt we were tempted to say yes to bad deal terms just to get the show made. But we knew we shouldn’t be saying yes.
Jesse Baker: But the nice thing is we tended to go back and forth at the same time in the same direction.
Eric Nuzum: Really? My memory is one day, you'd say, “Let's say yes to this company.” I’d reply, “Fuck these people.” The next day, I'd say, “You know, maybe we should be more open-minded.” And you’d say, “Them? I've moved on.”
Jesse Baker: Oh, that might be true.
What Happened When We Took This is Dating to Networks
Eric Nuzum: We took this out to a number of networks and almost everyone we took it to initially was very interested in talking to us about it.
Jesse Baker: Because the elevator pitch is: You're following four modern daters through a series of recorded first dates.
Eric Nuzum: And everybody loved that idea. Do you remember some of the reasons why some companies passed?
Jesse Baker: I feel like they said they had kicked around a similar idea or doing “something about dating.” And that's fine. I think that a lot of those ideas will fail because of point number two…
Eric Nuzum: They looked at the price we were talking about and it often ended the conversation. That's far more than most networks wanted to spend on something new like this. But it wasn’t expensive because we wanted to make a lot of money, it was expensive because the difference between a good dating show and a bad dating show is the amount of time you put into curating and casting. And that’s expensive. Plus you have to be willing to record a lot of stuff you won’t use.
Jesse Baker: Well, the other thing is everyone thought that the date would be enough. Oh, great. You're recording first dates. Just go record a whole bunch of them. And we could do 32 this year and there'll be quick and dirty.
It’s true that the dates are the star of the show, but to get to be the star, you have to care about the people that are going on the date. And so there is a bunch of work to figure out who is this person and what do they think their problem is? And how can we match them with someone that is very different than who they've ever gone out with before? What do they think they want versus maybe what haven't they tried before? And then how do you curate that date to bring out the best experience so that we're not listening to 32 dates where they all ask each other the same five questions?
Why We Decided to Say “No” To A Big Offer
Eric Nuzum: There was one large company that was super interested in this from the jump and told us so. They put in what they framed as a “major offer.” We negotiated back and forth for a long time. Eventually, we said no. Then a few weeks later they came back again. We negotiated again. Then we broke up again. On paper, just looking at the number, it seemed like a big deal. But the details were concerning, mostly around rights and ownership. Their terms were: you're going to give it to us and we’re going to own it. And we’re not going to pay you anything for what you’ve managed to figure out. We’ll pay you the cheapest version of this budget we can squeeze out. We control any derivative rights and you will get nothing from them. You will get nothing from any other language or international territory versions of this that we produce–and we will produce them without your involvement. We can fire you from this project at any time we wish, though you will be held to these terms for four more seasons. And if the show does better than we think it is going to, you get no part of that.
I know a lot of podcasters take shitty deals like this every day, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to agree to this. They responded, “Oh, come on, we’d never actually fire you.” And we’d say, “Great, then take it out of the contract.” And they wouldn’t.
Making a Show with No Consistent Format and No Host.
Eric Nuzum: Talk about things a network would have never agreed to…
I believe that format is the result of a process. A lot of other people believe that format is the beginning of a process because the first question people ask when you’re pitching a new series… It's kind of like their version of the cocktail party opening line: “Where’d you go to school?” or “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for living?” when you’re meeting somebody. In podcasting, they ask “What's the format?” And “Who’s the host?” That's the first thing they want to know.
Jesse Baker: Which is why the show was scary. Because there's no format and there’s no host. So…I don’t know how to answer those questions. We don’t have a host–and in the place of that we have three “fairy godmothers” and a behavioral scientist who guide both the dates and the listener's experience. Instead of there being “a host”--we take turns and everyone is a host at times.
Eric Nuzum: When I first drafted the introduction to this dispatch, I wrote, “What Happens When You Set Out to Break ‘The Rules?’” And I think it’s really important to note that we did not set out to break “The Rules.” We set out to make something that we thought was the right version of this. And we actually tried to follow “The Rules,” not just about distribution, but about editorial, creative format, everything. And yet as we did it, we fought this battle of this is the way everybody thinks it should be done: We need to have a host. You must have a format. Producers are not heard on air. This backstage conversation is not meant to be a front stage conversation. Yet when we allowed ourselves permission to experiment, we kind of slowly figured out where that gravity was taking us. And so there was nothing really deliberate about it. It was a journey of inches.
Jesse Baker: Yeah. I'm going to quote something back to you that you say to me all the time, but it's something like, “You're the victim of the rules that you live by.” And in podcasting, that’s very true. There are no rules. We think there are, because there are ways that people do things. And yes, I love starting something in which I don’t know what it is and figuring out what I think the rules are, my rules, and then going back and breaking them each episode. That’s how I look at formatting. What works for this episode, probably not going to work for the next episode. Great. In this show, we really struggled with it. Because we started in a really traditional way where we thought we would have one voice who was kind of your guide through the date and would hold your hand through this whole thing.
But you were missing so much of the fun. You were missing so much of what we were texting and whispering and saying to each other behind the scenes during the dates. And that was like where the heat was, as we were deciding, you know, what question did we want to send them next? Or why, or the things that they said or did with each other, the way they looked at each other, like all these things you were missing by not getting this kind of Greek chorus of producers who were very much pulling the strings in the background.
And so then it became, well, how do you take a chorus of voices and make them singular? How do you identify who they are and what they’re doing? How are they going to serve the listener? And that was very confusing because there are three producers and a dating coach who work on the show, all trying to pull the dates together. And we all have very different perspectives on what's happening. And sometimes that’s fun.
Eric Nuzum: Because it’s real.
Jesse Baker: It is, it is absolutely real. And we disagree a lot on what’s going on or what they need or what they mean by what they said, How they flirt. Whether they liked each other.
Eric Nuzum: Yeah. But that was a journey. Do you remember the first time that we ever said to each other, “There’s a conversation happening in the background that needs to be happening in the foreground?”
My memory of that is, the first date we did with Amanda, it was the first date we recorded for the show. We had the two daters and Logan, our dating coach and behavioral scientist on the show. So that's three. But then we had Hiwote, you, and myself, who all kind of wanted to make sure this went well.
Jesse Baker: But we didn’t want a ton of other people there. That would freak the daters out.
Eric Nuzum: So I came over to your house and we were huddled around your laptop. And eventually all three of your daughters came in, enchanted with the idea of watching a real date happen. They were commenting on how pretty Amanda looked, and her hair, and wanting to be able to view this process. That was the moment I knew we had something special. When a bunch of little girls are enthralled by the idea of being able to witness this.
But then I left and you stayed on that line. Hiwote, Logan, you, and I started this group chat–kind of a real time commentary track. The text updates and commentary were so entertaining that during the five minutes it took me to drive from your house to my house, I pulled over to open up my phone so I could see what I missed in the text change in the middle of this drive, because I so much wanted to know what was happening.
Jesse Baker: I remember my cheeks hurting after that first date with Amanda, because we had smiled so much and laughed so much in that recording.
Eric Nuzum: To me, that was a moment. There was a whole date experience that the listener was hearing, and then there was a whole other experience backstage for those of us listening–and the listener is having their own version of that. We said “Wouldn't it be great if they could hear what's going on in the minds of other people?”
Jesse Baker: I actually have a video of my oldest daughter saying, “This is a date? It’s so fun.” She actually says it’s like a comedy show. But yeah, I mean, I think that’s where we really realized that there is action happening that you want to bear witness to because it explains the date. And it was fun.
So we thought, “Why not find a way to put this into the listening experience?” It captures how much fun this show really is to make. And we started to play around with different versions.
Eric Nuzum: Dating shows have been on television since the mid-60s, and every other articulation of this format in mostly television has required the presence of a host. But the more we started to experiment, we realized that a role like that didn't feel organic to this show. We felt like we were being pulled in a direction where we didn't need it.
We had so many strong voices. We have Logan as a dating coach, and also providing a lot of context, behavioral science, and data. We had the three of you producers who are basically at three different places in your lives. And then looking at this experience from different perspectives, which created that interplay, none of you could have done it on your own.
The presence of the three of you is what makes it work. And no one would have written that from the very beginning. It called for us as a group to recognize the moment, not only that, but to recognize the power of these four women who are involved in this, what each brings, and recognizing it and finding a place where all four of them together to create something that no individual could have done.
Jesse Baker: I think it was an evolution that we just had to play with. You know, combining different voices. There's no set rule that the Logan episodes also include me or Eleanor. We very much flow in and out very organically. Some episodes you don't hear me at all, or you don't hear Eleanor. But you feel like you do have the presence of a kind of Greek chorus of people navigating through the dates?
Finding our voices was really interesting because we tried to script it. We tried to write what we needed to say, and we wrote in a very producery way, like “I need to transition. I'm going from this hot piece of tape to this hot piece of tape.” So the producer will provide the transition, the typical host role that give you the insight and then move on to the next thing, turn the page.
And we realized that script. It just wasn't going to work because it sounded stilted. It sounded, just not off the cuff and not, it didn't match the tone of the rest of the tape, which was very unpredictable. And so we needed to match that vulnerability and that feeling, that risk, they were taking on this date. The producers kind of had to take that too. And so we would listen through the tape and we would just talk about it. This is what I think this is how I was feeling. This is why we chose this next question. This was, you know, we explained intention, in a way that wasn't beautiful and it's not perfect.
And there are some ums and some likes and you know, it sounds very much as we talk. and that was an evolution that felt scary. To not have something that felt so polished and beautiful, but when you listen to it all together, it sounds of a family. It sounds like it all belongs together. I think, and that took us several takes.
So this show especially has many layers of trust. I feel like it builds on the trust you and I had with each other, Eric. That this was an okay thing to experiment on. That it was an okay thing for us to do ourselves. And the trust that we had with each other to build this, to be what it needed to be.
But then you're asking total strangers, not only the four daters that we chose, but the people that we chose to go out with them. We’re asking them to let us into a deeply vulnerable activity. You know, putting yourself out there on a first date. And we’re in their homes too.
So we’re looking at their bedrooms, or their living rooms, or their kitchens, while we’re on these dates. So we’re in a vulnerable space too.
And then we’re also asking the listener to trust us that this is worth their time, that they’re going to take away something from this that's going to make the last 35 minutes worth it.
And I feel like this is, this was a show where we really had to get our shit together and we really had to know what we were doing and we had to lean on each other because if we didn't, it would all fall apart.
Listening to Yourself
Eric Nuzum: There's a theme emerging in everything we’ve talked about, which is the importance of listening to yourself, right? Distributing the show. Looking for a partner. Disqualifying potential offers and eventually breaking up at the one we thought we were going to place it with–and doing this completely independently where we’re financing this out of our pockets. That is listening to ourselves. Taking the producers from out of the backstage role into a front stage role—and as a result, realizing you didn’t need a traditional role of a host, is us listening to ourselves. And so this entire project is really about, “Yeah, I know the way I’m supposed to think about this, but I have an impulse and this drive to go in a different direction and giving myself permission to go in that direction.”
Jesse Baker: I think it even lends itself to what we’re asking the daters to do on the dates. Seriously. I mean, it goes all the way through. We’re asking people to look inside themselves and to make sure, like, is this what I want? Could this be what I want? How does this make me feel? Is this defining, I had thought I had these expectations, but what if I had different expectations?
And I think that is exactly what we did as producers on the show, but that is actually what we did as the producer of this show. Trying to put it out in the world and try to help it find its place.
If you’d like to listen to This is Dating, you can go here to listen on free platforms, or sign up here for the ad-free, early release subscription version.
Okay, that’s it for this dispatch, too.
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