Love is hard to find these days. Apps turn people into play things. The pandemic is fatal for vibes. Adele reigns atop the Billboard charts, singing her tales of longing and woe.
Is romance dead? Not in the frothy world of podcasts, where two recent audio dating shows — “This Is Dating” and “It’s Nice to Hear You” — aim to reinvent matchmaking in a time of isolation.
“This Is Dating,” from the independent studio Magnificent Noise, follows four daters looking to break out of old patterns and start meaningful relationships. In exchange for their participation (the show uses real voices but fake names), the subjects get a team of fairy godmothers tasked with rehabilitating their love lives.
A dating coach, Logan Ury — the director of relationship science at the dating app Hinge and author of “How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love” — helps each dater identify his or her bad habits. Producers do the matchmaking, recruiting a stable of potential partners based on the dater’s preferences. Listeners hear one actual date per episode, conducted over Zoom because of Covid, and the producers and Ury help there, too. Sitting in as (mostly) silent participants, they drop occasional icebreakers into the chat to keep up momentum.
“It’s an incredible exercise in trust,” said Jesse Baker, a co-founder of Magnificent Noise and co-creator of “This is Dating,” which premiered earlier this month and is produced by Baker, Hiwote Getaneh and Eleanor Kagan. “You talk to us about the problems you feel you’re having, and we offer this one kind of whack-a-doodle way to approach things differently.”
Baker, an executive producer of the popular couples therapy podcast “Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel,” which she helped create, brought some of that show’s analytical sensibility to her new podcast. The show balances MTV game-show-style elements — separately recorded sideline commentary is intercut with audio from the dates — with the more earnest ambitions of modern social psychology.
Over the course of the season, listeners will follow the daters as they go on multiple first dates, each one presented as a step on the road to self-discovery.
“We didn’t just want a voyeuristic half-hour in someone’s awkward blind date,” Baker said. “It was important to us to show growth.”
“It’s Nice to Hear You” also applies narrative framing to the dating game. The show, which ended a six-episode first season last spring (a second is in development), follows three couples who are allowed to correspond once a day for 30 days. In a twist, the couples use pseudonyms and can only communicate via voice memo, with no photos or other identifying information exchanged. At the end of the experiment, each finds out whether their connection is more than one-dimensional.
Part of the appeal of “It’s Nice to Hear You” is its implication that appearance and other physical concerns are superfluous to romance. The show’s creator andpublisher, Heather Li, developed it after watching the Netflix dating series “Love Is Blind,” in which contestants, who get to know their prospective partners over the span of one week, agree to get married without ever seeing them.
“It’s Nice to Hear You” avoids such lofty stakes, but it’s remarkable to hear just how intimate the couples become within its constrictive framework. Two weeks into the project, one woman declares that she has already shared more with her match than she had in any previous real-world relationship. “I feel like I’ve known him for years,” she says.
Li, a retail consultant who created the podcast while in a dating slump of her own, said the restraints helped some participants get out of their own way. “You’re not being distracted by what someone looks like or what’s in their background,” Li said. “I think it’s harder to prejudge someone if you don’t have as many data points.”
On both “This Is Dating” and “It’s Nice to Hear You,” the limitations of the medium are turned into strengths. The inability of the listener to see the shows’ daters makes it easier to project oneself into his or her shoes. And the relatively unobtrusive nature of the production apparatus — a smartphone recorder in the case of “It’s Nice to Hear You” and a Zoom account for “This Is Dating” — all but eliminates the “I’m not here to make friends” observer effect stoked by the presence of reality television crews.
Among the biggest challenges were finding enough participants to make plausible matches — both shows said they had far more women apply than men — and ensuring that interactions on the dates were entertaining to listen to. On “This Is Dating,” the virtual daters make cocktails, play improv games and give each other bedroom tours, among other mood-enhancing activities.
“None of us are professional matchmakers, but creating an environment where people could have fun and feel a connection felt like something we could totally do,” said Getaneh, one of the producers of “This Is Dating.”
One question both shows faced was how to deliver satisfying resolutions. Here, Li got lucky. Shortly before she began “It’s Nice to Hear You,” she had been ghosted by a guy she had been seeing casually. Li decided to include her personal journey as a multi-episode story line, confessing her struggles with intimacy and communication to the same relationship coach who had interviewed her subjects.
When she eventually meets her current boyfriend, whom she has now been with for more than a year, her happy ending becomes the podcast’s.
“Listening to so many hours of other people communicating so openly helped me realize that I needed to be bolder and more assertive,” Li said. “If they were doing it, why couldn’t I?”