In the daydream of doing what you love for a living, you probably imagine the most gratifying tasks—the work that doesn’t feel like work. But even the to-dos that you don’t want to do have to get done.
As tempting as it might be for some creators to think of spreadsheets and project management software as anathema to creativity—a distraction from the work you actually want to be doing—Jesse Baker doesn’t think it has to be either or. They’re two sides of the same coin.
As an award-winning journalist and co-founder of podcast production company Magnificent Noise, Baker says the business and creative sides of her job don’t compete for attention. Instead, they can actually work together and complement each other—something Baker says is key to being a successful creator.
“When you’re organized, the messiness of creativity actually begins to flourish and function,” she says. “Even though spreadsheets are not sexy, once you start putting those thoughts into a document that you can share around, what is possible starts to expand.”
Through her work at NPR’s All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, and as Vice President of Original Content Development at Audible, Baker honed her skills as both a creator and producer. “If public radio taught me how to create and tell stories, Audible [was where] I really learned how to budget, how to build teams, and how to manage a portfolio,” she says.
Over the years, other producers taught Baker the value of having all her team’s knowledge organized in one place, accessible to all—enabling the “the messiness of creativity” that can lead to unexpected breakthroughs and emotional moments.
Baker says the sign of a great storyteller is being able to create the space for both organization and creativity. Here’s how she and her team manage to mine a mountain of source material to find rare moments that become memorable stories.
Searching for stories that connect us
When Baker co-founded Magnificent Noise with Eric Nuzum, her former colleague at NPR and Audible, their goal was producing shows that leave listeners feeling a little less lonely.
For almost seven years, Baker has been collaborating with best-selling author and renowned couples therapist Esther Perel on Where Should We Begin?, the award-winning podcast that allows listeners to hear one-time counseling sessions with real couples as they discuss their relationships in intimate detail.
The show’s success inspired a spin-off called How’s Work?, which looks at problems that confront colleagues and co-founders as they navigate the tricky dynamics of working relationships.
“When you’re organized, the messiness of creativity actually begins to flourish and function.”—Jesse Baker
When she first started working with Perel, Baker would sit outside her office and hear people talk about their issues with courageous vulnerability. It gave Baker a new perspective on the types of stories she wanted Magnificent Noise to present. “She helped me understand that your story is my story, and there are things that really connect us,” Baker says.
Over the years, Baker and Perel have developed a personal rapport that strengthens their own working relationship. “With the two of us, you don't know where an idea came from. Because often, we'll sit and talk about what we want to do,” Baker says. “I’m like, ‘Let's just try this and see what happens.’ She's so game for trusting and believing that we can figure it out.”
“She does so much more than just sex therapy or couples therapy,” Baker adds. “I've seen that in her office. I've seen that in my personal life, you know? When she calls me and she's like, ‘What's happening?’ I'm like, ‘Well, let me tell you about my eight year old right now.’”
It made sense then that the idea for How’s Work? arose from these conversations, because Baker believes who you are at work is no different than who you are at home.
“I don't personally think you can boundary yourself off so that you are different people. [For] How’s Work? and Where Should We Begin?, the sessions are done almost identically. It's just that what links the person sitting on the couch to the other person is not always matrimony.”
When popularity sparks participation
As both shows gained listeners, they also attracted attention from people across the globe offering to submit their own stories. This motivated the Magnificent Noise team to develop a system of color-coded spreadsheets to organize the vast collection of audio files that serve as the source material for their shows.
“You have to have some kind of linear process for this,” she explains. “Organization is the key to keeping all of these things centered and being able to be creative around them.”
When lockdowns kept them out of their offices in New York, working as a distributed team became another complicating factor. “The pandemic changed everything and forced us to rethink how we’re creative and how we communicate with each other,” Baker says. “Our producers are all over the world now. We've got people in Chicago, Abu Dhabi, Lisbon, and Berlin.”
“Organization is the key to keeping all of these things centered and being able to be creative around them.”
To keep everyone on the same page, they began to adopt more remote collaboration technology. Baker believes her team’s creative process thrives through spitballing and workshopping rough ideas until they find one that shines. So they began to experiment by using Zoom ambiently to mimic the feeling of being in the same room.
“Even if we don't talk or have a plan, we're just sitting together to make space for those kind of conversations,” she says. “You have all these new tools and new ways of managing projects and schedules. A huge part of this is figuring out how to create space for each other.”
Listening for ‘hot tape’ moments
In January, Magnificent Noise launched This Is Dating, a new podcast co-created by Baker, Hiwote Getaneh, Eleanor Kagan, and behavioral scientist Logan Ury, that chronicles the experiences of daters trying to overcome past patterns and find lasting relationships.
As the show quickly attracted avid listeners, it also drew waves of submissions from people all over the globe eager to be set up on a date and share their stories. To handle the sudden inundation of material, the team keeps all the voice memos submitted by prospective episode subjects organized in a Dropbox folder.
“We have to have a place to gather all that sound that's not just in your inbox so that numerous people can go through and listen to those MP3s and say, ‘This really resonates with me,’” Baker explains.
Gradually, the team turns the tape into the bones of the story. “The writer come in and starts to weave together the pieces of tape, which I think is different than a lot of other mediums,” says Baker. “If you're writing a TV show, the dialogue comes first, not second.”
The trick is sifting through hours of audio to find the golden moments that can grab your attention in the first 20 seconds. “We call it ‘hot tape,’” says Baker. “We’re looking for the most compelling piece of tape that dares you to stop listening. How can I grip you when there are so many other things you could be doing with your time?”
How curveballs turn into home runs
The upside of documenting and organizing every bit of the creative process? Sometimes the little moments in between can spark a winning idea.
“We started recording every editorial call we had because when we were spit balling, the calls really ballooned out,” says Baker. “A lot of the interstitial in that show that first season came from us riffing during calls that were not necessarily meant to be what they became.”
On one Zoom call, while Baker was waiting for one of the other producers to join, she casually asked her colleague about what was going on in her life.
“She's like, I just voice memo’d this man and broke up with him,” she recalls. “It led to this whole conversation: ‘You sent him a voice memo that you wrote with your friend who works in communications at a bar? Like, what? Can I hear it?’”
That conversation? It became the last episode of This is Dating’s first season.