Lonely hearts need not apply

It's already the world's largest telephone dating agency. Now it has set its sights on matchmaking 13.5 million Britons.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Er ... hi. My name is Sarah. I'm 25 years old and I live in Birmingham. I've got brown hair and green eyes. I enjoy going to the cinema, holidays and having fun. I'm looking for someone to have a laugh with and enjoy nights out. If you think you fit the bill, give me a call."

In the United States, if you reveal that you met your partner through a telephone dating service, no one raises an eyebrow. But here in the UK, it is still considered somehow rather sad to seek love on the line. If Sarah from Birmingham finds a playmate, she may well not wish the world to know quite how he rang her bell.

But the arrival from America of the Tele-Publishing Group, the world's largest telephone dating company, is challenging these old, entrenched attitudes. The fact that there are 13.5 million single adults living in Great Britain has created a vast and disparate market that a variety of agencies and "lonely hearts" columns have been courting for many decades. Telephone dating is one of the newest and most lucrative of these love-match services.

It works like this. The teledating customer calls a given number, and records a brief message describing him or herself, but for safety reasons is not permitted to leave an address or home phone number. Ads in local and national newspapers give numbers that readers can call to listen to such messages, and anyone interested by a particular "voice greeting" can record a reply. The respondent leaves a phone number, with a time at which he or she can be contacted, so that a meeting can be arranged. It is then up to the advertiser when (or indeed if) he or she gives out their own personal details to a respondent.

But so far, so what? The telephone is just another medium - and not even a particularly cheap one. Most of the lines operate on premium-rate tariffs, so you can run up a sizeable bill. But, according to David Dinnage, vice- president of the Tele-Publishing Group, its service is going to be easier to use, less expensive and rather more respectable. It is Dinnage's mission not just to raise the profile of teledating, but to take it upmarket.

"I have absolutely no question in my mind about the value that my service brings to people," Mr Dinnage says. "Dissociate yourself from anything you thought these services were in the past. The public has an opinion about the old services, that they are junk, that they are sleazy, that they are not worth your time. It's going to change, and it's going to change quickly."

The Tele-Publishing Group is not only the world's largest "voice personals" provider, but also AT&T's largest telecommunications customer. Launched eight years ago as a voice message service attached to the personal column of the Boston Phoenix newspaper, its impact was staggering. People loved the idea of hearing the descriptions as well as reading them - and of being heard as well as read. And they loved the speed with which the system could be accessed. Over night, the number of advertisers quadrupled, and the company now places 70,000 new voice-personal ads each week in 500 major newspapers in the US and Canada.

Callers to Tele-Publishing's UK service are connected via a freephone number to a human operator, who helps them to write and record their advertisements. Revenue is generated by a premium-rate charge when you listen or reply to an ad, and the cost to customers, claims Dinnage, is thus halved.

A new approach was also needed in marketing the line. Dinnage opines that the labels used in the past to describe such services depicted a group of people who were lonely, desperate and despondent. " `Lonely hearts' is a pejorative term to my company; we don't refer to it in that way." With that in mind, a team of marketing experts set out to revise the format and layout of personal columns and ads, to attract younger, more dynamic customers - or "real, normal, professional, successful, sophisticated people", as Dinnage puts it. The lonely, desperate and despondent, presumably, need not apply.

Peter, 24, a trainee doctor from north London, called a telephone dating service out of curiosity.

"I am quite a shy person, so teledating was a good way for me to chat to women, without them seeing me fumbling in my pockets and blushing. I advertised myself in a newspaper and I got a few replies from women hoping to meet their very own Dr Kildare. Over a period of a few phone calls I got to know one woman in particular. She was a lawyer. After talking on the phone we agreed to meet, and one weekend I went to her house in Essex. I was attracted to her immediately and felt a real affinity with her.

I stayed for the whole weekend, which was when our physical relationship began. She was very open about how she felt, and she helped me to express exactly what I wanted out of a relationship. I saw her regularly for about two months, then the relationship ended as quickly as it had begun. I wasn't upset because I felt that I had learnt a lot. I now feel that I have the confidence to approach people face to face, rather than down the telephone line."

Teresa, a single mother form Manchester, called a teledating service late at night. A 38-year-old part-time secretary, she had not been in a relationship for two years. She had 10 responses - not all of them of the sort she had hoped.

"Basically, I called as a dare. I was a bit drunk and I had been thinking about doing it for a couple of weeks. I had been out at the pub, and when I got in I called and left a message. I listened back to my voice and thought that I sounded bubbly and fun, so I left it on the system. For a few days I forgot about it, but then, about five days later, I decided to see if anyone had left any replies. A computer voice told me I had five messages. I was very pleased. The first four seemed like reasonable blokes, but they all lived hundreds of miles away so they were useless. The fifth caller certainly wasn't the sort of person I would want to meet. He had a stupid, husky voice and was really offensive. He said some very rude things about what he wanted to do to me. What really irritated me was that I had to listen to the whole message, which went on for about two minutes, before I could delete it or go back to the four more reasonable replies. Despite being slightly sickened by what he said, I decided to leave a message for him. I told him what a dysfunctional and sad person he was. I hope he won't use the service again - and neither shall I!"

Marilyn, 48, moved to the US from Britain 13 years ago to get married. Now separated, she lives in Chicago, where she works as an education manager. "If you don't have time to socialise, or if you have just moved to a new city, it's a great way to meet people," she says. "I always seemed to be busy travelling with my job, so it was the perfect answer. I deliberately put lots of references to the arts, and to my other interests, in my voice personal ad, so it would attract the right calibre of man. I had a very good response. Thirty-five men left messages for me. A high percentage of them were academics, and many worked in the arts. I spoke to 12 of them, met nine, dated three for a while, and two for quite some time. The process of placing a specifically targeted ad, then listening to the messages you get, helps to narrow down the field. After hearing your replies, then talking to some of the lucky ones, you get a fairly good picture of what the person is like, and a pretty reliable assessment for compatibility. It is a really good thing to do. A lot of my girlfriends have done it. Some have even got married through it. I would recommend it"n

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