Radio-Active Shrinks

Does this quote trouble you as much as it does me? It's from David Bartlett,former president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "The best way to insure the failure of a radio therapy show," Bartlett told the New York Times, "is to concentrate on psychology. Good talk radio is done for the listener, not the caller. That may not always be compatible with the role of a therapist."

Can a radio psychologist truly act in the best interest of a caller when the need to entertain is constantly lurking in the background? It's an important question to ask, because unlike the folks who call, say, Howard Stern, the people who phone radio psychologists by definition have problems, often serious ones. (Actually, many of Stern's callers have serious problems as well, but that's another story.)

Granted, nobody--including its practitioners--would be so foolish as to claim that "radio therapy" bears any resemblance to the real thing. But at least in regular therapy the therapist's obligations and loyalties are clear cut. The issue is murkier on the air. A caller to a radio psychology show is seeking an answer to a problem--an unstable marriage, a depressed family member, an unruly kid--whose resolution may affect the rest of his or her life. It is disturbing, then, that a caller's needs might-- intentionally or not--take a backseat to the demands of ratings.

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Radio psychologists are well aware of their dual constituencies. Joy Browne, Ph.D., whose syndicated show airs on some 300 stations, describes her program as "Problem Solving 101" but she acknowledges that it's also "Voyeurism 102." Still, Browne and her colleagues insist that callers need not suffer. "Radio is entertainment," says Helen Friedman, Ph.D., who has a new show scheduled on KOOK-AM in St. Louis. "But I think you really can look out for both the caller and the listener."

What ultimately matters, of course, is whether these shows really help people. And the answer, alas, is that we don't really know. Sure, any decent radio shrink has a fat file filled with letters from grateful listeners who have benefitted from the host's advice. But what about people whose lives suffered because they followed poor on-air counsel? For years psychologists have dutifully performed studies to show that Therapy X helps a given problem. Maybe it's time that some enterprising researcher followed up on what happens to people who call in to radio therapy shows.

If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the best-known therapist on the airwaves, it's because Dr. Laura" Schlessinger says up-front that her show is about "moral health," not mental health. Of course, Schlessinger isn't a psychologist (though she's a licensed therapist). But in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY'S "taboo" issue, it's only fitting that our featured interview be with the one radio therapist who not only discusses morality--a topic most therapists avoid, the better to maintain an air of neutrality--but makes it the crux of her show. You'll find our interview with Schlessinger on page 28; our special report on taboos begins on page 32.

Despite the concerns I mentioned, I do find it encouraging that psychology shows are attracting such a wide audience. Critics miss the point when they dismiss such programs as "McTherapy." As Friedman notes, "Psychology has a lot to offer people. We're giving them new ways to look at their problems." That's a mission we at PT can stand behind. After all, it's our mission, too.

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