“Radio psychologists provide listeners with a therapeutic blend of sympathy and insight”
From her KPIX-FM studio, psychologist Tara Fields sits watching the electronic monitor as dozens of callers line up waiting for her advice.
But Fields is busy, listening to a woman tearfully tell the radio audience how she was repeatedly beaten by her partner.
“You don’t deserve that,” Fields says in determined tones, glaring and shaking a finger like a lecturing schoolmarm. “Repeat after me. I don’t deserve that.”
The distraught caller. The concerned listener. The quick resolution. The closest most people have ever come to this scene is watching NBC’s hit sitcom “Frasier.”
But over the past few years, radio psychology has been blossoming nationally. Today three of these so-called “psych-talk” radio shows can be heard in the Bay Area: Fields, from San Francisco; Los Angeles-based Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Dr. Joy Brown from New York. These programs are an outgrowth of shock-talk radio, which has dominated the talk radio field in the past decade.
While the interest has pleased radio execs, it doesn’t sit well with some psychologists who question the ethics of these programs. Others, however, say allowing people to talk about their problems, even in the radio venue, can be a help.
“Although radio psychologists have been on the air for many years they appear to be more bold and prominent in the past few years,” says Dr. Muriel L. Golub, who chairs the California Psychological Association’s Ethics Committee. “They also appear to be more oriented in the direction of only-the-solution-matters. They tell listeners that they can give them the solution to their problems, and that simply is not true.”
These shows have become so popular, she says, because people are searching for the “quick fix”. The anonymity of a phone call also avoids having to deal with someone face to face.
Many people don’t want to deal with their fear and shame at revealing their most secret thoughts,” Golub says. “On the other hand, there are those who find it exciting to hear oneself on radio and to interact with a celebrity. (The calls) may also be used in a manipulative manner, by saying ‘I was so upset with you, I even called Dr. So-and So about it.’”
But Fields and others believe there can be positive outcomes from talking to a therapist on the air.
“I’m not saying it should be used in the place of therapy, but it gives people a chance to tell their story, and that can be a positive first step,” Fields says.
Tucked into a crowded control room at the KPIX radio and TV station the vivacious Fields dispenses advice and bolsters self-esteem each weekday afternoon. Just outside Fields’ radio room, her efficient producer Allison Geller crisply processes callers.
“What’s your comment?” she queries a caller. “Yes, I know you want to say something to Dr. Tara, but you have to tell me first. Why? Because I’m the one who puts you on the air and I’ve got to know what you are going to say. OK. And when we put you on, don’t say ‘Hi” or start a long story about what’s going on, just jump right in with your question.”
Of course, once on the air the caller warmly greets Dr. Tara and begins a long-winded story, while Geller rolls her eyes in anguish. Geller is the ramrod of this outfit, and she’s got to keep those callers moving like cattle on a drive.
“Frasier” viewers can readily identify with the principal players here, with loquacious Fields subbing for Dr. Frasier Crane and Geller as his saucy producer Roz. (“I have a good heart like Frasier,” Fields says. “But I’m not as pretentious, I don’t know the name of any red wine, I have nicer hair and a better relationship with my dog.”)
“With a show like ‘Frasier,’ you know it’s just entertainment,” says Berkeley psychologist Steve Allen. “With these (radio) talk shows, the lines between entertainment and help are more blurred.”
Fields has been a practicing psychologist for 15 years, has a private practice in Marin County and teaches at the College of Marin. She says her show doesn’t exploit anyone but does provide a springboard for people seeking help.
Refers troubled callers
With her knowledge of Bay Area resources, she makes a point of referring callers with serious problems to those who can help them. Lists of crisis intervention centers and psychologist referral services are kept close by producer Geller’s phone.
A petite woman, Fields rocks with energy, a foot constantly wiggling, eyes always darting. She jokes that if she were in a school right now, she’d be a candidate for Ritalin. Fields has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to share them with her callers. But she draws the line at pronouncing judgments the way her fellow psych-talker Schlessinger does.
Fields considers the show to be entertainment, a step removed from the “real” patients she sees in her private practice.
“When I’m with my patients, I put my personality in a corner and just listen, no matter what my patients say to me, because that is their time, not mine,” Fields explains. “On the air, I can bring in my own personality and vent my personal feelings.”
When KPIX radio lost Schlessinger to KGO radio in January, KPIX replaced her with Fields, who has been working on programs such KRON-Channel 4’s “Daybreak” and KTVU’s “Mornings on 2.”
KPIX radio station manager Blaise Howard says Schlessinger had a steadily growing audience in the two years she was on the station. He felt the best move was to replace Schlessinger with another psych-talk show.
“Talk radio is a venue used for 30 or 40 years, but in the last seven years it has taken center stage in the radio arena,” Howard says. “Psych-talk gained national prominence with Laura Schlessinger when she caught on a few years ago.”
Howard says the beauty of psych-talk is that it draws a younger audience, which is always favorable to advertisers. He says 70 percent of Fields’ audience is under age 54. Most radio talk shows draw audiences around 50 percent under age 54.
In a comparison of ratings from last fall, well-established talk show personality Ronn Owens on KGO radio scored a 5.8 share of the listening audience aged 25 to 54. Schlessinger, on two-year-old KPIX radio, scored a 2.8 overall share of the same audience. Among women, Schlessinger scored a 4.5 share, beating Owens’ 4.2 share.
“That’s a remarkable showing for a new show on a new station,” Howard says. “And women are a favorable demographic because advertisers know they do most of the buying.”
The combative Schlessinger has a stranglehold on the market, with her internationally syndicated radio therapy program airing in more than 400 affiliates. She grapples with her listeners’ moral and ethical dilemmas with a no-nonsense, conservative attitude. Not a psychologist, Schlessinger, who calls herself a doctor by virtue of earning a Ph.D. in physiology form Columbia University in New York in 1974, is a licensed marriage and family therapist.
While Fields is still a relative newcomer to the business, Schlessinger is an old hand. The talk maven, who turned 50 in January, introduces herself at the beginning of each program as “Her kid’s mom.” Son Deryk, she says is her No. 1 priority in life, and she often tells women they shouldn’t work outside the home.
Some Dr. Laura-isms include “If you kiss a toad, you don’t get a prince, you get slime in your mouth and bad memories…I basically think we stay in crummy places because the good ones scare us…If you want no stress, be in a coma…”
Many psychologists have a problem with this kind of guerilla approach to psychotherapy, although others think anything that breaks the ice with patients can’t be all bad.
Dr. Alan Siegel, a member of the California Psychological Association Media Committee and a clinical psychologist working in Berkeley and San Francisco, said he has some strong ethical concerns about radio therapists who launch into on-line solutions without offering follow ups.
“In a proper mental health development, we come up with a plan, then tailor the intervention based on the person’s ability to handle it and the resources available to them to follow through with treatment,” Siegel says. “A premature suggestion could aggravate the problem.
“To me, Dr. Laura is a little too forceful in the advice she give. Ethically, not knowing that person and just interacting for a couple of minutes, she could misread the situation and cause real harm.”
Fields, on the other hand, does not dispense advice like so much Pez. And she’s careful about following up with callers who she believes need additional help, referring them to local agencies.
Siegel and other psychologists say there are potential benefits from these shows. They can help take the social stigma out of seeking professional help and can motivate listeners to identify a problem. Psychologists’ patients often say that they listen to such shows.
“People see (them) as a celebrity talk show host, and Americans are impressed with stardom and celebrity,” Siegel says. “They are influenced by the moment, and if Dr. Laura or Tara Fields can touch on their problems, it can be an effective way to seek further counseling.”
Fields has had children as young as 10 call in to her program, some worried about their friends having sex, others concerned about their parents dating the wrong kind or people. She’s usually very patient with her callers, quick to refer them to services that will help them with problems she can’t begin to cover on her fast-paced show. Yet the format lends itself too often to miscommunication.
During a recent show, Fields was talking about sex before marriage. A caller wanted to say that she and her husband lived together before marriage, yet after the marriage the relationship went sour. Fields misunderstood her point, congratulated, her on her marriage and nudged the woman off the phone to wrap up the show.
“I feel so bad about that,” she says after being told of the incident. “Right now, I’m so new at staying on time, and sometimes I get in a crunch when the show closes.”
Fields says she isn’t doing therapy on her show and believes it’s unethical to give listeners snappy answers or glib criticism.
“I give some strong opinions, but the ball is in their court,” Fields says. “You can’t take a person’s self-confidence away just to get ratings. My intent with the show is just to get people on the right path, to open up about their problems. There are no quick fixes and I remind my listeners they need to seek help for tougher problems.”
Fields says listeners need to know that these programs are entertaining, but can be helpful as well.
“After my first time on the air, I was touched by the listeners’ stories and thought that I had helped in a small way. And, it was entertaining and fun,” Fields says. “That’s what this is all about.”
The Oakland Tribune