Shrink To Fit

Contra Costa TimesPsyche TalkShrink to FitBy Lynn Carey, Staff Writer


The following is a theoretical question of the sort that has been asked of radio psychologists:

“Um, hello, Doctor? Um, I’m seven months pregnant and I found out my husband has been having an affair with a neighbor. But it’s usually only after he’s been drinking more than usual. I quit my job when we got married, and I really love him. But now I don’t trust him and don’t know what to do.”

The following are theoretical answers of the sort that might be given by the Bay Area’s distinctly different radio psychologists, the local Dr Tara Fields and the nationally syndicated Dr. Laura Schlessinger:

Dr. Tara: “Drinking ‘more than usual?’

That’s a red flag right there. It sounds to me like you may have had this guy’s number before you married him, even. The fact that you are still with him might indicate that you have some fear of abandonment and of change.”

Dr. Laura: “What are you, nuts? What on earth made this man attractive to you? Why did you think this was the right man to be your life’s partner, and the father of your children? That baby of yours has rights, too. Talk to an attorney, Honey babe; let’s not be stupid twice.”

KPIX is a kinder, gentler station ever since Dec. 30, when Dr. Laura jumped ship and took her show over to the Bay Area’s No. 1 talk station KGO, for the noon hour on weekdays, and three hours on weekend afternoons. Dr. Laura is second only in listeners to conservative Rush Limbaugh.

She’s a poplar gal. But snagging Dr. Laura for only the noon hour – depriving fans of the extra two live hours (and of more chance to call for advice) is like the Chicago Bulls acquiring Penny Hardaway to sit on the bench behind Michael Jordan. Better to have her in the lineup than to let the radio competition have her.

But depending on listener response, Dr. Laura may eventually get more air time, somewhere, according to KGO operations director Jack Swanson. It was he who initiated the snag from KPIX; he recognized that Dr. Laura’s success is that she tells the truth – as she sees it – and gets away with it.

“She has zero tolerance for BS and not a lot of tolerance for whining,” he says. “I know she’s been criticized for solving complex problems in three minutes. But I listen and say, “By gosh, she’s right.’ And the caller says, ‘By gosh, she’s right.’” Dr. Laura’s noon-to-3-p.m. weekday time slot at KPIX-FM is now occupied by Dr. Tara, a Marin psychologist who’s the new shrink on the radio block. Obviously, there’s now a clear choice for the thousands who tune in daily for a dose of vicarious advice. They can either witness the equivalent of an audio car wreck with KGO’s Dr. Laura, or, they can spend a day at the beach with Dr. Tara, whose waves of advice only occasionally knock the wind out of a caller.

Take the noon hour one day two weeks ago, for instance. On KGO, Dr. Laura was recovering from laryngitis, but it barely slowed her down. Within minutes of stating the obvious – her motto, “I am my kid’s mom” – she managed to:

  • Invoke the 10 Commandments;
  • Ask a caller if she was nuts;
  • Told another, “Honey babe, you’re too old to have children,” and;
  • Told another caller he was stupid.

She spent a little longer than usual with a young divorced woman struggling with the decision of whether or not to work to support a toddler; Dr. Laura told her she should get a job at night when the toddler was sleeping. (To make the woman feel better, she said she’d send her a T-shirt that says, “I Am My Kid’s Mom” on it.)

Meanwhile, over at KPIX Dr. Tara was sympathizing with callers phoning in with “Neighbors From Hell” stories. She was compassionate and slightly aghast that one young woman was getting threatening letters from her landlord because she played music at a normal range on Saturday afternoons.

Dr. Tara was downright indignant that another caller’s dog was getting blamed for all the poo-poo in a neighbor’s yard. (You can’t listen to Dr. Tara long before discovering she is a dog-lover; she has a Dalmatian.) The caller, who works in genetic research, was threatening to have all the feces DNA tested, to prove it wasn’t her dog doing the dirty deed. Dr. Tara loved this idea, which must have amused her producer, to whom Dr. Tara said, “Don’t laugh at me, I’m a Ph.D.!”

On two other days of listening to portions of Dr. Tara, she was the one doing most of the talking. Program director Ken Beck says Dr. Tara’s technique is different from other talk-show therapists such as Dr. Laura. “She doesn’t take calls like a supermarket checkout clerk.”

While all six of Dr. Tara’s phone lines are frequently full, she tends to discuss the subject – a different one every hour – more than actually giving advice. Part of the reason for that may be that too many calls of a similar nature makes for boring radio, and Beck has encouraged Fields to do whatever is entertaining.

Dr. Laura, on the other hand, doesn’t have topics. She advises about six or seven callers an hour on any subject – with another (estimated) 50,000 trying to get through – but her callers have at least one thing in common. They have to be somewhat masochistic. If you want warm and cuddly, talk to your cat.


A ‘little nudge’ approach wins Fields audience

With Dr. Tara Fields, KPIX is the first Bay Area radio station to have local talent doing a three-hour regular shrink show, which pleases the heck out of General Manager Blaise Howard.

“The Bay Area listeners were used to three hours of this psyche talk, and KGO is only running one hour,” Howard says. “I just want to go in and hug her. It’s absolutely a home run for us.”

Now in her seventh week, it’s still too soon to tell if Dr. Tara will, well, make it into the World Series. But she says she’s gotten into a routine already.

“I have to have a cookie at 2 o’clock,” she says. “That’s cookie time.”

Another part of her routine is having a different topic to jump off of each hour, such as, say, “Lying: Why and when do we lie?” and “Dating angst for single parents – do kids make a difference?”

Fields has been in private practice 13 years, and has become the Bay Area’s media shrink whenever a news story dictates a psychotherapist’s input on an event. She has contributed regularly to KRON, KTVU, KGO and Bay TV, as well as KGO radio talk shows. When Dr. Laura Schlessinger was making noises about leaving KPIX, program director Ken Beck pursued Fields because she was already media-savvy.

“For someone who has been in private practice, with lectures here and there and TV twice a week, this is kind of exciting,” she says. “I like these nutty people (in radio).” Dr. Tara, is good-natured about the obvious comparisons that take place between her and her massively syndicated counterpart.

“We’re extremely different, which is why this is nice; the bay Area has a very different choice on the menu,” she says. But Fields admits there are some ways she and Schlessinger are the same. “You do have a choice. Things don’t just happen to people, pants don’t just fall down. People really know the answers to their questions; I think I just nudge them a little… to undergo the real therapeutic process and seek out some kind of treatment.

Fields says her responses to people are forceful sometimes, such as when she laid into a woman last week who was having difficulty moving past a relationship; a boyfriend broke up with her and began dating her best friend two days later:

“Oh, come on, you’re making too much of a big deal over this! You can’t control another person’s choices,” she told her on the air. “You’re giving this other person too much power over your life!”

“Sometimes I come off very strong,” she says. “I don’t want them to get off the phone and go back to what they were doing before. But I’m not into the responsibility of making huge decisions for people I don’t have a clue about.”

Fields says she often wishes, as she’s giving advice, that someone had given her the same sort of advice when she was young. “But I won’t make blanket statements, like all mothers should stay home,” she says, quoting one of Schlessinger’s mantras.

Also, she says with a chuckle, “I won’t be selling T-shirts. And I won’t be writing a book.”

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