Linda Austin, M.D., host of "What’s on Your Mind," a public radio program broadcast in 13 states, said at APA’s 2003 annual meeting in May, "Speaking on radio or television gives you an instant credibility with the public that is rare in other settings."
For example, Austin met a woman at a party who said that her talk on dementia and psychosis was helpful in understanding her grandfather and his belief that he was being infested by insects.
Austin was joined on the annual meeting panel by these psychiatrists:
• Harry Croft, M.D., former host of the local CBS radio program "Psych Talk" and the medical-minute series "The Mind Is Powerful Medicine" on CBS and ABC television stations in southwestern Texas.
• Michael Blumenfield, M.D., host of the local weekly radio show "Talking About Mental Health," and past chair of APA’s Joint Commission on Public Affairs (JCPA).
• Harvey Ruben, M.D., former host of NBC Radio’s "Talk Net," broadcast in every state and Puerto Rico; the immediate past president of the National Association of Medical Communicators (NAMC); and past chair of APA’s JCPA.
• Bill Lichtenstein, executive producer of "The Infinite Mind," a weekly radio show broadcast in 30 states. Lichtenstein filled in for Frederick Goodwin, M.D., the show’s host.
The workshop, titled "Using Radio to Combat Stigma and Improve the Image of Psychiatry," was sponsored by the APA Alliance. The APA Alliance is made up of spouses and partners of APA members and others who support and assist APA in working on behalf of mentally ill people and the profession of psychiatry. Ruben and Alliance President JoEllen Fasanello co-chaired the workshop.
Croft, too, experienced the phenomenon of "instant credibility" by appearing on a broadcast program. "A patient resisted my suggestion to take medication for a long time until she told me she heard a doctor on the radio telling a caller that the best thing for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder is therapy and medication. The doctor was me," he said.
To become known to the radio audience and show producers, panelists recommended arranging to be interviewed on radio or television or appearing as a guest on a radio or television show.
Croft suggested researching the show beforehand. "It’s better not to discover on the air that the host is antagonistic to psychiatry. Remember that the host is in charge of the show, so don’t argue with him or her," said Croft.
He also suggested sending the producer a thank-you note afterward expressing appreciation for being invited. "The producer will forward the note to the show’s director and host, which increases your chances of being invited back."
The panelists each had some media exposure prior to becoming radio hosts.
Croft was interviewed often by local and national media on mental health topics and did "medical minutes" for local CBS and ABC television stations. When the CBS station bought a local radio station, the manager asked Croft to do a call-in show. Croft said yes, and "Psych Talk" was born.
The NBC "Talk Net" producer saw Ruben on "Oprah" and invited him to host a weekend call-in show.
Austin became interested in hosting her own radio show after she was interviewed by a television station about her psychiatry department’s response to Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina. She also was the psychiatric expert in a film on depression produced for television. Austin persuaded a local public radio station in South Carolina to give her an hour of radio time. There was a learning curve, she and other panelists discovered.
"Interviewing people as a psychiatrist is very different from interviewing people on radio. The pace is much faster, the content more superficial, and three seconds of silence can seem like an eternity."
While Blumenfield served on the JCPA, he approached managers at local radio stations to suggest they take live reports from the APA annual meeting in New Orleans in 2001. A manager at a station in New Rochelle, N.Y., said he was looking for someone like Blumenfield to host a weekly radio show.
"I took the job and broadcasted live reports from the APA annual meeting on my show. I branched out into doing live phone interviews with experts at disasters, including ground zero after September 11," said Blumenfield.
When he sent his television-producer son a tape of his show, the response was, "’Dad, this is boring. You have a bunch of psychiatrists talking to each other,’" said Blumenfield. "That was my cue to pursue broadcast training."
Blumenfield, Ruben, and Croft attended the annual AMA Medical Communications and Health Reporting Conference. Blumenfield said he learned new techniques to hold listeners’ attention from a peer critique at the conference.
Croft said he also picked up some presentation tips from media sessions at APA’s annual meetings.
Since 1991, when Austin began hosting her show, she has hired three or four consultants to help her, including a voice coach.
Croft convinced a San Antonio psychiatric hospital, where he directed community education, to fund the production costs of his medical minute on local television stations. The CBS radio station sold commercials to pay for the production costs of "Psych Talk."
A pharmaceutical educational grant to the local mental health association paid for its executive director’s time as the radio show’s producer and call screener. Croft received a small stipend.
Austin uses an educational grant to pay for a full-time producer who screens callers, invites guests, and manages the show’s Web site.
"Funding is my biggest challenge, especially with the downturn in the economy," said Austin.
Ruben received a "living wage" from NBC for his "Talk Net" call-in show that was broadcast live on Saturday and Sunday nights. NBC provided switchboard operators who worked 14 phone lines and answered about 100 calls an hour. The show’s producers screened the calls, and Ruben talked to between eight and 10 callers per hour.
He negotiated a contract with NBC that did not require him to do commercials while he was the host of Talk Net. "I thought of my time as a public service," Ruben said. Ruben’s unwillingness to do commercials as a host caught up with him. "When another company acquired ‘Talk Net,’ it had only one slot. I couldn’t compete with the host who had commercial sponsors," said Ruben.
He said the competition for airtime on commercial stations has increased dramatically since he started in radio in 1982.
The formats the panelists used on their shows ranged from entirely call in to entirely guest interviews or a combination of the two.
Panelists referred listeners seeking psychiatric evaluations to colleagues, their family physicians or therapists, or the local mental health association.
Blumenfield and Ruben mailed callers educational pamphlets produced by APA and other national psychiatric organizations.
The panelists said they frequently reminded listeners that the show provided general psychiatric information rather than individual clinical evaluations, diagnoses, or treatment.
Ruben advised radio psychiatrists not to stray into politics or other areas beyond their expertise. A psychiatrist in the workshop audience noted he lost his television show after he repeatedly expressed his political opinions on the air.
Information about NAMC and the AMA spring medical reporting conference is posted on the Web at www.ibiblio.org/namc/. ▪