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Reprinted with permission. Broder, M.—So You Want To Work in the Media? 21 Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Asked That Question. Chapter 2: Psychology and the Media. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1999.
SO YOU WANT TO WORK IN THE MEDIA?
21 Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Asked Myself That Question
Michael S. Broder, Ph.D.
My rather intense involvement with the media came about quite by accident. In 1980, I was trying to figure out ways to get subjects for my dissertation study which was on divorce adjustment. Unlike many research projects where subjects can be obtained from intact groups (e.g., the good old Intro Psych I class), getting subjects to enter a program designed to help them overcome the pain of ending a love relationship wasn’t so easy. A friend suggested that I send public service announcements to all of the Philadelphia-area radio stations in the hope they would announce that an experimental, free program was available to those who met the criteria and agreed to fully participate. I needed fifty subjects and was running out of ideas. So, practically as a last effort before switching topics, I gave it a try.
The only responses I got were from the two Philadelphia talk radio stations, asking me if I wanted to be a guest on one of their shows discussing the topic of divorce in general, and my program in specific. In the late seventies, they actually thought this was a unique and provocative topic. How quaint were those pre-sensationalism days of the media!
At first, I had serious reservations. Rarely, if ever, had I even listened to talk radio. Moreover, I knew of no one at the time who had ever exposed him or herself to this ordeal. But hell, I was desperate for subjects. So I accepted both invitations— a decision that was to radically change my life, not to mention my career direction, forever.
To make a very long story as short as possible, I got my subjects, managed to get both of the stations that invited me upset (for appearing on these rival talk stations on the same day with virtually the same pitch), and—still unwittingly— began what was to become perhaps the most unique and intense part of my career. In the years since, I’ve had my own programs on both of those local Philadelphia stations, hosted talk shows for all three major networks (CBS Radio, ABC Talkradio, and NBC Talknet), in addition to New York City’s two major local talk stations; and made numerous guest appearances on such programs as The Today Show, Oprah, Donahue, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Geraldo, as well as on hundreds of other shows. I’ve written popular articles and/or been featured in numerous national, regional and local publications, including Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and scores of others; and co-authored two popular self-help books, The Art of Living Single (Macmillan and Avon) and The Art of Staying Together (Hyperion and Avon); fourteen popular audio self-help programs; and The Therapists Assistant, an audiotherapy series designed to be used by psychotherapists as an adjunct to treatment; and completed five multi-city media/book tours in the United States and Australia.
Radio psychologists were being vilified by our colleagues in the early eighties for daring to give advice over the airwaves. In 1982 a group of us radio psychologists along with other psychologists who worked in, and/or were interested in media issues, met in San Diego, California. It was at that meeting that we actually coined the term “media psychology” and formed the “Association for Media Psychology” (AMP), which was to become the precursor to APA’s Division of Media Psychology (Division 46), of which I became the first president. The story of AMP and Division 46 has been told many times. Our mission was to pool our resources and work together with several purposes in mind: to educate the public about the profession of psychology and how it can serve them; to refine our media skills and teach these skills to our colleagues wanting to utilize this new specialty as part of their work; to be both a consumer and a source of media-related research; to develop Guidelines For Media Mental Health Professionals (Broder, 1983) to be a sort of a guild and source of ongoing support for those of us who worked in the media; and to be a clearinghouse for media opportunities, as well as a resource for the media when they were looking for psychologists to fulfill various media roles.
The degree to which these goals were met, is very much a matter of opinion and beyond the scope of this chapter. But I can best describe it as a mission in progress. I think of those early (AMP/Division 46) days with a great deal of pride and nostalgia. And as low brow as the media gets, you’ll never hear me suggest that we censor anything! The initial controversy of it all is what got me hooked. Once media psychology gained the acceptance and professional respect it deserved, I found myself becoming less and less engaged on a organizational level. I choose to no longer do radio on a regular basis, although I will occasionally guest host. I still do a great deal of writing of books, articles and tape programs (my most passionate professional activity) and make guest appearances on radio and television as it pertains to that work.
Along the way there were many lessons about working in the media to be learned. Some were formulated naturally, while others needed to be learned the hard way. So, let me share some of the ones that I and other media psychologists who have consulted with me over the years have considered most important. In doing that, let me emphasize that this is strictly my own perspective. I claim no absolute truth here, only opinion and learning-based experiences that would have been quite helpful to know at the beginning. In other words, this is the article I wish had been available for me to read twenty years ago:
1. The question of whether advice given over the airwaves is therapy or infotainment was always a ridiculous argument. Therapy is not done over the airwaves simply because it cannot be done over the airwaves. Never be defensive about the fact that when you’re working in the electronic media (which in this country is pretty much commercially funded) that you are working for an entertainment medium. Sure, media psychologists (both print and electronic) have educated the public on how to normalize such things as relationships, career and child-rearing issues. Media psychologists have taught those who have needed to handle contemporary issues such as agoraphobia, bulimia, addiction, and even sexual harassment (pre-Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas) that they are not alone. Those of us who have succeeded in the media, have done so mainly because we have been able to entertain; and thus keep what is perhaps the most uncaptive audience you can have watching, listening or reading. Many of the points below will crystallize various aspects of this theme.
2. A career in the media can be akin to professional cyclothymia. Working on the air is often both an incredibly exhilarating and profoundly addictive experience. At its best, the pay is inordinately high; speaking engagements can be quite plentiful; the recognition, both professional and otherwise, is intense; and the pressure which often manifests itself as glorious excitement can bring ones creative juices to levels never before imagined! At worst, I have often compared it to the phenomena of being in love with someone whom you don’t particularly like. As trends change, more sensationalism is first suggested, then requested, then demanded. All of the clichés you saw in the movies (e.g., Network and Broadcast News, which some would say actually sweeten the characters greatly) are accurate. Media psychologists have been endlessly (and often rightfully) parodied, both consciously and unconsciously. Since the invention of the TelePrompTer, TV. hosts and news people with few exceptions have needed less and less substance (other than that ability to read their TelePrompTer), but more and more “appeal” to survive. Television talk shows (and radio is not far behind), once a glorious showcase for what we do, have grown sleazier and sleazier and survival means constantly redefining yourself and your “act.” (As Charles Manson once said, “There was a time when being crazy meant something; now everyone’s crazy!”) Remember, the same demographics that made Arthur Godfrey the nations leading morning man in the forties and fifties, now overwhelmingly listen to Howard Stern! (Interestingly, media lawyers are now going through similar struggles which started with the O.J. Simpson trial and continue with the Clinton scandals. They are now very much where we were in the 80s. And wasn’t Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, the very caricature of the worst and most outrageous media behavior we shuddered about back then?)
3. Its the ratings, stupid. Or to parody a real estate cliché, there are only three things in the media that are important: ratings, ratings and ratings! Remember Phil Donahue? He’s a great guy and did a great show. But when his ratings dropped, he was unceremoniously dumped after 29-1/2 years of carrying the daytime bottom line of many of his affiliate stations on his shoulders (they wouldn’t even let him stay around for his 30th). By contrast, the Jerry Seinfelds and the Ellen DeGenereses could publicly make outrageous demands to their employers and still keep their time slots, but only until they wanted out or their ratings dropped! If you wonder why this has become the age of the telegenic sociopath (e.g., O. J. Simpson, Tonya Harding and Bill Clinton) you need look no further than the rating books. So its not how nice, professional, smart, loyal, helpful or thorough you are, but how well you attract numbers of people. Size and ultimately little else matters! By thinking of the media establishments for whom we work as businesses and not institutions of higher learning (a common tactical error many psychologists still make), we will practically always have our eye on the ball.
4. This journey is peppered with some of the most fascinating characters you’ll ever meet. In my media career I have run into some of the most interesting, accomplished, evolved and humble; as well as some of the most boring, pathetic, shoddy and ego-driven, Axis II types I’ve ever met anywhere! Few novelists could create some of the actual characters that await you. By observing it and constantly fine-tuning my level of involvement, this phenomena has greatly broadened my overall perspective as a psychologist. I consider this a huge and unexpected bonus of my media career.
5. Understand the nature of a media relationship. There is an unwritten contract that says they use you for your expertise and/or to lend your credentials to a point of view they want to express. In turn, you use them for your purposes. When guesting, they will invariably look at you as a one-shot deal. The mistake that many psychologists make is to consider a guest appearance as an audition for something greater. Instead, if you treat everything like a one-shot deal and then give it your best shot, you will probably convey a much greater sense of confidence. Chances are you don’t know their full agenda in having you as a guest. For example, the producer of one program called me recently to ask if I knew of a female psychologist, preferably with a “non-Catholic” (read: Irish or Italian) name who was pro-life! I don’t know if the show ever found one. But if they did, I can guarantee you that this psychologist did not realize that their agenda was probably to set her up for some kind of an attack. As individuals, psychologists (with rare exceptions) are not important to those in the media who pursue them. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we stay aware of it.
6. A great guest has five characteristics: Passion for and about whatever he or she is addressing; a sense of humor; clarity (the ability to explain a complicated issue, such as Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy, to an eleventh grader with a short attention span); a definite opinion or point of view about the topic; and a chip on the shoulder. Many psychologists have the hardest time with that “chip-on-shoulder” characteristic. But watch the professional guests, such as when Larry King is on the David Letterman Show, or whenever you see Ruth Westheimer interviewed. She is extremely pleasant; but never, ever wishy-washy. In other words, regardless of your unique style, always come out with your dukes up!
7. Learn to make it look easy. But don’t expect it to be easy. The appearance of ease while operating at peak performance is not an easy skill to develop. But with thorough preparation and a great deal of practice, it will eventually become second nature. The opposite, of course, is to look like you’re trying to audition. The camera and the microphone are very sensitive instruments. So, expect that whatever anxiety you project will become greatly magnified. Granted, some anxiety is actually good for peak performance, as long as it doesn’t show and/or you can reframe it to come across as excitement (read: passion).
8. Think of your media appearance as the exact opposite of your dissertation. A dissertation can take as few as one or two very simple points, and expand them into a study which could be many hundreds of pages long. In working with the media, your the task is the exact opposite. You must take very complex subjects such as marital communication, step-parenting or eating disorders, and then reduce them to sound bites or vignettes that can be readily understood by your composite audience (that “individual” with an eleventh-grade education and the short attention span). You can try this simple exercise at home: take your dissertation topic and explain it in thirty seconds or less to someone who has virtually no interest either in you, your topic, or psychology. Then once you’ve mastered that thirty second task, realize that the average sound bite on news or magazine shows today is about seven seconds. And remember, the easier it is to change stations (and the more stations there are to change to), the less captive is your audience.
9. Know as much as you can about what you’re getting yourself into. Before making an appearance, get as much information about the show, the host, the format, other guests with whom you may be expected to interact, and the worst possible situation you can be exposed to during your appearance. Is the show controversial? Is it informational? Is it a forum for puffery? Are the producers after sensationalism? Is the host respectful of professionals, or are you merely there to be a foil or even a “stooge”? All of these scenarios can be worked to your advantage as long as you understand within reason what to expect. Shortly after I completed my U.S. media tour for The Art of Staying Together, in which most of the shows were interested in discussing things such as sex, affairs, abusive relationships, and the other more provocative topics in the book, I toured in Australia. Their talk shows were quite reminiscent of ours in the sixties and seventies. Hosts asked questions such as, “How does a marriage stay together?”, without the now routine American embellishments such as “. . . if one partner is fifty years older than the other,” etc. This was culture shock! By the second day I caught on, but I must admit I was quite unprepared at first!
10. These three skills will help you greatly: Improvisational acting (where you will learn to fine-tune your persona for practically any given situation); voice (where you will learn how to make the best possible vocal presentation by changing certain quirks that might get in your way and we all have them); and how to bring yourself to a peak performance state of mind at will. The latter will ensure that you’re at optimal energy level before you go on the air. This is especially important when you’re on a media tour that requires you to make numerous appearances on a given day. Media tours can be quite grueling, since the days are usually long and appearances can be both numerous and spaced out unevenly. Improvisational acting and voice training are best obtained by professional coaches and classes that are generally available locally.
11. Breaking into the media can be difficult, but it is not impossible. This subject is a book in and of itself. Quite obviously, the better the opportunity the more competition there is. Master guesting before attempting to host. With very few exceptions, well paying positions are now almost impossible to get without a solid talent agent. In selecting an agent, make sure he or she has a track record in placing people similar to you in the medium you are looking for. Rarely does someone break in without a great deal of conscious effort, which includes sending out numerous tapes and bios, taking auditions, handling rejections, and once again never allowing it to become too important. Some of the best media gigs are actually created by those who seek them. In other words, if you can develop a win-win airtight proposal with sources for funding, you’re in the best possible position to have it looked at by the right people, and then to eventually succeed. A station or network that has already created a position simply awaiting talent is more or less an exception to the rule. And when such a situation does occur, the talent they select will practically always have a track record.
12. Remember the audience. No matter what medium you are working in and Ill have a few words about the three most specific ones: radio, television and print, remember that the most important element is your audience. It is the audience who decides whether you stay or go, it is your audience who pays your salary. When appearing on a show, it is not the host that you’re interacting with. The host is merely a catalyst to bring you to the audience. Likewise, when doing radio call-in programs, it’s not the caller that the program exists for, but the audience. Your caller is merely the instrument to bring your message to the listeners. (You’re not running a crisis hotline!) So constantly ask yourself, “How does what I say or do benefit or impact the audience?” and you’ll just about always be on the right track.
13. In radio what you say is all you have that’s the good news and bad news. We still hear over and over again about the Kennedy-Nixon television debates in 1960, where Kennedy clearly won on TV. But what we hear less about is that those who listened to the debates on the radio, overwhelmingly thought Nixon won. In radio, while you don’t have to worry about what your audience sees, what your audience sees wont get you out of trouble either. Pauses are called “dead air.” A big advantage of radio is that there is usually much more time. Thus, you can generally get into a lot more depth, and use your notes as much as you need or want to. Another aspect of radio is that your show must be structured so that someone can tune in at any time and feel as though they’re on board unlike television.
14. In television the “eyes” have it. Unlike radio, unless you’re using a TelePrompTer, your main points must be memorized. You generally have much less time, but are expected to at least appear to convey the same level of depth you would anywhere else. This is quite a challenge. In addition, about eighty percent of the “grade” for your presentation is visual. This means that you can make a brilliant point, but if the camera is focusing on someone else’s facial reaction to what you’re saying, chances are your point will be lost and that facial reaction- if anything- will be remembered. Make sure that how you dress as well as other aspects of your appearance reinforce your message. At the very least, your appearance should not detract from or be inconsistent with your message.
15. Just one short word about print media. Writers Market (Holm and Prues, 1997) is a book that comes out every year, and details virtually every publishing (book and magazine) resource which might be appropriate for your work. This fine publication will give you information about how to write query letters (for articles and books), find book agents, and how virtually anyone with both a good product and perseverance can get published. If you truly have something to say, this is by far the easiest medium to break into, and the one which is most likely to propel you into the electronic media in this day and age (by virtue of appearances for your books and articles, and the prominence in your area of expertise your writings will establish for you).
16. Print interviews, such as for newspapers and magazines, are also good ways to gain recognition by other media sources. Unlike the electronic media (when you just about always know when you’re on the air), be conscious of never speaking “off the record.” Watch for the old “Colombo” technique where the reporter says to you after you think the interview is completed, “Oh, just one more thing . . . ” and you begin to answer as though you are off the record, only to find that whatever you said at that moment is the only thing that appears in print. A very small minority of extraordinarily gracious reporters and publications (as well as a few who are reeling from lawsuits) will clear your quote with you prior to publication. This is the exception, not the rule, so don’t expect this courtesy. Just be careful that your words are appropriately measured.
17. Consciously develop your media persona. In therapy we use protocols. Theoretically we could say the same thing over and over again many times during the course of a day without sounding (to anyone else) repetitious. And theoretically, one could do great therapy without ever using any type of original approach. But in the media, it is uniqueness that counts. Uniqueness not so much about what you say, but about how you come across. So remember to be not only an authority but also a character or personality. Virtually any media person you can think of has some distinct physical and/or personality characteristic that is a trade mark even if it’s something really subtle like “dryness.” Chances are this was developed after a great deal of thought and practice even though it may still be a staple of his or her personality. Think about what persona you can choose to enhance your message. Then do what it takes to incorporate that persona into whatever you do with consistency.
18. Know your goals. What is driving your media work? If it is to convey your message, you can always find a forum, a classroom, an article, a small radio station or another outlet to use as a launching point. On the other hand, if your goal is to be something such as a celebrity (versus to say or accomplish something), the media can be a very frustrating experience. Amid the snickering heard at a recent APA convention about a colleague who believed that one more face lift would get her that “TV job” and some much needed self-esteem, there is a very sad dynamic that characterizes those who hunger for “stardom.” Although there are an infinite number of electronic and print opportunities, there are very few star slots. Furthermore, the star slots that do exist are invariably occupied by those who have painstakingly paid their dues and developed substance along with their act. Narcissism without talent will get you only as far as the first exit door. Thus, the best chance you have of assuring yourself of a positive experience, is to concentrate on your message (the means) and not the size of your audience (the result of good work, not the means). If your message works, your audience will invariably increase. I’ve observed that those who have the most difficulty really have not adequately concentrated on and fine tuned their message (i.e., made it valuable), and then expect a lot of recognition for having little new to say. But when you truly have something important and helpful to say there will be plenty of people to listen.
19. What we do in our offices is far more consequential. There used to be a debate about whether we who did radio call-in programs actually helped callers. After 17 years of doing radio, I believe that we probably are helpful; but not nearly as much as we thought we were. Do we hurt them? No. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone who was truly hurt in any way. But I have seen many colleagues make a lot more of what they considered their effect and the effect of media psychology than I did. I certainly believe I make a much deeper and far reaching contribution, albeit to fewer numbers of people per minute, when I conduct continuing education seminars, teach clinical courses, and see clients in my office.
20. Only do what’s fun. And when it stops being fun, stop doing it! That’s when Jack Paar left The Tonight Show, and practically every one I have met who has had an overall positive experience with the media, has adopted that attitude. It is the only truism I can think of which guarantees that you become winner in this game, no matter what.
21. And finally, don’t take yourself too seriously! For 17 years I have ended every radio show with that message! And believe it or not, that mantra was never more applicable than when I was president of Division 46, and also acted as the “unofficial chief bereavement counselor” for those who lost their shows. At that time, I got a lot of experience administering the “Rambo” technique of coping: ignore the pain and you’ll survive it. Then what’s left is that great feeling of having reached many people for a moment in time.
Broder, M (1983). Guidelines for Media Mental Health Professionals, prepared in conjunction with Guidelines Committee of the Association for Media Psychology.
Broder, M (1993). The Art of Staying Together, New York, NY. Hyperion.
Holm, Kirsten C. and Prues, Don (1997). Writers Market. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writers Digest Books.