By Renee Kohanski, M.D.
NORWICH, CT — As a practicing psychiatrist who dabbles with talk radio as a guest and occasional fill-in host, I have an interesting perspective on the industry. The cornerstone of psychiatry is honesty in thought and word. The brilliance of the professional talker in part, is his (or her) ability to communicate. Effective and entertaining communication has always been an extremely narrow tight-rope successful talkers must walk. It requires balancing knowledge and showmanship with a component of fearlessness and original insight. The very essence though, has been to say and voice what others may think, but can’t actually say. To sometimes even create new ways of thinking. And at the cornerstone of this work is free speech.
TALKERS recognizes this truism and offers a highly coveted annual “Freedom of Speech” award. As most people know, particularly talkers, not all speech is free and protected speech. Since the inception of this industry, there have been FCC regulations as well as an implicit understanding there are things that cannot be said without penalty, i.e. slanderous or so-called “indecent” comments. Though here, we start to move into gray legal areas of what might constitute a slanderous or “indecent” comment which I leave to this publication’s legal editor.
What has radically changed, distinct from the examples above, is the world of SPEECH NO-GO ZONES within which we now live. Woe are talk show hosts who find themselves in this zone. In this extremely desolate and barren land, talkers may stand-alone for a crime that wasn’t a crime yesterday and for doing the very job for which they were specifically hired.
I remember observing one such host who found himself at the center of such a maelstrom. I observed his behavior over the ensuing months and years. Observing him soon after the incident, he resembled someone suffering from Acute Stress Disorder, the precursor to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This was a commentator I had watched for many years. He had always been a self-assured and self-confident, broadcaster. Yet the individual I observed on air now presented as perplexed, dazed, angry and confused. There was a distinct difference to my eye, of this person’s entire demeanor and on-air presence. Not to worry though, he demonstrated tremendous resilience and ultimately turned this experience to his favor. He’s laughing all the way to the bank these days and good for him! I sometimes wonder if any of those initial feelings of betrayal lie ever so slightly subterranean?
SPEECH NO-GO ZONES are constantly changing, encroaching and incorporating larger and larger territories. These SPEECH NO-GO ZONES are precarious and it is not at all clear what words and therefore thoughts have entered the zone. Punishment is enforced capriciously and discriminately though no one knows the discriminating criteria. The industry is market driven and in general this is an effective means of assessing successful content. But when advertisers are influenced by factors other than market, this indicator also becomes obscured.
Once again the talker finds himself dangling on the edge of a precipice with a rope that may or may not be secure.
I can offer suggestions for maintaining your sanity in this new world:
- This is the most important suggestion I can offer. Attend professional conferences, network with colleagues, read your industry journals and know your program-type industry standards. This doesn’t mean you should avoid deviating from the standard, but rather know when you’re deviating. If you’re an edgy host, you may always be deviating. Knowledge, knowledge and more knowledge are your friends. If you’re going to be “out there,” make sure you understand all aspects about what you are “out there.”
- Establish a support network before you have an adverse event. This may be challenging, but within the network of your organization, determine if you have a trust-worthy colleague. Get a mentor – this can be a fee for service mentor or someone you trust. Most importantly, take a look at your existing personal support system. Do you have a caring family, close friend, confidante? If you don’t have one, this is an excellent time to both ask yourself why not and to start building one.
- Document, document, document. This can be in the form of written notes to yourself with date and time. For example, “met with PD on 6/12/15 discussed…”
- If caught in the crosshairs, understand your foe. Look at the bigger picture and bigger agenda and try to understand how your situation is being manipulated to fit a narrative. If at all possible, try not to take it personally. It is extraordinarily difficult to maintain sense of self, particularly in such a public arena.
- People will interact with you, based on your own sense of self. If you feel guilty and victimized by this event, people will treat you like a victimized, guilty person.
Being able to explore, question and talk about SPEECH NO-GO ZONES is the very essence of the work and world of talkers. It is not for the faint of heart or the fragile individual. Even the leaders of the talk radio industry have been humbled by the vitriol of the NO-GO ZONE. To venture into such hostile territory requires cognizance, skill, care and thought. By virtue of the fact that you are reading this article, you have already differentiated yourselves as a distinct subset of professionals in the industry. All times are unique and defining for different reasons. Broadcasters are both the pioneers and pilgrims of SPEECH NO-GO ZONES.
Renee Kohanski M.D. is a board certified psychiatrist with added qualifications in forensic psychiatry, practicing for over 20 years. She is a regular contributor to TALKERS and has been heard across the country on television and radio. Dr. Kohanski maintains a busy private practice in southeastern Connecticut and has provided expert witness testimony in hundreds of criminal and civil cases. She can be emailed at DrRSK90@aol.com