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Psychology : Applied

The radio on the night table and the radio in the mind


I am an absolutely biased supporter of the BBC and the work it does as part of its “public service remit.” For almost a decade now, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of this remit in the way the BBC looks after young people. I started out as an “Agony Uncle” for the now defunct BBC Teen’s website, and then moved on to be a regular contributor to the CBBC website, which included regular appearances on CBBC’s Newsround and the CBBC Channel. My work there included answering children’s questions about their emotional experiences, doing live web-chats, and other activities aimed at responding to children’s psychological and emotional needs.

Unfortunately this kind of “live interaction” with children has all but ceased on the BBC website provision, but it continues in the long history of BBC Radio One’s “Sunday Surgery” a Sunday evening call-in show that his been going since 1999. I love the Surgery. It currently has a team of two General Practitioners (GPs) and myself offering advice to callers and texters on a number of issues. It has been an absolute privilege to be part of this. The reach of the show is enormous compared with the reach of normal psychotherapeutic work, and every weekend the show reaches out to tens of thousands of people — and I believe helping a great deal of them. But how does it help? Just by the advice it gives? I don’t think so.

One of the criticisms often thrown at me and other psychotherapists who do work for the media is that we often say things that are pretty common sensical. While I think that this is sometimes true (after all, a lot of popular psychology is common sense), there is more to it than this. First of all, to do “advice” well, it helps to know how to be able to talk to people in a way that doesn’t just offer them platitudes, but gives them something that they can utilise to make a change. Anybody can say “oh, think positive” but would they be able to say how to do it in a meaningful way? Further, some critical though needs to be put to the concept about “positive thinking” in general does such a simplistic intervention even work? And if not (after all, it can’t be THAT simple) what might work instead? Interventions that work to change people’s attitudes are more complex than that — but not so complex that some good can’t be done through a radio show. However, whatever good advice might be available — the curative effect of such radio shows goes way beyond “good advice”.

In my youth, the big mover in this field was Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She used to come on the radio in the evenings and talk explicitly about sexuality. Her show ran late at night in the mid-eighties when she would talk about subjects as diverse sexual positions, erectile disfunction, clitoral stimulation, the okayness of teenage masturbation, the normality of homosexuality, among a raft of other rather explicit topics that were pretty edgy for their day. While Dr. Ruth gave excellent advice on how to help with individuals’ own sex lives to live callers, she also, in a sense, “gave permission” for people to think sexually, and a safe space to hear frank discussions about sex in their homes; something not available to hundreds of thousands of people in their homes before. Simply making the space for this kind of discourse is a good thing.

What is a good object? The word “object” comes from psychoanalysis, and to be very brief about it (because it is actually quite a complex thing), it is the image of another that we keep inside of ourselves. For example, when you are young you internalise your parents, the representations of your parents inside yourself are called “objects”. The way these objects interact with each other is very important for psychoanalysts. If you ever wonder why you are in conflict with yourself, it often has to do with the different “objects” or “self states” within you, that want different things. But object can be more than just people: they can be ideas too.

When people listen to an advice show on the Radio, like The Sunday Surgery, I believe that it operates, in a sense, like a good object (unfortunately, I think there are a lot of “bad object” radio shows out there too). Not only does the listener hopefully get the “good advice” — but they also get a sense that there are people out there who share similar problems. They hear these problems being dealt with sensitively and with care on the radio, and in a sense, may be able to be kinder to themselves in the process. Just like a good (or bad) parent can be taken inside and made into an internal object, so can this sensibility from the radio. If things are not good at home, or in someone’s life, they can still use the “goodness” that emanates from their bedside radio — the voices that do care and do offer hope. When one is unfortunate enough not to have that hope in their own lives, then some “good object representation” on the radio may just nudge them in the right direction.

This is no cure-all, no panacea of course — but the drip drip drip of good objects towards a population can have a significant overall good effect over time. We know this from our work on The Sunday Surgery because we receive emails and texts from repeat listeners and callers, we follow their tweets, or see what they write on The Surgery’s Facebook page. There is no doubt that there is good work going on here. What needs to follow that, is some good research to find out what it is, perhaps, that is “curative” to its listeners. I theorise that this has something to do with a relationship to the “good object” that can be radio. Now we’ll just need to follow that up with some good research, to prove or disprove this theory.

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