March 22, 2009

Painful Phone Calls

One of the hardest parts about running a talk radio show at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning is getting listeners to talk back. If this were a weekday, people would be mostly at work, already caffeinated. If this were a Saturday, slightly more people would be awake, somewhat fewer people would be at church and a lot fewer people would be leaving their radios off to avoid infomercials. Sunday morning is just a tough time.

Given that, one of the ways we measure the success--or lack thereof--of any show is by the number of calls and emails that we get. (Not the only way, of course. PZ doesn't always get a lot of questions, but his download ratings are some of the highest we see.) Good shows are the ones where we can't use everything that comes in, and not because of quality or the tendency for questions all to come in at the end of the show. Which they do.

By that measure, this morning's program was definitely a success. We received six calls and one email. Yes, three of the calls were from the same woman, but only the email was from a Minnesota Atheists member--as far as we can tell. That's reaching a new audience, part of what the show is supposed to do.

On the other hand, there were three calls from the same woman because she was too angry to let our engineer put her on hold so we could pick her up in the studio. One caller berated us for spreading "traditional medicine propaganda," and the last caller called after the show was over to yell at the engineer and say he couldn't believe Air America* would put something like this on the air. (Another thing about a Sunday morning slot is that you can't buy your engineer a beer after a rough show. Sorry, Matt.)

We had one caller who left a message asking us to talk about the placebo effect and one email mentioning religious objections to vaccination. Aside from that, we only heard from people who were angry.

They had a reason to be angry. They were in pain. The woman who called multiple times had had a sister with cancer. The one who felt we were dealing in propaganda has two children with autism. I don't know what the last caller's story was, but I'm sure he had one. Every one of those people had a reason for their anger.

What they didn't have was a rational reason to be angry at us. Reasons? Yes. Rational reasons? No.

That should have made them easier to deal with, maybe. Easier to shrug and say, "Not my fault. Not my problem."

Easiest of all, in the short term anyway, would have been to tell them something that made them feel better. That's what their gurus do. They tell these people that there's a reason for what's happening. They tell angry, hurt people that there's something they can do to fix all this, right here, right now, without having to wait for more studies, more answers. They tell people like our callers that they're in control--or will be if they can just get through to people like us.

We can't do that, of course. We have to give the hard answers. We have to tell them there is no simple fix, not yet, maybe never that they'll see. We have to take away this wall they've built around their pain, because it isn't sound and it hurts people as it falls apart. And we have to make them understand that not letting their pain hurt other people is one of the hardest parts of growing up, but it's time for them to do that.

No wonder they're hurt. No wonder they're angry. We're asking a lot, and we have only two small things to give in return. Well, truth isn't small, but it doesn't look like a lot when you get it in the place of something you really wanted.

The other thing we can give them is their pain. We can acknowledge how they feel and acknowledge that it's a perfectly reasonable response to their situation. And we can do that before we point out that it's not a rational response to us. That's not an easy thing to do when that pain is pointed straight at us with an intent to hurt, but if we're asking them to be adults despite their difficult circumstances, it's the least we can do. Isn't it?

If you want to see it in practice, I recommend listening to the podcast of today's radio show. PalMD is very good at it. I could be better, but I can practice. After all, just because I told Pal what I wanted us to talk about on the show, that doesn't mean I can't learn something from it too.

* The station is an Air America affiliate. We are not Air America programming. These facts calmed the caller down not at all.

20 comments:

gregladen said...

So, was this because PalMD was approaching this in a way that alienated rather than brought (somewhat) on board the people who disagree with him, or were they hopeless cases? (I've not listened to the show yet, but I will fairly soon.)

There is a difference between blogging (in which you can easily ignore everyone), being a doctor (in which you might be able to easily ignore or at least pull rank on a lot of people) and blogging heading (in which you are not connected to a two way communication device) on one hand, all of which PalMD is very good at, vs. having this sort of interaction.

There's a readon that PZ myers gives a lot of talks but hardly any of them are in churches, but Genie Scott gives a lot of talks in churches.

I quickly add that I am not being judgmental here of anyone's methods. All these different things need to be done. Just wondering about your take on the approach that was used (and eventually, as I say, I'll actually listen to it and possibly have something specific to say).

Lou FCD said...

Ouch, sounds like a very tough show.

I haven't listened to the show yet either, but it seems like giving the hard answer is the only right thing to do, and you have a good take on what happens if you give the easy answer: in the end, other people get hurt.

What you are doing in the more general sense is what needs to be done. We all need to stem the tide of this poison of ignorance and gullibility that pervades our society. You folks are doing good stuff, and that's all we can ask of you.

gregladen said...

Well, I finally listened to the show and it was great. PalMD rocks.

(And SZ, great job with the interview!)

Key high points: It is ethical to not make stuff up just to make people happy.

Distinction between evidence based medicine and science based medicine (which I kind of interpret as empirical vs. empirical plus good theory), and the meaning of the scientific consensus.

The idea that, in the eyes of some of the individuals and families affected by a disease, MD's do not look at everything was revealing of the nature of the relationship between scientific MD and patient.

And the discussion of the Placebo effect was worth the whole show.

I found the nurse who called in interesting. Could not have been better if planned. Nicely handled, P.A.L.

Too bad this was a phone rather than in person interview, as it would have been fun to get together at Q-cumbers.

I strongly urge everyone to go listen to this interview.

Note: The Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio Show on Sunday AM is sandwiched between woo-pedaling infomercials.

gregladen said...

BTW, PAL gave hard answers with excellent bedside manner, but of course, that won't help in extreme cases.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

This show is important for the archives, because we did touch on how those of us with a rational approach can too easily dismiss the concerns of the ill when dealing with false remedies. And, the show was excellent.

PalMD said...

OK< the damned ads for the restaurant killed me. We don't have a kitchen right now and i was frankin starving...

PalMD said...

hmmm...i think i wrote the name of your new senator rather than the geeky curse i meant to write.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Okay, Pal, next time you'll just have to come to the station, where we all pack up afterward and go to the restaurant. We'll even let PalKid in the studio. She was a hit.

(And I thought you were just still confused by the finale.)

Greg, I've pretty well given up on trying to figure out who's a hopeless case. I've hit critical mass on people with whom I thought I was conducting "show" arguments (because I was never going to reach them but might reach someone else) who now do things like randomly jump to my defense when they don't think someone is paying attention to what I'm saying. I don't know that I've convinced them of anything, but it's really hard to keep saying they're not reachable.

Okay, so some people really probably are unreachable, but then I come back to the show argument. If I treat them as though they are reachable, I may reach someone else.

And then, sometimes, I just want to have a chat with friends, in which case, the people who are listening are on their own.

Lou, it kind of balanced out. Most of the interview was a breeze. :)

Mike, agreed on both parts.

Priscilla said...
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Scott said...

"gregladens" last 2 comments sum up my thoughts...
Enjoyed the podcast! Please have PalMD on again!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Scott, I will happily do just that if I can.

sunnyskeptic said...

I get that people become angry when we can't give them the easy answer of 'god will fix you'. I would say myself that even if the truth is much more difficult to understand, or even difficult to endure, that I would rather have the truth.

More angry callers is exactly what we need anyway, it drums up interest! :)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Crystal, I agree we need more callers and fewer softball questions. I'd take confused over angry, though. It's easier to work through.

Brian Knoblock said...

Listening to the caller with the two Autistic children, I was a little sympathetic, having been classified with a learning disability myself in the 6th grade. However, I don't blame the vaccines I received when I was 1 for it. I never did. Neither did my parents.

When I was growing up, I always heard that it was always important for the parents and the child who has Autism or something related to not get angry and blame something for it that just isn't, or even blame themselves. Keeping a positive attitude is very important in those cases.

Blaming something like a vaccine keeps you from realizing your potential as a human being.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Brian, interesting. I've never heard that advice. Having a cousin with Asperger's, I'm impressed. Of course, they've done a lot of work over the years to stop handing people the unrealistic emotional burden of "You must stay positive."

I've definitely heard people talking about not letting the disability blind you to what you (or your kid) can do. Dead on, that.

Brian Knoblock said...
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Brian Knoblock said...

I know it sounds very simplistic, Stephanie, and people will go "blah blah blah, yeah be positive..sorry can't do that," but I don't beat myself up over this.

The school I went to that specialized in learning disabilites didn't focus on blaming anything - you focus on what you can do exceptionally well and go with that. My skill that I can do exceptionally well is math. I use that in my career to show I have this ability that I strongly believe benefits my employer especially understanding how funds are applied to client policies. My teachers taught me that this is the ability I highlight that I take advantage of.

It's turning a disadvantage into an advantage that allows you to be successful.

My apologizies if I'm ranting, but I felt it was best to leave this comment instead of going OT by calling into the radio show, which what my first instinct was to do.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Brian, I don't think you're ranting, and I don't think we disagree. It's all good. I just thought it was interesting to see how the message has changed over time.

sunnyskeptic said...

PS: more callers, fewer softball questions: I was just listening to the 'debate' between atheist and christian from a bit ago... I appreciate the technique that August uses very much, but it doesn't really make for anything different or interesting at times. I don't think that we need to be jerks, but I felt there were quite a few things that the christian man could've really been called on, but he wasn't...

Stephanie Zvan said...

Crystal, have you listened to the show with (I think) Jeff and Lee? That got a much better reception than this last debate show, while still being somewhat adversarial.

And you're coming to the next radio committee meeting, yes? At the very least, send your thoughts to the list.