Just before 8 on a Thursday morning, orthopedic surgeons Dennis Cardone and Joe Bosco sit in a tiny, dimly lit studio in a far corner of the NYU Langone Medical Center lobby, a thoroughfare to New York University’s school of medicine and hospital on Manhattan’s East Side.
The hosts of “Sports Medicine” on SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio channel have been on-air since 6 a.m., helping listeners and bantering like old friends.
Dressed impeccably in dark suits and starched shirts and projecting the confidence that comes from being at the top of their game, these surgeons, like the other Doctor Radio hosts, are part of the high-powered medical community buzzing just outside the tinted-glass wall.
“Good morning,” says Mike, a listener calling from New Jersey. “I am 68 years old, and I have recently taken up pickleball. . . . When I lift my arm up — and this is afterwards — I get these little joint-popping sensations and a little shooting pain. And I’m wondering what’s going on there, and is there something I can do to avoid that or get rid of it?”
“Is it popping and pain, or just pain?” Cardone asks.
“No. It’s popping and pain.”
It’s not uncommon for older athletes to have a strain of the rotator cuff, Cardone says. Rehab and physical therapy should help. But, he concludes, “Worth having it looked at if it’s bothering you enough. Worth having it looked at. Mike, thanks for your call.”
A blast of upbeat music signals the end of the show, and the surgeons stand, carefully putting on their suit jackets.
Doctor Radio began Feb. 14, 2008, with Dr. Billy — Billy Goldberg, an emergency medicine specialist — at the mic. Scott Greenstein, president and chief content officer at SiriusXM, said he suspected there were people all over the country looking for medical answers in books or on the Internet, feeling overwhelmed.
“The thought was, ‘What if we set up a channel where people could hear from experts and they were able to take calls from listeners, not to get a full diagnosis but be able to get pointed in the right direction?’ ” Greenstein said. “I assumed if one caller had an issue, there may be 10 — or a million — people with the same issue. It could have a ripple effect.”
The public relations department at NYU Langone Health was a bit conservative, Andrew Brotman, senior vice president and vice dean for clinical affairs at the medical center, said. But eventually a deal was struck. The first task: Find doctors who could do radio.
Veteran producer Maurice Tunick was brought on to run auditions. A psychiatrist and his prospective co-hosts arrived with a PowerPoint.
The doctors needed to learn a few things about radio.
Tunick and his team set up training. They put the doctors in a studio to rehearse, critiqued them and taught them to get in and out of breaks smoothly. When the doctors veered into medical jargon, the producers held up signs that said “huh” — reminders to simplify.
“They do heart surgery,” Tunick said. “We do radio.”
Doctor Radio is just a sliver of the medical programming that is available via radio, television and websites.
In general, the wealth of information benefits consumers, according to Orly Avitzur, medical director at Consumer Reports and a practicing neurologist.
“The drawback is that the information is abundant but the quality is very uneven,” Avitzur said, speaking of medical programming in general, “and there is not great guidance for consumers to figure out which types of information are good and which are not so good.”
Christina Korownyk, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Alberta, analyzed the health recommendations on two television medical talk shows, "The Dr. Oz Show" and "The Doctors," in a 2014 study. She found that about half of the recommendations on the shows were made without evidence or contradicting the best available evidence.
“The bottom line is: Think critically about the advice you hear on these shows,” she said, summarizing her study of the two shows.
While she is not familiar with Doctor Radio, she said that a physician who provided a balanced view of evidence while being transparent about potential conflicts of interest generally “would be a much more reliable source than Googling.”
Brotman said each Doctor Radio show is anchored by a physician or other practitioner who is assessed for knowledge and judgment and then trained for radio. That effort is intended to ensure that the information delivered is medically sound.
“Finally, our medical director and others continuously evaluate all shows” for accuracy and medical relevance, he said.
For listeners, Doctor Radio may seem like a simple undertaking. Behind the scenes, however, the day unfolds like a professional game of musical chairs. Doctors and producers take spots at the mic and in the control room just as another team squeezes out, rushing back to patients or to the SiriusXM offices at Rockefeller Center.
With three minutes until “Emergency Medicine” goes live, Dr. Billy wants a chair.
“You guys want to pick up the pace?” he goads Cardone and Bosco, energized with what he calls the high-functioning attention-deficit disorder that makes a great ER doctor.
In the control room, producer Melanie Kron checks audio quality, signals the start and turns to the phone. She is a master of multitasking — answering calls, fielding emails, posting to social media and cuing breaks with what Dr. Billy calls her “Elaine dance.”
Dr. Billy and his co-host welcome listeners, and Kron picks up the first call.
“Doctor Radio. What is your name and where are you calling from, please?” she asks, typing rapidly into her computer.
“Hi, Joe. And what is your question today?”
Within minutes, the phone lines are full. There’s Joe from Tennessee, Jen from Florida, Billy in Illinois and Lisa in Maine.
First-time callers and regulars, truckers and nurses. The country is waking up, and Dr. Billy, like the show, is on a roll.
He will fill in communication gaps, he tells the audience, as if he were “the Spackle of the medical world.”
Doing radio has made the doctors better communicators and more “patient-centric,” Brotman said. It has also given them a sense of what the public is feeling. “There is a lot of heartache out there, and a lot of tragedy and a lot of frustration.”
There is also appreciation.
Keith Dartley was sitting in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway listening to Doctor Radio’s Fred Feit describe the symptoms of angina when he realized the interventional cardiologist was describing exactly what he had been feeling for months each time he exercised. The 50-year-old dad had good cholesterol and blood pressure and did not consider himself a candidate for heart disease, but he made an appointment to see his doctor that afternoon. Tests showed he had 100 percent blockage in his circumflex artery.
Feit, he believes, saved his life.
“If I hadn’t been listening to Fred and if I hadn’t thought so highly of him, I probably would not have gone to the doctor,” he said. In gratitude, he invited the cardiologist to meet his family in Los Angeles.
The number of people tuning in to Doctor Radio does not compare to the audience for someone like Howard Stern, according to Patrick Reilly, SiriusXM’s senior vice president of corporate communications. The company did not disclose what percentage of its 31 million subscribers listen to Doctor Radio.
Back in the studio, cardiologist Nieca Goldberg and her producer Lori K. Parker take their seats for “Beyond the Heart.” Parker has lined up guests for a show on women’s health, patching them in by phone. There’s a collective squirm when one guest describes the huge number of mice and ticks ready to spread Lyme disease. Then Parker gets word that an afternoon producer is stuck on a train in Connecticut. It’s just another day at Doctor Radio, where coping with the unexpected creates camaraderie.
Colleagues of the studio experts stop by. Frank Adams, host of the weekly “Pulmonology,” swings by, dressed in a Brooks Brothers blazer with a stethoscope tucked into his side pocket. His office, he mentions, is right upstairs. It’s “a beautiful thing,” he says of his proximity to the studio.
“Health Care Connect” answers questions about insurance. The phone lines are usually jammed, and host Andrew Rubin gets so many questions by email that he rises at 4:30 a.m. every weekday to keep up with the messages and still have time for his day job as hospital vice president for clinical affairs.
“People don’t understand this stuff,” he said. “They hear the politics and then the little sound bites and they have a hard time relating that to their individual circumstances. This is a place where people can call in and say, ‘My wife just got cancer.’ ”
As the lobby basks in the warmth of the afternoon sun, Jessica Bari arrives to fill in for the producer stuck on Metro North. Three guests and a host crowd around the table in the booth preparing for the “Doctor Radio Reports” program on transgender health and medicine.
"It feels very important as a method of communication," Laura A. Jacobs, co-author of the book "You're in the Wrong Bathroom!," says before the program starts. "I don't often get to reach the people in Kansas."
When the show ends, the conversation spills out into the lobby. Meanwhile, listeners get a replay of Cardone and Bosco’s “Sports Medicine.” It’s the last chance for the crew to run to the lavatory or the cafeteria, or to sneak outside for a breath of fresh air. Next up, Doctor Radio’s final live program for the day, Michael Whitlow’s 6 p.m. “Dermatology.”
After 14 hours, the channel is set for a night of rebroadcasts. Listeners are never without the shows and the doctors they have come to know. But in the hospital’s former gift shop, the breathless pace is over.
The studio sweatshirt, a blue fleece with “Doctor Radio” on the back, sits alone on an associate producer’s chair.
“It is regularly laundered,” Parker said.
At Doctor Radio, everyone is well aware of germs.