Joy Browne, a psychologist who acted as therapist, confessor and cheerleader to thousands of callers and millions of listeners during nearly four decades as the host of a syndicated phone-in radio talk show, died Aug. 27 at a hospital in New York City. She was 71.
Her daughter, Patience Browne, confirmed the death and said she did not yet know the cause.
Dr. Browne — also known to the troubled and flummoxed as a television-show host and self-help author — was running a private practice in Boston in 1978 when a local radio station offered her the chance to host a call-in advice program. The genre, perfected by Joyce Brothers and Toni Grant, was for years a mainstay of talk radio.
At first, Dr. Browne declined, concerned that any real or apparent flirtation with entertainment, as opposed to serious therapy, might jeopardize her professional reputation. It was a fellow therapist, she recalled, who changed her mind.
“Look,” she recalled her friend telling her, “if you can touch 100 people’s lives in a year as a therapist, you can touch 1,000 people’s lives in a day on the air.”
The reasoning, Dr. Browne conceded, was “seductive.”
First from the Boston station, WITS, and later from her longtime radio home on WOR in New York City, Dr. Browne became one of the best-known media psychologists, syndicated on hundreds of stations.
Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine, a trade publication devoted to talk radio, said in an interview that, at the time of Dr. Browne’s death, her program was the longest-running relationships show by a licensed clinical psychologist on AM-FM radio.
“She brought a seriousness about psychology to the radio waves that is quite commendable,” Harrison said. “That came first, before show business or commercialism or anything else. She was very concerned that the information and advice she gave was sound, that it wasn’t sensationalized or in any way hyped up or compromised for the sake of getting ratings or entertaining people. Yet she was extremely entertaining.”
Dr. Browne had no appetite for the lurid. She was interested, she told the New York Daily News, in “normal people talking about having normal problems.”
“I think the most valuable thing I do is help people understand they’re not alone,” she told the Canadian broadcaster CTV, “that whatever their problem is, somebody else has got it, that there’s no shame in having a problem, because if people can talk about it they put the shame behind.”
An unknown, but enormous, number of callers phoned Dr. Browne to air their shortcomings and vent their frustrations. They unburdened themselves about meddlesome in-laws and willful children, spouses who wanted too much sex or too little of it, trouble with commitment and trouble with overeating.
It was often noted that in her television programs, which appeared over the years on CBS and Discovery Health, chairs remained firmly planted on the floor, in contrast with the melodrama of other shows dealing with family dysfunction. Also, unlike some other on-air therapists or advice-givers, who lured audiences by berating their callers, Dr. Browne sought to encourage the people who turned to her for guidance, addressing them as “kiddo” and “patootie.”
“She wasn’t overly moralistic or judgmental,” Harrison said. “She was very, very uplifting and fair and wanted people to come away from her show, both as callers and listeners, feeling better and more optimistic about themselves, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable or unhappy.”
More than delivering advice, she often tried, in the therapist’s traditional role, to help callers find their own way.
“If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you go or would you stay?” she asked a woman whose husband had hired a prostitute. “If you’d go, get a lawyer and you can get a good chunk of his money. If you’d stay, you have to figure out whether the prostitute is the problem or a symptom of a bigger problem.”
There were, however, certain rules that she supported. After a breakup or divorce, people should wait at least a year, to regain their bearings, before dating again. Also, whenever children are involved, romantic partners who are serious about each other should marry because stability in childhood and adolescence is of paramount importance.
“When you hear that you just changed somebody’s mind,” she said, “nothing in the world makes you feel better.”
Joy Oppenheim was born in New Orleans on Oct. 24, 1944, the daughter of a teacher and an accountant. She grew up in Pennsylvania and Colorado and displayed a particular skill even from a young age.
“Even when I was 10 years old, people would tell me their problems,” she told Talkers.
She received a bachelor’s degree from Rice University in Houston in 1966 and a doctorate in psychology from Northeastern University in Boston in 1972. In addition to her private practice, she was working in social services when WITS began approaching local psychologists about an on-air show, eventually settling on Dr. Browne.
At the time of her death, her show was broadcast by the Genesis Communications Network.
Dr. Browne wrote a shelf full of self-help books, among them “Nobody’s Perfect: Advice for Blame-free Living” (1988), “Why They Don’t Call When They Say They Will — And Other Mixed Signals” (1989), “The Nine Fantasies That Will Ruin Your Life (And the Eight Realities That Will Save You)” (1998), “It’s a Jungle Out There, Jane: Understanding the Male Animal” (1999) and “Getting Unstuck: Eight Simple Steps to Solving Any Problem” (2002).
Her marriage to Carter Browne ended in divorce. Besides her daughter, of Paris, survivors include her mother, Ruth Oppenheim, of Denver; three sisters; and two brothers.
Dr. Browne said her longevity as a therapist allowed her to observe up close a changing society.
“When I started, I got a lot of questions about empty nest syndrome. Now I get a lot of questions about crowded nest syndrome,” she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1999. “Twenty years ago, it was the husband who was the one doing the cheating. Now half my calls are about the wife cheating. And nowadays half my calls are from men.”
At times, therapy call-in shows have been criticized for blurring the line between entertainment and therapy. But she saw a purpose in work such as hers, particularly in a culture, she told the New York Times, where the religious confessional booth no longer plays the role it once did, and where physicians have seemingly ever-diminishing time to spend with patients.
“Telling someone like me your secrets,” she remarked, “seems a valuable pressure valve for society.”
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