Sally Jessy Raphael tells the story of a friend who was driving through the Midwest one night and could only pick up four stations on her car radio. Raphael was on all four.
"She said to me, 'It's like the plague. You're slowly creeping across America,' " Raphael recalled, with a delightful giggle.
And so she is. While Sally Jessy Raphael might not yet be an epidemic, she is catching on.
For the last four years, she's anchored a nightly coast-to-coast "advice column of the air" on NBC radio's "Talknet," heard on about 260 stations (KGIL 1260 here, weeknights 8-11 p.m., encored weekdays 10 a.m.-1 p.m.).
She also heads a daily syndicated television show, titled "Sally Jessy Raphael," which in a year's time has grown from 25 stations to 70, and won an Emmy. (It debuted last week on KHJ-TV Channel 9, and airs Monday through Friday mornings at 11:30.) Between her radio and TV shows, she occupies 30-plus hours of air time each week in Los Angeles.
It would seem, then, that Raphael is out of the creeping stage and into more of a gallop. As far as she's concerned, it's about time.
"I'm the longest undiscovered overnight sensation in the history of show business," she said during a quick visit here the other day. "I've been on the air 29 years--been fired 18 times--San Juan, Puerto Rico; Mexico City; Miami; Hartford, Conn.; Pittsburgh; White Plains, N.Y.; New York City . . . you name it.
"So if I could have any kind of exposure at all now, I would be thrilled, and it would last for however long that kind of thing lasts. I'm not worried about overexposure from doing radio and TV at the same time. I've been on the air and underexposed for 29 years. You talk overexposure? Dr. Ruth (Westheimer), that's overexposure. Sally Jessy Raphael? Hardly!"
However, Sally-ing forth on this double-barreled career is not without a price--to wit, a back-breaking, demanding, multi-city schedule that would challenge the most hearty marathon runner.
Her week starts at midday Sunday, when she and her husband leave their house in Connecticut and go to New York to catch a plane for St. Louis where they will stay until Wednesday.
She does two television shows each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning--one goes on the air live; one is taped "live" for later airing. Monday and Tuesday nights she hosts her three-hour radio show--live--from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Central time.
On Wednesday, after the two TV tapings, she flies back to New York, arriving in time to host that night's radio show . . . only now, being in the Eastern time zone, she works from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Thursday and Friday nights, she again does the radio show live ("the policy is no reruns, no use of old material, no tapes--when you are listening to me, everywhere in America, I am really there") . . . finally wrapping up her work week at 2 a.m. Saturday.
"Then," she said, "there's always a little radio stuff to clean up, which gets you out of the studio at 3 a.m., and with luck, I'm at the house by 5.
"I sleep till 1 Saturday afternoon, and then I've got until 1 o'clock Sunday when I have to be back on an airplane. So there you are: 24 hours of joy and madness to just fritter away."
But she's not complaining. "If you've wanted to do this all your life, always dreamed of doing it but never got the opportunity, you'd be a darn fool to even whisper a complaint. Sure, I get tired, but think of the alternative: being unemployed. What I'm doing is terrific fun, and it's always exciting."
It's also seldom dull. Her TV show, for example, is known for presenting offbeat, often controversial subjects--everything from male strippers and astrological underwear to battered husbands and lesbian nuns. You won't see the usual run-of-the-mill celebrity guests here. And it's all done live. As she puts it, "They just turn on the camera, and 22 minutes later, they turn it off."
She likes working live, believing it gives her show a "rough" look.
"If television today is anything, it's icy," she said. "It is slick beyond belief. The new 'America' show is so slick that it slides onto the television screen. Certainly the three network morning shows are slick. The news is slick. Everyone spends endless hours with thousands of producers slicking everything up.
"We're a reasonably low-budget show out of St. Louis . . . Avis rent-a-car trying harder. What you see is a return to the 1950s, when if anything happens, it happens because we're doing it live . . . no editing, no cutting."
Her radio shows, too, are often unpredictable. Even Raphael doesn't know what's coming next. "You have the option to have a signboard to tip you on the upcoming subject, but my style is not to care who's calling, where they are or what they have to say."