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Dr. Toni's Psyched for Radio Revival

Radio: After pioneering media psychology for 15 years, Toni Grant went on hiatus in '90. Now, she wants to pick up where she left off.

March 22, 1997|BILL MINUTAGLIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DALLAS — Long before the ubiquitous Dr. Laura, there was Dr. Toni--and her sedate, calming voice dispensing instant radio wisdom about Jung and the Restless.

Today, there is a slight curl of the eyebrow when pioneering media psychologist Toni Grant hears mention of latter-day advice-meisters, especially that occasionally combative Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

"I don't seek, frankly, to critique anyone else. There is room on the planet for all of us," offers Grant, 54, as she settles into a couch inside her palatial home and begins to explain her ambitious return to the airwaves.

A familiar voice for Los Angeles listeners, the licensed clinical psychologist is beginning a comeback Monday after being away from the microphones for seven years. Her new syndicated show will be broadcast from Dallas and initially will be heard in Southern California--on KTZN-AM (710)--and Phoenix; St. Cloud, Minn.; and Albany, N.Y., with more stations to come, she hopes.

From 1975 to 1990, it was Dr. Toni who was hearing from endless forlorn callers--starting on KABC-AM (790) and then more than 180 other stations--and dishing out dollops of what she likes to call "accurate empathy." She said she wanted to "demystify psychology, to take it out of the consulting room and into the home"--and to offer what she thought were some serious insights.

"When I was on the air in 1975, there was nobody doing this. Then there were 100 Dr. Toni imitators all over the country," she says, in between sips of a soft drink. But after 15 years, and after writing a bestseller called "Being a Woman," she walked away from it all and moved with her family to Dallas.

It was time to take what she called a creative hiatus. Her husband, John Bell, CEO of Bell Packaging Corp., was relocating his firm to Texas. Grant went corporate, working at her husband's firm as the "vice president of cultural transformation."

While she was away, the Vassar- and Syracuse University-trained psychologist listened as radio was being washed over by Schlessinger, and watched as the bookshelves were being taken over by tomes suggesting that men were from Mars and women from Venus.

As she listened and read, Grant said it was a case of been-there-said-that:

"I don't feel that I've been gone from the airwaves at all, especially because of the things that I started to talk about at the end of the 1980s," she says. "I was talking about all that stuff, the gender differences, in the mid-1980s."

Off the air, the mother of two (one daughter is set to become a physician, the other a psychologist) says she tried to stay on top of any shifts in the fragile American psyche--those roller-coaster mood swings influenced by everything from economic dips to AIDS.

"I was, at all times, in touch with the culture. A psychologist, especially a media psychologist, has to be responsive to what's going on in the culture," Grant says. "On the one hand, people's needs are the same the world over. We all need love, shelter, food. But life's problems and dilemmas change, given the different periods in our culture."

Maybe the biggest change she has seen, and one she thinks will be reflected in the phone calls she begins answering next week, is that baby boomers in the 1990s are trying to uncork some meaning amid all their mutual funds.

"I think I understand the baby boomers. Many, many of us have gotten divorced, have raised children alone, have gotten remarried," Grant says. "I think, having been so materialistic, so acquisitive, now we're very interested in the more spiritual aspects of life. Now there is a great search for meaning. We have tried everything--sex, drugs, materialism, hedonism--and it is never enough."

In the end, Grant expects to hear a lot of 1990s talk about commitment, devotion and the kinds of virtues that she says have almost become "quaint" concepts.

"The culture has been moving back to a more modest position. People have learned that love is not free, was never free. We may be returning to a time when there was actually a premium on that thing called virtue."

She is also hoping, of course, that she will personally be returning to a time when people will again put a premium on her particular approach to instant analysis. One of her methods, she says, is to show how callers might be resisting the truth.

"Almost everybody who calls a radio psychologist knows very well what is wrong with themselves and how to fix it. So, what do they need you for? Somewhere, there is a disconnection," Grant says.

"If, in a phone call, you can just help that person see one little thing that they have been resisting, the way they have been standing in their own way, you have done that person a great service."

Grant also promises she will feel your pain--up to a point.

"To seek to understand, to give that person a sense of being understood, it is very healing. But I'm pretty tough. I don't allow for any pity parties," she insists.

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