Name a mass medium and Judith Kuriansky, PhD, has worked in it. She's helped thousands of people via her former nationally syndicated radio show, "LovePhones," and coordinates committees to help solve the Palestinian-Israeli gridlock. She regularly publishes research about depression and schizophrenia. She frequently appears on televisions news shows and contributes articles to magazine and newspapers, and her books include The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Healthy Relationship (Alpha Books, 1998).
Not bad for someone whose professional title is often truncated to "sex therapist."
Kuriansky isn't too bothered by the typecasting for a couple reasons. She's proud she helped develop and popularize the field of sex therapy when it was first being recognized in the early 1970s. As the public became aware of sex therapy, she became one of its spokespeople. And she's been around long enough, she says, that the media come to her for her input on all kinds of topics, such as human rights or political happenings half a world away. Sex and politics aren't terribly far removed from each other anyway, she says.
"Peace within is a correlate to peace between people, and then peace between cultures," Kuriansky says. "Truly being a diplomat and negotiator is very much the same as mediating conflicts between a couple."
Making the news
Kuriansky's initial foray into the media happened in 1976 while she was completing her PhD in clinical psychology at New York University. She'd published a paper about the ways over-the-counter drug advertisements violated National Association of Broadcasters advertising guidelines, and a local news station, WABC-TV, asked her to appear on the show and explain her findings.
After the show, she recalls the producer telling her, "You really know how to get your scientific message across in a clear way to our audience. What else can you talk about?" That launched her television reporting career. For several years, she worked for WABC-TV in New York City and later WCBS-TV and WNBC-TV, doing feature reports for the late night news about new treatments for depression or advances in couples therapy.
In 1980, she was asked to start a radio program. Her show, the "Dr. Judith Kuriansky Program," aired three hours a day, five days a week on WABC. In those days, she covered a wide range of psychological questions—not just love and sex.
But her focus narrowed in 1992, when she was asked to join Z100 FM, an upstart New York City radio station geared toward a younger, hipper audience. Her new show, "LovePhones," ran for six years and focused on sexuality and relationships and was syndicated nationally.
"That sort of pushed the public dissemination of sexuality information even further," she says.
Throughout her broadcasting career, she's noticed most listeners' have the same questions: Singles want to know where to go to meet somebody. Couples want to know how to spice up their relationships.
Kuriansky thinks that reflects something universal across the generations. Everyone has the same concerns, the same hang-ups and motivations.
Her own constancy and longevity help her establish a rapport with her listeners, even before they call in, she says. "My presence on the show every night just makes people feel comfortable."
But comfort isn't a given on her end. She's fielded tense calls with people who claimed they were about to commit suicide. She's stopped abuse happening in real-time. The hardest part about giving advice on a radio show, she says, is that you usually only get one shot to help.
Her most memorable call came 25 years ago from a 9-year-old boy who told her that his mother had been shot, and his mother's friend was shot while he and a friend were in the bedroom. When they went out, the gunmen ran away.
"And he said, 'I can't do my homework,'" Kuriansky says. "That was his original complaint. So that was the biggest challenge, to finally get to the fact that he couldn't do his homework because he saw his mother shot."
She talked to the boy at length and after the show, helped get him the support he needed.
A few months ago, a man called her and asked if she remembered that encounter. It was the boy—now age 34—letting her know that he's doing all right. He's an assistant to the producer of a major television show, and he's getting married soon. "Thank God I called you," he told her.
Listeners and friends
Just as she remembers her listeners, they remember her. Lisa Stone, a principal investment adviser at the New York City financial firm Bernstein Global Wealth Management, remembers listening to the "Dr. Judith Kuriansky Program" as a young girl.
"She was very no-nonsense, and she gave practical advice without the psychobabble," Stone recalls.
Stone finally got the chance to meet Kuriansky when they both attended a Smith College alumnae event in New York. The two quickly became friends and now regularly see each other for lunch or drinks.
"To me, she was a superstar," Stone says. "I think I learned a lot from her show."
Neil Walsh is another longtime listener whose life—both professional and personal—Kuriansky touched. He remembers listening to her show every night and discussing it the next day with his friends in the lunch room.
"I think Dr. Judy's radio program was very influential in shaping the way people of my generation from the Northeast think about intimacy, relationships, sex," he says. "One of my friends once told me, 'That woman was our sex education program.' I think her show saved lives."
Walsh went on to get his master's in psychology and substance abuse counseling from the New School for Social Research in Psychology in New York City and plans to go back for a doctorate soon. In the meantime, he's living in Tokyo and working as director of Japan for Equal Dignity, which examines concepts of dignity and humiliation in Japan from psychological, economic, political and other perspectives.
He credits Kuriansky with giving him a positive image of psychology, which partially inspired his career choice. And she's still inspiring him. Walsh assists Kuriansky with her United Nations work, and they've co-authored a book chapter about humiliation and dignity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("Terror in the Holy Land," Praeger Publishers, 2006).
"Working with Dr. Judy while studying psychology has kept me interested in psychology and becoming a psychologist," he says.
Breaking into the biz
Though Kuriansky says she doesn't know exactly what gives her such a spark for media, she does offer general tips and teaches classes through APA's Div. 46 (Media) for psychologists who want to establish a media presence.
First, to get anywhere in the media, she says, psychologists should know how to speak in sound bites, and how to translate very complicated science. "It takes time to develop that skill. Some of it has to do with just understanding the intricacies and getting to the heart of what the science means, and not being afraid to say something."
To hone those skills, she recommends starting with the local paper or TV station, she says. Offer to be a specialist when they need someone to discuss a story's psychological angle. If you want to be more proactive, you can pitch stories and offer your services by writing your own press releases. Or you can start a blog. The point is to get your name out and be recognized for your media performance.
You also need to have a thick skin, she says. Media reporting is imperfect, and sometimes your message will get distorted. Things get left out. Not everyone, not even all psychologists, will agree with you.
But, "that's the joy and fascination of our field," Kuriansky says. "There are so many issues, you can't talk about them all. You're bound to leave something out and somebody's going to get upset."
Kuriansky encounters this often on the national stage. When the story broke that former New York governor Eliot Spitzer frequented a prostitute, CNN called Kuriansky for her insights. She talked at length with the reporter, she says, discussing various aspects of relationship dynamics, but the quote that made it in was this: "The men contribute to this, obviously, by using this service, but I get extremely upset on all levels, including as a psychologist, that women sell their bodies."
The next day she received dozens of calls and e-mails denouncing her for blaming the whole affair on women and shifting the responsibility off Spitzer, even though she'd said no such thing. The quote simply lacked context.
Despite such setbacks, Kuriansky believes it's important for psychologists to involve themselves as much as possible in the media. When psychology raises its profile, news coverage benefits, she says.
Thanks to outspoken psychologists, she says, the public's understanding of psychology has advanced, she says, and the media now incorporate psychology into many relevant stories. "All you have to do is turn on any show about economics and they use the word 'psychology' all the time. We should be proud of ourselves."
What free time?
When she's not on the radio or television or writing columns for magazines or writing books, you'll find Kuriansky organizing a committee to deal with Middle East conflict issues. She works for the Alliance for Middle East Peace, helping them lobby for funding. She's also co-moderator and co-organizer of psychologically relevant sessions at the United Nations' non-governmental organizations annual conference. Last year she discussed psychology's place in climate change. This year is human rights.
One of Kuriansky's colleagues in her United Nations work is Florence Denmark, PhD, a psychology professor at Pace University in New York City and former APA president (1980-81). Denmark appreciates Kuriansky's hands-on involvement and her willingness to get information out to the people who need it.
"She goes on the ground, she sees what's happening and she writes about it," Denmark says. "Scholarly work and scholarly journals are important, but if what we do is hidden, it doesn't help anyone."
Lately, Kuriansky has involved herself in disaster relief work all over the world, including providing psychological services for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami and SARS in China.
During the summer, she teaches counseling psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, as well as at as Columbia's College for Physicians and Surgeons. She's also founded a number of family and behavior therapy training centers and clinics in New York.
She also operates a family therapy practice of her own.
"I feel like a mother bird with a nest full of 12 little birdies who are all saying, 'Chirp chirp, feed me!'" she says. "I don't even know what 'relax' means. I don't need to relax because I just love what I do."