The good doctora
Millions nationwide are tuning in to the friendly, firm advice of Spanish-language radio host Isabel Gomez-Bassols
MIAMI -- It's just past noon on a broiling Friday, and former science teacher Isabel Gomez-Bassols is about to go on the air.
The gentle theme song, in Spanish, cues the start of her show: A caress, a smile, open your heart.
Gomez-Bassols adjusts her headphones, tucking her long, dirty-blond hair behind the headband. She b-r-e-a-t-h-e-s in deeply and leans into the bulbous microphone.
La Doctora is in.
"Hola! This is Dr. Isabel, your friend, your psychologist, reminding you that you have the power to change," she declares in Spanish, her voice bubbling with energy. "I am here to help you perhaps see other points of view, other strategies to follow that may improve your lives. How can I help you?" The day's first caller is Carmen from California.
"I have been with my boyfriend for seven years," Carmen begins in Spanish, speaking in a shy, wobbly voice. "I made a big mistake by being with him. He has a wife and five children in Mexico. We have two girls. We separate. We make up. He drinks. He sometimes disappears. He said he would change, but he hasn't. He beat me when I was pregnant with my youngest daughter. The oldest has seen everything."
As Carmen speaks, Gomez-Bassols scribbles on a notepad. After Carmen has laid out her problems, La Doctora delivers her prognosis:"The fact that he drinks too much and abuses you shows he is troubled on the inside. He needs to go to therapy. He needs to recognize he has a problem. You need to go to therapy. Go with or without him. You have to help yourself." It's gentle but firm advice, the sort one might hear from one's mother, or a really close girlfriend. And it's that balance of honest, direct, part-mother, part-friend advice that has drawn thousands of troubled souls -- and millions of listeners -- to Gomez-Bassols's call-in advice show on Radio Unica, the Miami-based 24-hour national Spanish-language news station.
"Dra. Isabel," Gomez-Bassols's live, three-hour show, airs in the top 15 Hispanic markets across the United States, making it available to almost 80 percent of Latino households nationwide. The station that broadcasts the show closest to Boston is in New York, but it's also on the Internet at www.radiounica.com. In a nod to the Boston area's burgeoning Hispanic population, the station is looking at finding a local affiliate to air the show in the Hub.
Moving into the mainstream
The popularity of Gomez-Bassols's show in the Spanish-speaking community -- it's hard to find a Hispanic household where someone hasn't heard of La Doctora -- has endeared her to television viewers of Univision network shows such as "Cristina" and "Sabado Gigante," where the doctor has made regular house calls as a guest commentator. With a recurring role last year as herself on the CBS soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "The 7 Steps to Success in Love" -- her latest book, and her first in English -- La Doctora seems poised to cross over into American mainstream pop culture. Her legion of fans include listeners who are bilingual or have children growing up speaking English and who buy her self-help books in Spanish, but urge the radio network to have them published in English.
Already, some heavyweight companies eager for Latino customers -- Sears, Home Depot, and Kimberly Clarke, manufacturer of Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissue -- advertise on Gomez-Bassols's radio show.
Some see Gomez-Bassols following the same self-help career path as Phil McGraw, the plain-talking, tough-love counselor who parlayed therapy sessions on Oprah Winfrey's television show into his own syndicated TV show, "Dr. Phil." Gomez-Bassols, in fact, says she shares McGraw's spiritual and self-help outlooks -- something that resonates with fans and callers.
"Listeners get very comfortable with someone like Dr. Isabel and see her as a trusted friend and expert," says Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, a national trade publication based in New Hampshire. "She can be seen as helping Spanish-language users navigate their way through a foreign culture and a society where they're often afraid of making the wrong move.
"Good radio talent has that ability to forge a relationship with listeners -- most of whom they'll never meet or talk to, but think of them as valued friends. 'Dear Abby' and Ann Landers figured out decades ago that we all love to listen in on other peoples' problems -- no matter what language the answer is in."
That's clear, judging by the switchboards that light up as Gomez-Bassols continues her show. A bevy of callers, from Sacramento to New York, Miami to Tucson, blink on the studio computer monitor. About 5,000 people call Radio Unica's phone banks during each show, but only about 30 callers make it on the air; producers staffing the phones quickly screen the callers, identify their problems, then line them up for La Doctora to put on the air.
Gomez-Bassols is clearly energized by each call; she can hardly sit still. On the air, she jots notes, gestures to producers, and swivels in her chair, hands fluttering as she dispenses advice. She probes every caller to gauge their hidden pain, unearthing what they really want to talk about.
"This is my instrument. I have no doubt I was meant to do this," she tells a reporter during a commercial break. "I find that many times I am a sounding board. The answers are already there, but they don't want to hear the answer. I want people to feel empowered. I don't want victims here."
Gomez-Bassols has to be quick on her feet. She listens to the caller, diagnoses the problem, dispenses advice, and suggests places near the caller's home where he or she can get therapy. Producers stand by with a notebook listing support groups nationwide.
"They have somebody who can speak to them at no cost, who can be a mother, a friend, or an aunt," says Carolina Fernandez, vice president and executive producer at Radio Unica. Unlike similar radio shows, many of the callers are recent immigrants to the United States from Latin America -- homemakers adapting to a new country, another language and culture. "She is filling that void," Fernandez says. They are lonely and isolated from what they know, and they turn to her for help and remain anonymous."
'Things will come your way'
For Gomez-Bassols, who was born in Cuba but lived in Miami most of her life, the show is another way of helping people -- a talent she discovered as a junior high school science teacher in a Miami suburb. Instead of asking for help with schoolwork, some of her students began seeking out Gomez-Bassols to get her advice on their personal problems.
With backing from the school's principal, Gomez-Bassols went back to college to study counseling, earning a doctorate in education with a specialization in early and middle adolescence. Over the years, she worked with troubled Mexican migrant children and teens in jail. Eventually, she chaired the psychological-services department for Miami-Dade County schools. Word spread about her easy manner and skill with people; she made appearances on local and national Spanish-language TV shows. In 1998, Radio Unica persuaded her to do a radio show.
"Everything that has come my way, I did not ask for," she says, in her soothing, how-can-I-help you voice. "If you believe in what you do, if you do it with passion, things will come your way."
The calls that come in tend to revolve around relationships and development issues with children.
Jessica, 35, of Los Angeles, is on the line.
"I am illegal in this country, and I am in a relationship and I am pregnant. . . . I have known my boyfriend for six months. He sometimes says he wants the baby, then he says he doesn't. I don't know what to do."
Gomez-Bassols doesn't mince words: "You seem unsure of yourself. You have to make a decision for yourself and look at your values, not his. I think you should seek some counseling to find out what Jessica wants and not what he wants."
Part of what endears Gomez-Bassols to her listeners is her own vulnerability. She's described how she coped with problems most listeners can relate to: the sudden death of her ex-husband three years ago, a son being seriously injured in a car accident, coping with osteoporosis, and caring for her 90-year-old, Alzheimer-stricken mother.
As her popularity has grown, Gomez-Bassols says, time with her four grown children -- Carl, Elizabeth, Eric, and Margaret -- and her grandchildren has slowly evaporated. So when she visits Elizabeth in Dedham during the year, Gomez-Bassols brings her show along with her. She takes calls at the house through portable equipment that connects her to the Miami studios and her callers. The same goes for seeing her son Carl, who lives in Atlanta. (Her other two children live in Miami.)
Back in the studio, as storm clouds roll in outside, Gomez-Bassols -- who won't disclose her age but allows that she's nearing her 60th birthday -- uses a three-minute commercial break midway through her show to eat lunch. She dashes into the studio's kitchen, takes a few quick bites of her salad, then hurries back to the studio as the theme music plays, signaling the end of the break. She climbs back into her chair, pulls on the headset, and leans into the microphone.
The theme song ends, and La Doctora is back on the air.
"This is Dr. Isabel. How can I help you?"
Johnny Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.