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Chi Lives: a radio shrink for Spanish speakers



On Sunday mornings, when most of her Lincoln Park neighbors are still sleeping, Patty Voloschin is making her weekly 25-mile trek to LaGrange. Inside a low-rise building tucked behind a parking lot for garbage trucks is WTAQ Radio Fiesta, a Spanish-language station that concentrates on music with a Latin beat. But on Sundays at 9 AM they turn off the music.

For more than a year now, Voloschin has been hosting a call-in talk show on WTAQ AM called En familia. It's one of the few forums in Chicago's Hispanic media for intensely personal subjects. "English-speaking people are used to programs like these," said Voloschin. "But discussing personal things with anyone outside the family is still considered taboo in Spanish cultures."

Voloschin has tackled topics such as alcoholism, teenage pregnancy--even homosexuality, a particularly sensitive subject for this overwhelmingly Catholic audience. "There are other Spanish-language talk shows that discuss personal issues once in a while," Voloschin said, "but we do that exclusively."

Joe Newman, the former WTAQ station manager who hired Voloschin last year and put En familia on the air, agreed with her that "Hispanics often feel they can't reach out to doctors or counselors. On the whole, they're a very closed people. In their homelands, going to a counselor is seen as a sign of weakness."

En familia means "within the family," Voloschin noted, and "we wanted people to feel that if they called in to discuss something on the air, it was still within the family."

Voloschin, 28, is not a broadcaster by trade. She's a clinical psychologist. Born in the United States but raised in her parents' native Argentina, she's the program coordinator for Bienestar, a bilingual psychiatric program at Chicago's Ravenswood Hospital Medical Center. She's also the minority coordinator for Hispanics for the Alliance of the Mentally Ill of Greater Chicago.

She became a radio talk show host by accident. Last year, when she was a family counselor at Erie House (a near-west-side social service agency that primarily serves Hispanic clients), another Spanish radio station called her office. They wanted to ask her boss to discuss parent-child communication on one of their talk shows, but he was on vacation. So Voloschin took the call and did the show.

A few weeks later she met an account executive for WTAQ at a party and made a pitch for a show like En familia. "But I wasn't thinking about hosting my own show," she said. "I was thinking more along the lines of 'get yourself invited to another one.' A few days later, they called and said if I was serious about the program, the station manager wanted to talk to me."

Newman had been thinking about a show like En familia for a long time. "I knew a woman should host it," he said. "Since women seem to be more sensitive to personal and family problems, I thought they would call in more than men. But I thought they'd be reluctant to talk to a man about personal problems. And I thought Hispanic men wouldn't want their wives or girlfriends calling up a man and talking about personal problems."

Newman also knew he wanted a psychiatrist or a psychologist, not a professional broadcaster, to host the show. "I thought that if listeners were concerned enough about a sensitive problem to call in, they should be able to talk to someone who could give information, not just a referral."

Each week, Voloschin discusses a different topic with a Hispanic mental-health professional and then takes calls from the audience. The show had been airing from 9:15 to 10 on Sundays, but in July, the station expanded her time slot to an hour.

On one recent Sunday morning, Voloschin's topic was mental illness, and she was worried that people wouldn't call in. "People don't want their voice recognized admitting to mental illness," she said. "If I talk about children, I get flooded [with calls]. If I talk about wife abuse, I'll only get four."

But fortunately the first call came at 9:20. "I took my brother to the psychiatrist, and [the doctor] diagnosed him as paranoid," said the woman. "Is there a cure?"

Voloschin explained to her caller that paranoia is not necessarily curable, but a paranoid can be taught to live with his fears. She advised her to help the person to continue to function, and with a simple "thank you," the caller hung up.

Voloschin began to talk about depression, and ten minutes later she got another call. This woman spoke in a very rapid Spanish. "I am going through a nervous crisis right now," she said. "I've been to the hospital several times. I live worried sick. I'm afraid to go out in the street. I'm afraid someone's going to kill me."

Voloschin, responding in a much slower, more methodical Spanish, praised the woman for going to the hospital and getting help. "But it sounds to me like there might be something at home causing your anxiety," she said.

"What should I do when someone [yells at me] in public?" the caller responded. "And for when they hit you? See, I'm having problems with my husband because he drinks. I can't sleep at night. I can only sleep with pills, and this is what is making me feel sick all the time."

"Unfortunately, when you live with somebody who's an alcoholic, you're living with several problems," Voloschin noted in a soothing, slow voice. "You suffer from the despair of seeing someone you love suffering and also from some of the consequences of his alcoholism, so you're also a victim. I hear often, 'My husband hits me, screams at me.' Until your husband gets help, nothing is going to change."

Two more calls took up the rest of the show, and Professor Fernando Fernandez replaced her in the studio for the public affairs program that follows En familia. By then Voloschin was already on the phone in the office, taking calls from people who hadn't wanted to talk on the air (It took another listener until the next day to screw up the courage to call. When that happens, Voloschin allows the station to give out her phone number at work.)

"One time a guy just showed up at my office a day after a program on alcoholism," recalled Voloschin. "He didn't want to talk on the air, so he drove all the way from the south side to find me. He said he wanted to get better, but he didn't know where to go."

Voloschin is now trying to get the show syndicated. It's a heady experience for Voloschin, who started the show on a shoestring and did it without pay for the first seven months. She thought about quitting a few times, but she said she's always gotten lots of encouragement to continue the show, especially from listeners.

"One time I did a show on verbal abuse," said Voloschin, "and a woman called in to tell me about how her father used to call her terrible names. She said to me, 'What you're talking about really happened to me, and I still feel like shit. You tell parents not to do that. You tell them.'"

And in a slow, soothing Spanish, she does.

En familia can be heard Sunday mornings from 9 until 10 on WTAQ 1300 AM (352-1300).

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