Dan Gottlieb will be honored for his 30 plus years on the air at WHYY on September 8th.
Dan Gottlieb still remembers what Bill Siemering, his first boss at WHYY, told him when he launched “Voices in the Family,” his call-in radio show dealing with psychological issues of all kinds.
“He said, ‘Even if you’re good at this — which you’re not — these kind of shows usually have a short life span,’ ” recalled Gottlieb, who’s been through a handful of station managers in his 30 years on the air since. “Typically, he was right.”
Gottlieb will be the guest of honor at a celebration at the station marking his milestone on Sept. 8 at WHYY’s Independence Mall headquarters. When asked about his success, the 69-year-old Gottlieb said he can thank — of all people — his mother. “This show makes my life,” said Gottlieb, who lives in Ventnor, not far from where he grew up. “It’s done more for me in my work and with my mental health than all the therapy I‘ve had in life.
“In 1985, five years after my accident” — a car crash left him a quadriplegic — I was in the depths of my depression and my marriage was falling apart, so I agreed to do this show, mostly because I was channeling my Jewish mother. She would’ve said, ‘Of course you do it. What are you, crazy? You don’t turn something like this down. Look what it can do for your career.’ ”
Turns out in this case, Mother knew best. Over the course of his lengthy career, Gottlieb has established a reputation as one of the region’s premier experts in mental health not only through his show, but in a successful private practice, as a trainer of other professionals and even his newspaper column, “Inside Out,” which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993 to 2008.
Plus, he’s written four books and given more than 1,000 lectures throughout the world.
“I often look to the sky and say, ‘What have I ever done to deserve this blessing?’ ” said Gottlieb, who was able to drive a specially outfitted car until a few years ago. “When I started doing the show, I was terrified. I didn’t want anyone to know I was a quadriplegic or I felt I’d lose all my credibility. If they knew I had a learning disability I’d lose my credibility.
“About six months into the show, I did a show on learning disabilities. It was there I acknowledged I was learning disabled and had lived my whole life feeling like a failure. I was afraid not talk about it in that show.
“The reaction was overwhelming. The listeners opened up more than ever had before. Since then I’ve talked about my quadriplegia, my traumas, my sexual frustrations, my history of severe depression.”
One of the keys to Gottlieb’s longevity and success has been his ability to find humor in even the most difficult situations.
“People don’t know he’s really funny and has a great sense of humor,” said WHYY behavioral health reporter, Maiken Scott, his moderator since 1999. “It’s been a blessing to have that.
“I think people recognize him as somebody who is kind and not judgmental, with whom they can share something and have a conversation. Part of what people like about him is he’s a reassuring presence.”
It was also during this span that Gottlieb reconnected with Judaism, though he’s the first to admit he had never really developed a connection with his religion in the first place.
“I belonged to a synagogue because I was supposed to,” said Gottlieb, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor. “But I never went.
“I remember making a joke to my girls [daughters Ali and Debra] when I was schlepping them to Hebrew school when they were 7 and 8 and they hated it. “They asked, ‘Why do we have to go?’ and I made a joke about Jews and suffering and ‘I suffered, so you have to.’
“I couldn’t really answer that question except I knew I wanted them to have a Bat Mitzvah.”
Turn the clock forward 20 years and Gottlieb found his answer. “In the ’90s, I belonged to Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill,” continued Gottlieb. “I never went, but then my sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“We knew she was going to die in a few years. I knew my parents would also die soon and didn’t feel I had a Jewish community around to help me deal with all this.
“So I started going to Temple Emanuel on Friday nights. I’m basically a shy person, so I sat in the back by myself. I was uncomfortable, but I knew the rabbi well.
“Then someone asked me to give a Friday night talk at M’Kor Shalom,” the Cherry Hill Reform synagogue. “The place fit my personality and needs to a ‘T.’ I joined and got very involved with the synagogue. Now, it’s my home. I’ve taught there and been on the board.
“My great regret is, I wish I had known when my girls were little what I know now. I wish I’d been clearer about my Judaism and my spirituality.”
Such insights are the basis of Gottlieb’s style — coupled with one other basic thing. This interview was conducted the day a Virginia TV reporter and her cameraman were gunned down by a former station employee. He was asked to make sense of such madness, coming on the heels of the Charleston massacre, the Aurora theater mass murder and the Sandy Hook elementary school killings — all of which must make people wonder if they’re putting their lives on the line when they go to a mall, to a movie or send their children off to school.
“We should take our lesson from the Israelis,” he replied. “They’re surrounded by danger and face an ongoing threat. But the attitude they have is, ‘We love our lives. If we hide in our rooms, then they win.’
“This is terribly sad, but to me, it’s about the fragility of life. We get upset not just because we know life is fragile — it’s because we love life and we love this life.
“If we didn’t, we wouldn’t care. This is a call to action to get us all connected. Our love of life connects to a life of love.”
Yes, Dan Gottlieb believes — to borrow the words of the Captain and Tenille — “love will keep us together.” That’s his secret to 30 years of success on the air. “I was supposed to have died years ago,” said the man who’s made the most of both his physical and mental being. “Last year [when he suffered from heart issues] was as close as I’ve been to death in a while.
“But love plays a large part in keeping me alive. It’s all the people who love me and the people I love. I love my show and love my audience with a capital. ‘L.’ It’s a love I know has contributed to the quality of my life, if not the length.”
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