On Air with Dr. Josh

As a TV psychologist, radio-show host, and adjunct associate professor of public health at UAB, Dr. Josh Klapow takes psychology to the masses.

Written by Rosalind Fournier  Photography by Beau Gustafson

On what will most likely go down as the most devastating Valentine’s Day in American history, Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and frequent media correspondent, was scheduled to appear on a local TV station to talk about the psychology of romance.

But by the time Klapow arrived for his segment, the world was consumed with news of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. On a moment’s notice, Klapow agreed to switch topics and discuss what was clearly on people’s minds instead of romance. Watching the clip, it’s impossible to tell that Klapow had gone on without any prepared notes. He talks about the range of reactions that are normal for people involved in such a horrific event and ways for kids and parents here at home to process the news.

In the span of that same week, he’d also offered expert advice on the nation’s opioid epidemic, the secret to authentic communication, and how to resolve power struggles in a relationship. “Emotions and psychology touch our lives every day,” Klapow says. “I want people to understand and be able to use it effectively.”

That’s essentially the goal of every clinical psychologist, but it wasn’t until several years into his career that Klapow discovered the power of media to disseminate information in a way that could help people on a larger scale.

Klapow was first exposed to behavioral medicine and research as an undergrad at UCLA and went on to earn his Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a specialization in behavioral medicine from the University of California, San Diego. He eventually landed in the psychology department at UAB and later moved over to the UAB School of Public Health.

Then this happened. Several years ago, UAB’s media relations department got a call from ABC 33/40 wanting someone from the university to come on air for a segment on keeping New Year’s resolutions. “Nobody in the psychology department wanted to do the interview,” Klapow remembers. “(But) for me, initially it was just a novel thing to do. I had never been on TV.”

Klapow went to the station for what he expected to be taped interview, but during a commercial break he was escorted to a chair beside then-anchor Keisa Sharpe. “Then literally she says, ‘Hold on one second.’ And she looks at the camera, the lights go on, and she says, ‘Welcome back!’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m either going to become completely incapacitated right here on television, or I’m going to get my act together and figure out what to say.’ So she started asking me the questions, I started talking, and I was all pumped up because that’s how I dealt with the anxiety. After a few minutes, she said, ‘Wow, that’s very helpful, Dr. Klapow. You have a lot to say, don’t you?’”

Sharpe asked him back for the next week. And the next. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow—I’m saying the same thing I would say to one of my patients or clients, but here, 30,000 people are watching,” Klapow says. “That’s an honor and a gift, and I thought if I figured out how to do it well, I could make an impact.”

Still, when he looked back at the video, “I thought, ‘Oh, this is horrible,’” Klapow remembers. He sought out meteorologist Mark Prater, who’s now on WIAT CBS 42, and asked for advice. “I said, ‘I suck at this. How do I get better?’”

Prater, who now considers Klapow a good friend, says he was a quick study. “I helped work with him on some ‘Broadcast 101,’ but he’s very bright and it didn’t take him long,” Prater says. “There’s no doubt that he has the knowledge, he’s got the communication skills, he’s got the heart for it. You can hear it when he’s on the radio or he’s on television—he genuinely cares about helping people.”

Klapow quickly found himself in high demand as on an-air psychology correspondent. He began making weekly appearances on ABC 33/40 in a segment called “Healthy Habits” that ran for five years. Other local television and radio stations began calling, too. Then he caught the eye of the national media and began appearing on The Weather Channel (about coping in the aftermath of natural disaster; beating the winter blues; surviving cabin fever), TLC (“My Strange Addiction”) and others. In print media, Klapow’s opinions have been cited in outlets ranging from Psychology Today and Women’s Health to U.S. News and World Report and Conde Nast Traveler.

Taking a Career Risk

Separately, as his public career was evolving, Klapow was approached with an offer to join a new startup—ChipRewards, a web-based healthcare incentive program used by employers, health plans and others who want to help their employees or clients meet specific behavioral goals.

This was prior to ChipRewards’ official launch in 2007, and Klapow says at first he wasn’t sure where he would fit in. The company wanted to use technology to create custom incentive programs rewarding people for engaging in healthy behaviors.

Klapow says he was still mulling it over when it hit him. “I had that literal sit-up-in-bed, middle-of-the-night moment when I realized, I had an opportunity to take behavioral science into a technology and infuse it in a way that we could help influence the way people act and behave with regard to their health…and we can program that system in infinite ways for millions of people.”

He took the position, but it wasn’t without risk. “ChipRewards was another way for me to take the science I knew and get it out to the masses in a way I couldn’t do in academics, because the biggest challenge in academics for me has always been the same thing: No matter how many research papers I publish, they will affect the field, but not in as immediate a way as I want. So in joining ChipRewards, I basically left academics. I gave up tenure, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Klapow also saw that some colleagues and others had misperceptions about the shift in his career. “They would say, ‘Oh, you did it because you made a million dollars.’ I did not make a million dollars doing ChipRewards. In fact, I learned very quickly an important lesson about starting a small business, which is sometimes you don’t get a paycheck. I’d never had that in my whole life. In academics, you always get a paycheck.”

It was the same story with his growing profile in the media. “There was a lot of support, but particularly as I was on more regularly, there was a lot of misunderstanding as well,” Klapow says. “People in academics thought I was getting paid by the TV studios. In reality I’ve been doing that for free my entire career.”

In light of some of the skepticism, Klapow made a point of going to UAB Media Relations and explaining how his time doing media was an extension of his day job, as another way to promote public health. “I’m a liaison to what we do here,” he says. “For me, television, radio, and print is a way to bring science to the public.”

Over time, his employers and colleagues in the field caught onto the impact Klapow was having. He received the Outstanding Public Health Service award from the School of Public Health in 2008 for the “promotion, protection, or enhancement of the health of people through policy or systems development, direct intervention, or community education.” In 2016, he was recognized by the Alabama Psychology Association for his “positive media presence and advocacy for the profession of psychology in the community.”

“The Web with Kurre and Klapow”

Despite his large presence in television and print media, Klapow says one of the biggest leaps he’s made to date was deciding to team up with longtime popular radio personality Tony Kurre to host “The Web with Kurre and Klapow” on Saturday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. on Talk 99.5.

Klapow says the show came about through a series of unplanned events. He’d been making radio appearances on different stations for about 15 years when Talk 99.5 approached him about doing his own show. He was reluctant at first. For one, he’d already tried it before, once with Alan Hunter doing a show called “The B Side” and another time with a show in the early morning slot. “It’s a fickle business,” Klapow says. “The shows made it about a year and a half and then kind of fizzled out.”

This time, though, his friend Kurre expressed interest in creating a show with him, and the dynamic felt right. “We talked for about a year trying to decide what it should be,” he remembers. “I said I didn’t want to do a show where people just call in and talk about their psychological problems, because in this market, no one calls in. So Tony says, ‘Let’s do a show about sex!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not going to do a show about sex.’”

Still, it got him thinking about “Loveline,” a nationally syndicated show that ran from 1983 to 2016 and whose most popular co-hosts for years were Dr. Drew Pinsky and Adam Carolla. “Loveline” could get down and dirty, but it was always tasteful.

Klapow says he grew up listening to “Loveline.” “We didn’t have the Internet. For your love advice and all that, you’d listen to ‘Loveline’ on the radio. So Tony and I were talking, and suddenly I said, ‘Oh my God! You’re Adam Carolla, and I’m Drew Pinsky.’ Even though we weren’t exactly like that, it planted a seed.” About a year ago, “The Web” made its debut.

“‘The Web’ is really this culmination of me going for it and trying to address a problem—which is how people interact in their lives,” Klapow says. “We have fun and we help people.” He adds that he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with a show like “The Web” 10 years ago. “It gets into some pretty personal areas. We talk about love and life and intimacy and sex and relationships—never for shock value, but I had to have some credibility in the local market so I could say some of the more controversial things that we say on ‘The Web.’” Klapow’s comments from the show have been picked up by other media, including Reader’s Digest (“If You Display These 10 Traits, You Might Be a Boring Person”), Men’s Health (“The 7 Best Vacations for Your Body”), and National Geographic Indonesia (“Things to Look for to Not Feel Stress Post-Holidays”… a rough translation of the original headline, which appears in Indonesian).

Klapow continues to maintain an affiliation with UAB, working primarily with UAB Media Relations. He has narrowed the focus of his one-on-one practice, and he refers the majority of clinical cases to colleagues or to local counseling centers. He concentrates his efforts now in a non-clinical arena as a lifestyle and life performance coach, and by leveraging various forms technology he is able to assist clients all over the country.

In the meantime, Klapow says hopes he’s getting the word out that no topic is too large or too small to make an impact on the human condition. “Sometimes people will say, ‘You’re on TV talking about how to choose the right gym?’ I say, look, I’m a behavioral scientist. In my mind—and I used to tell my graduate students this all the time—whatever it is, if it involves human behavior, then potentially I have a seat at the table. Whether that’s going to the gym, preventing disease, having better sex, or communicating with your spouse, it’s all about behavior and essentially psychology. So as much as you see me as kind of all over the place, it’s not all over the place.

“So the picture I’m trying to paint is, I want to change the world. That sounds so cliché, but I do. I know a lot about people and the science behind what makes them do what they do, and I’ve always been passionate about getting it out there in a way that is most compelling to the people…whatever you want to call that.

“Some folks have called me the ‘Dr. Phil of Birmingham,’” he adds. “But I like ‘Dr. Josh.’” •

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