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This article first appeared in The Skeptic (Volume 12 Numbers 3& 4 - a double issue). Since it was written mediums have progressed from radio to the more lucrative world of television. As ever it seems standards get lower if it means ratings get higher.

Radio Ga Ga
Tony Youens
on the tactics of radio psychics

Skeptics have long said that psychic readers achieve their results, either consciously or unconsciously, by the technique known as “cold reading”. This term refers to the giving of a reading without any prior knowledge of the sitter.

When I debate psychics and mediums they flatly deny using any such technique and some have claimed they have never heard of the phrase. Of course very few then offer to have their claims tested, and visiting them as a client is likely to be costly. However such psychics now make frequent radio appearances that allow us to carry out at least some analysis on how they operate.

Some years ago I remember reading in Psychic News about mediums appearing on radio phone-in programmes and providing callers with startlingly accurate information that they couldn’t possibly know by any normal means. They would describe the listener’s wallpaper, health problems, recent bereavements and numerous other titbits and trivia. What was going on? Did they have their friends phone up, was it just a series of lucky guesses or, were they in fact really psychic?

A few months after Talk Radio UK started, when a ‘”spiritualist medium’” was doing a turn. The show’s host was “Caesar the Geezer” and his spiritualist guest was one Kevin Wade. I listened to Kevin with great interest as he had a curious way of talking. To start with, virtually all his “statements” sounded like questions. This was because he usually said “please” at the end of every sentence. An example might be, "Your Father’s passed into spirit please”. Was this a question or not? He also said things like, “Can I say to you please that you’re not always appreciated please?” These aren’t actual examples but they are typical of the curious way he used, or maybe abused, the English language

I tried to speak to Kevin directly but getting through was impossible. He was only on for about an hour and such was his popularity that I constantly got the engaged tone. It has since been confirmed to me by various presenters that psychic phone-ins routinely generate a massive response from the listeners. Then one evening Caesar suddenly said he wanted to hear from skeptics. He wanted to put Kevin to the test. This time I got through and eventually spoke to Kevin. What follows below is most of our conversation. I don’t pretend I was at my most eloquent but this was the first time I had spoken to a radio station.

Listeners were told to ask specific questions in order to test Kevin’s talents. Kevin claimed to be able to talk to the spirits. He had spirit guides to help him (I can’t remember but I’m sure one or both were “American Indians”) and he had certainly been on form that evening with no apparent communication problems.

The following extract is taken from a tape recording I made at the time and although I cannot remember the actual date when it took place, it would have been over two years ago. I began by saying I wanted to ask some precise questions of Kevin and that I did not want a “cold reading”. I also said that if Kevin was not given the answers from the “spirit world” that would be fine and he should just say that he couldn’t answer that particular question and not be tempted to guess.

Question One

Tony Youens (TY): Are either of my parents dead? Kevin Wade (KW) I feel that one of them is, please.
TY: Which one?
KW: Can I say I want a mother link please?
TY: Right neither of them are dead. So you are wrong.
KW: Right, carry on.

A few comments at this point. Why for goodness sake didn’t Kevin just give me a simple answer? “I feel that one of them is please” is vague enough but what about “Can I have a mother link please?” Normally when Kevin was trying to determine if a family member was dead, rather than say, “Your mother” he would use the phrase ‘mother link’ If it then turned out that Mum was alive and well he said would remind the caller that he only said “mother link” and was therefore referring in general terms to the mother’s side of the family. This was a rather pointless tactic in this instance as I specifically asked about my parents. Of course Kevin never said which parent until pressed, and, when he committed himself he only compounded the error.

Question Two

TY: All my Grandparents are dead, can you give me any of their names?
KW: Can I have Albert please?
TY: You can have him but he wouldn’t be my Grandparent.
KW: You understand why I want Albert?
TY: No, we’re slipping into cold reading.
KW: Carry on, carry on.
TY: Right, so that was wrong.
KW: Carry on.

Whether deliberate or not this is certainly cold reading. Look at the way Kevin answers a perfectly reasonable question, “Can I have Albert please?” I asked a direct question so why didn’t I get a straight answer such as, “Albert”? Even, “I believe your grandfather’s name was Albert” is at least normal speech. His claim is that he can communicate with the dead and normally he can come up with names quite happily. Of course when standard cold reading techniques are used responses are along the lines of, “I’m being given the name Albert” and the caller might obligingly respond by saying, “I had a grandfather called Albert”. The word “had” would indicate that he is now dead (or passed into spirit if you prefer) and a suitable response might be, “That was on your Mother’s side?” That fact that this was phrased as a question is almost undetectable. If a positive response is given we’ve got a hit. On the other hand if they say, No he was on my father’s side, we this is dealt with by saying, “Only I’m getting a man who says he’s from your mother’s side”. With any luck the caller will help out with, “Oh, that might be Cyril”. Rather than be so obvious as to actually say, “Yes I know” the cold reader might instead imply that he or she knew it all along by adding something trivial like, “Did he have a dog?” Once again, ready to adapt to either a positive or negative response, and so the fishing expedition continues.

In our example, Kevin tries to salvage something by asking if I understand why he wants Albert, thus getting me to do his job for him. Albert is a common enough name for a male grandparent, any even though there are only two of those, there are also uncles, friends, brothers and so on, and as far as Kevin is concerned it seems any Albert will do. Intentional or not this smacks of cold reading. As it turns out I am completely unaware of any ‘Albert’ in my family and even if there was one it’s not the answer to my question. Imagine on Mastermind,

Magnus: What was the name of the British engineer who built the Clifton Suspension Bridge?
Kevin: Can I have William please?
Magnus: No it was Brunel.
Kevin: Do you understand why I’m getting William?
Magnus: Well… no…?

Question Three

TY: “A friend of mine died, tragically, 20 years ago in a car accident...”
Caesar (interrupting) “You shouldn’t have told him that.”
[I explain that I told Kevin because he might say something vague about ‘them dying tragically’ etc.]
TY: “They died in an accident OK. They died near Oxford and were buried near Oxford. I won’t tell you where they were buried, although I don’t expect you to come up with that, but could you give me their name?”
KW: “No I can’t”.
TY: “Right so that’s another one... that we’ve missed on.”

I imagine Kevin didn’t try a name is because I gave no indication of my friend’s gender. It would be embarrassing to ask for “a Nigel please” and be told her name was Wendy. Wisely Kevin decides not to risk it, or perhaps his spirit helpers are beginning to tire.

Question Four

TY: My wife’s maternal grandparents, are either of those alive?
KW: Your wife’s grandparents?
TY: Her maternal grandparents.
KW: (Slightly hesitating) Yes, I feel that they, one of....yes I do, yes I feel they are alive.
TY: Right, they’re both dead.

I had of course already mentioned that my grandparents were dead so it would seem likely that I had a reason to specifically mention my wife’s maternal grandparents, surely one or both were probably alive. Kevin plumps for “both living” only to find his normally accurate spirit guides have let him down once again. I did tell him not to guess.

Question Five

TY: And could you tell me their surname?
KW: No, I can’t do that at all.

But why not? Their surname was Gregory. We know he can be given names, although these are always first names and fairly common first names at that. Gregory can be a first name therefore I can only conclude that surnames are never given because they are too difficult to guess. There is an exception to this though. If a psychic or spiritualist is talking to a large audience it’s possible to have a try at a few surnames. For example Robinson would be acceptable. It’s common enough without being obvious like Smith or Jones. Chances of success are fairly good if you also consider that someone might simply know of a Robinson. This can still appear to be a hit to the faithful.

I summarise for Kevin his lack of success and refer to his earlier comparative accuracy.

TY: So those were my questions and you failed on all of them. I mean (slight chuckle) in that respect...I mean I’m sure you could go on now to tell me that I’m having trouble with the cat or something. Many of those things you said to people, that Caesar said weren’t generalisations, they certainly applied to me. I could think of somebody who died of cancer.
I know people who have died tragically as I mentioned there.

Anyway the questions are now over and Kevin has scored a duck. He needs to salvage something quickly, hence....

KW: You know someone who lost a limb as well...Tony.
TY: You see, we’re slipping into cold reading now.
KW: Just say yes or no.
TY: No I don’t.
KW: Who lost a leg?

This is another cold reading tactic. Having told me just to say ‘yes or no’ he then refuses to accept my answer so it appears that it’s me who can’t remember rather than Kevin who has made a bad guess. This can be dealt with in a variety of ways. The medium can shift the problem onto the caller by using phrases and methods like the following:

Do something for me. Go and ask someone in your family if they remember someone who lost a leg.

As they are never going to come back they can afford to be a little bolder and offer more details,

He was fairly young when it happened and I’m being shown someone with dark hair. The name James, or maybe it’s Jim, is connected with him. Promise me you’ll check.

What can the caller do but agree to check. Of course they come up with nothing but hey, the show’s over.

Continuing with the ‘missing limb’ conversation:

TY: Well I just said I don’t know so if we keep pursuing it now until I think of someone.... I said I don’t know anybody that’s lost.... I mean, you know it depends what you mean.... Long John Silver did I believe and I’ve read about him. (Caesar laughs in the background). But otherwise if you’re saying anybody in my immediate family....
KW: I’m not talking about Long John Silver.
TY: Are you saying anybody that I’ve known in my entire life?
KW: No. All I’m getting is someone that lost a limb... a leg.
TY: (Laughing) Well I don’t know anybody that’s lost a leg... at all.

I think we can finish there. I remember that following my call Kevin had a more sympathetic listener, even though he was supposed to have stopped by then. It obviously takes more than scoring a big fat zero to deter the faithful.

More recent examples
Talk radio psychics have moved on a bit now. They seem to have a much easier time these days. Obliging callers start by clearly stating their question such, “Can you see any change of career for me?”. With this as a starting point the psychic can prattle on with confidence. The conversation proceeds something like this:

Psychic: Well I can’t see anything in the next couple of months. What is it you’re thinking of doing?
Caller: I was thinking about a job in sales.
Psychic: In that case I think you should hear something by about the end of this year. It may be a bit sooner but I don’t think so.

The conversation can take various turns but the sequence is pretty much consistent throughout. First a question from the caller followed by a response from the psychic which refers to a future event. That’s nice and safe as it can’t be challenged. The rest is the psychic asking questions and, depending on the response, churning out more possible future events. The questioning is quite bare faced. It’s done in the same manner that a phone-in solicitor might use, simply to home-in on the problem. One positive change since the early days is that talk radio does not allow any questions about health and potential callers with medical queries are told to see a doctor.

A while back BBC Late Night North asked me to take part in a debate with a spiritualist medium named Jean Duncan. I had never heard her before and did not really get much opportunity to listen to her work beforehand. I asked the researcher if Jean would be prepared to undergo a brief test (I had in mind the questions I had asked Kevin Wade.) She refused. Since then I have had the chance to listen to her and analyse her particular style.

In one show earlier this year I noted the number of callers and the number of questions Jean asked them. The average was between 12 and 13 questions per caller, the range being between five and 29. The total number of questions was a staggering 162. (Counting these questions is not as easy as it seems and there is some subjectivity in assessing what should be regarded as a question. I took as my working definition anything that was said by the medium that was likely to provoke the caller into providing more information. Even then it was difficult. To allow for disputes I missed out some questions that didn’t get any worthwhile information and those that were simply restated. So if anything my figure is fairly conservative.)

I also made a note of the names Jean uses. They are all pretty common. The ‘hits’ were: Hilda, Margaret, John, Bob, David, Michael and James. The misses were: Ann, Thomas, William (when this missed she changed to Bill or Billy - still no luck), Robert (Bob was accepted) Ron, Rodney, Alan and Alec. These names are just thrown out as in, “Who’s Michael?” or “Why am I getting the name Margaret?” If the name means anything to the caller then it’s a hit. With these names some hits are virtually guaranteed. James, for example, was the name of a caller’s boss. In my own family I have noted at least 17 different, but fairly common names. If I extend possible connections to friends and work colleagues this figure easily doubles.

Jean usually begins with a general question such as, “How are you?” Simple and polite but she seems to use this as a springboard for the start of the reading. The caller may respond with, “Not too bad.” or “Fine.” Either way Jean seems to use this as her starting point.

She sometimes asks a trivial question such as, “Who’s seeing a doctor?” or “Who’s got a bad leg?” If there is a positive response she builds on it but if it’s a miss she tries to modify it by referring to the spirit she is talking to with something like, “Only I’m being shown a man in a white coat.” If this can be reinterpreted by the caller then there’s still the chance of a hit. As always the caller is the one who has to do the matching. Another trivial question with almost guaranteed success is, “Who’s got a bad back?” My answer? About two-thirds of the population.

Jean avoids jumping in with, “Your dead husband’s here and wants to say something.” Instead she prefers the much safer, “There’s a gentleman beside me.”

As is usually the case with other psychics, her questions often sound like statements. For example she might say something like, “You’re not planning to move are you?” The way it is said makes the meaning imprecise. She could either be telling the caller she isn’t moving or asking if she is. Curiously sometimes the spirit is talking to Jean, (“He’s telling me.....”) and at others it uses pictures or objects, (“I’m being shown.....”). The reason for this is unclear. I cannot understand why this leads to such confusion. If she can hear him why not ask him who he is instead of the caller. If she can only see him then why doesn’t he hold up a placard saying, “It’s me Monty and I’m her husband”.? The whole thing works because we assume (rightly) that communication with the dead is going to be difficult and a certain amount of clarification will be needed by the medium to make sure they are on the right track. But why do they know someone is called “Thomas” but not that he’s in the spirit world until it’s confirmed by the caller? If a name can be picked up, which after all is only a word, why not the word “brother”, “father” or “uncle”? Why does communication become so much easier after the facts have been established?

How about a test?
How are psychics chosen to appear on the radio? Do they undergo prior testing to giving readings on air? Or, as is more likely, are they simply judged on their popularity? Cold reading is known to work , and the technique has been widely written about in mentalist literature. So how does a radio station know that this technique is not being used unless a proper test has been carried out? It would appear that as long as those who phone in are impressed then this is test enough.

In devising a test the only way to decide on the psychic’s ability is on the accuracy of the information provided. But not any information. Mediums and psychics always fall down on the detail or more precisely the verifiable detail. An obvious exception to this, of course, is if they manage to obtain information prior to the reading. Any test will obviously have to be adapted to the powers the psychic claims to have, but in the case of a medium five people could be chosen at random from a list of thirty volunteers and the psychic could be required to provide specific information on each of them such as:
The volunteer’s name (would just the first name do?) Are they married? Do they have any children? (If yes how many?) Is their partner still alive? Names of dead or living relatives (parents, grandparents, children, brothers and sisters). Both the name of the relative and the relationship are required. For example grandfather, dead, named Ferdinand.

Candidates would be allowed only one answer per question and sitters would not be permitted to respond until after the test. No questioning by the medium is allowed. If they get around 70% accuracy then they get to go on air; otherwise they need to return to psychic development classes. Before even this test can begin it would need to established whether or not the medium needs to hear the voice of the sitter or perhaps know their gender. If they do require this information then I think some kind of explanation is required as to why this is needed. Perhaps the hit rate will have to be moved to 80 or 90 percent in such cases. Once the voice has been heard the sex is usually known along with approximate age and maybe even some kind of education and social background.

Sadly no such testing is ever likely to take place. If it were, and were done properly, then there would be little chance of any psychic making an appearance and that would not help the ratings, would it?

Copyright © Tony Youens

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