Not what he dreamed of

Charles McPhee, the "Dream Doctor"

KAI RYSSDAL: There's no real trick to being on the radio. Mostly all you have to do is be able to talk. You can find everything out there on the air — politics and business, food or cars. Dreams, too.

CHARLES MCPHEE:I'm Charles McPhee, the Dream Doctor. Thank you for listening. Every weeknight on the Dream Doctor show we talk to dreamers from all around the country . . .

Seven years ago, Charles McPhee turned his curiosity about dreams into a personality. The Dream Doctor, he called himself. He landed a call-in radio show out of Santa Barbara, California. A pretty popular one. The Dream Doctor was in the big markets — New York, L.A., 24 in all. But back in May, callers started asking about something else.

MCPHEE: Listeners were calling in and they wanted to know if I was drunk.

He wasn't. It was ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, specifically for McPhee, Bulbar ALS. It's terminal. One of the first things he's going to lose is the ability to speak.

MCPHEE: I recognized pretty early on with my illness that I was not going to be able to continue doing this show.

877-77-DREAM, that's the toll-free number . . .

Radio is a very quick medium. My voice is weak now.

We've got Sad on the line 10. Just looks like an unusual dream.

CALLER:Yeah. It's very unusual.

MCPHEE: Tell me.

CALLER:Well, OK. I walked back to my room and there was an extremely large gorilla. Like it takes from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. And it's just hunched over in the corner and it's really meticulously painting its toenails red with nail polish . . .

However strange they are, dreams are kind of the perfect thing to talk about late at night on a call-in radio show.

MCPHEE: Dreams only occur in the human mind and radio is teaser of the mind. So when a caller is describing their dream, we all visualize it in our mind. And it's also anonymous, which allowed these people to talk about these personal issues openly on the radio.

It was a month between those first calls in May wondering whether he was drunk until ALS was the confirmed diagnosis. Not a lot of time to come up with a business plan in any situation. He's been running best-of shows, working with some co-hosts and trying some other things too. Something called voice synthesis. Typing words into a computer and letting the computer do the talking.

MCPHEE: You're listening to the Dream Doctor. I'm Charles McPhee. Thank you very much for being with us . . .

In my case, I recorded 1,650 phrases into a voice bank.

We tried it in his studio near Los Angeles the other day. He spoke, I typed.

RYSSDAL: Now I just hit Return.

SYNTHESIZED VOICE: You're listening to the Dream Doctor. I'm Charles McPhee. Thank you very much for being with us.

RYSSDAL: Clearly you, but clearly not you, you know what I mean? So as you started thinking your way through how to deal with this and they came up with this and they said, here, try this. And you said, OK, maybe this works and then you heard it, what'd you think?

MCPHEE: I think we listen to it and, again, I mean I don't know. I think the audience maybe would go for it. I mean I have a lot of loyal listeners and . . .

RYSSDAL: How fast can you type that, right? That's what . . .

MCPHEE: I'd have to work on that. I'm still a little bit of a hunter and pecker. Even though I've written three books . . . think I'd learn how to type.

McPhee's still working, trying to be the Dream Doctor. He's writing new books, just more quickly now.

MCPHEE: It has been a lifelong passion. There is so much room to continue to get the word out about dreams, be it in books — and I'm working on four of them simultaneously now. A little bit of an accelerated writing schedule.

We talked for a while the other day about how he feels about his wife and his little girl, but mostly we talked about how he loves what he does for a living, and how now he has to stop.

MCPHEE: It's OK. I mean, I think, unlike most people, I have been able to pursue my career and radio has been the proverbial dream job for me. So at least I was able to do it.

Charles McPhee is 44 years old. He was diagnosed with ALS on the 23rd of June this year. The Dream Doctor's last show will be on the air tonight.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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