David L. Montini says he can empathize with callers to his talk radio show, The Agony Hour.
After all, he says, he has lived through an abusive childhood, several bouts of colon cancer, anorexia, years of work as a Chippendale dancer, a debilitating car accident and four marriages.
He has also been charged with fraud, and his resume lists a degree from a school he admits was a "mail drop box."
A recent caller asked him how to regain trust in a lover who had cheated on her. Another woman lamented that her ex-husband and daughter were growing apart because of her ex-husband's controlling, possessive fiancee. A teenage boy called to say his parents didn't understand him.
Montini listens patiently, offers encouragement and advice such as "love yourself" and "none of us are going to get out of this alive," and encourages callers to come to his Living Proof Wellness office for further therapy.
There, he says, he uses traditional, New Age and spiritual therapies, including a form of hypnosis, to fix everything from smoking to obesity to multiple personalities. Montini says the business is non-profit; he provides free counseling to those who can't pay and asks for what he calls "love offerings" of up to $30 an hour from those who can.
Sometimes the agony stems from hosting a call-in talk show when no one calls in. Though the show has aired from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays on WTAN-AM 1340 for about three months, one recent show attracted only three callers. And some of the callers to the last couple of shows were friends or acquaintances of Montini's or his co-host, former Clearwater Mayor Charles LeCher, and probably had been prodded to call.
Part of the problem may be that many listeners are still at work when the show is on the air, Montini said.
He says gaining an audience and credibility is tough. "Nobody is going to listen to a little Italian kid from Pittsburgh who was a dancer," he said.
So he pays the station, which can be heard 60 miles away, $150 each week for the right to do the show.
LeCher, who said he's acting as program director for the radio station, said Montini can sell ads himself or a salesman for the station can sell ads for him and take a 25 percent commission.
"If he sells three half-minute ads for $50 apiece, he breaks even," LeCher said. "If he sells 10 minutes at $100 a minute, he could make a lot of money on his show."
Several recent shows had few ads.
LeCher, who hosts his own show on WTAN about "psychics, astrologers and New Age stuff," has referred to Montini on the air as "doctor" and said Montini has three master's degrees. Montini admits he is no doctor, however.
He said he has a bachelor of science degree in social work from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, and the university confirms that.
He also says he has two master's degrees from the Florida Religious Studies Institute in Fort Lauderdale. The phone number listed in directory assistance for that organization is connected to an answering machine. A phone call seeking confirmation of Montini's degrees in clinical pastoral psychology and clinical pastoral counseling and wellness was not returned.
His third master's degree is from a school in West Virginia that Montini says was "only a mail drop box," and that closed a couple of months after he got his diploma.
Montini was charged with forgery and fraud for acting as a social worker without a license in Pinellas County in 1984, according to state records. Judgment was withheld.
Montini said he was ill at the time and needed a job. He said he lied on a job application and listed a master's degree he did not have. He said he entered pretrial intervention, and the charges should have been cleared from his record.
"I'll be the first to admit that I mess up," he said. "Everybody does."
State officials said Montini is not licensed with the Agency for Health Care Administration, but he may not need to be. He said he is a minister with the Universal Brotherhood of God in Tampa. Agency spokeswoman Nina Bottcher said that as a minister, he could offer counseling.
She said that if he's using hypnosis to cure physical or mental illness, "that is a potential danger zone for him as an unlicensed professional."
In a flier distributed through the Largo Chamber of Commerce, Montini advertises his radio show and counseling, saying he helps people overcome "dis-ease" and saying he had appeared as a guest on the Jenny Jones TV show. But when questioned, Montini said he was asked to be a guest on the show, but time ran out and he didn't appear.
Montini, 44, said he hopes to gain credibility by seeking two doctoral degrees and writing two books about his brand of therapy. He said the doctoral programs are at the Fort Lauderdale school where he got his master's degrees and the Center for Metaphysical Studies in Clearwater.
He said his only goal is to help people, to change agony to ecstasy. Montini said he'll counsel people for free, sometimes inviting them into his home, unlike traditional counselors, who he said are "aloof" and "disconnected" from their patients.
"Who wants all that money," he asked, "if I made it off everyone else's misery?"
When to listen
The Agony Hour airs from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays on WTAN-AM 1340. The call-in phone number is 446-1340.