Reaching the Masses Radio Shows Abroad Are Connecting People with Health, Environment and Population Issues; Now, They're Coming to Hollywood

Darkness falls over Rwanda. All across the country, thousands of people switch on their radios and tune in to Umurage Urukwiye (“Rwanda’s Brighter Future”), a popular broadcast soap opera. They listen as the main character, Leodia, leads an ecology club in her village, Tarama. They respect the way she protects the habitat of endangered mountain gorillas, which is being destroyed by tourists. Through her work, Leodia encourages her neighbors to buy tree seedlings to prevent erosion and help the gorillas.

At the end of the show, researchers from Population Media Center (PMC) do a survey. They discover sales of tree seedlings spiked by 11% at local nurseries. Each time researchers from this Shelburne, Vermont-based nonprofit air a radio or television soap opera, they find similar results—an increase in family planning visits to a clinic, better HIV and AIDS prevention or a decline in violence against women.

As it turns out, PMC, which airs shows in 25 different countries and receives grants from the United Nations Population Fund, has discovered a very powerful tool to promote sustainable growth. Not all of the soap operas deal with environmental issues as directly as the Rwanda drama does. But all of them draw a link between overpopulation, health problems, poverty and environmental degradation.

The agency’s president, Bill Ryerson, believes sustainability is the key because it relates to both human health and the health of the planet. Back in the 1980s, Ryerson says, we hit the point where we were using 100% of the earth’s resources. Today, with a world population of nearly 7 billion, we are operating at 140% of capacity. In other words, we are consuming resources faster than we can replenish them. Food and water shortages, along with climate change issues, will continue to be a problem: The United Nations projects population will hit 9.1 billion in 2050.

While searching for possible solutions, Ryerson came across a body of research by Miguel Sabido, who is known for producing popular televnovelas, or soap operas, in Latin America. Just like U.S. dramas such as Gossip Girl ignited interest in rompers or Sex and the City in Christian Louboutin pumps, the telenovelas had a powerful influence on fashion trends. But the shows could do more than boost clothing sales—they could also send out positive messages for social change.

An emotional connection with a character is the key to the success of the PMC dramas, says Katie Elmore, communications director. Cultural relevance is the other key. For that reason, PMC shoots all of its shows on location in the host country. They also recruit writers and actors from the local film and theater scene and hire in-country production teams. To ensure that they are emphasizing the right message and hitting the right target, the writers often gather local residents and quiz them during a series of focus groups.

“It’s all done by locals because they know the countries best, so they can create realistic characters,” Elmore says.

In Jamaica, for example, PMC picked up on some local slang for the title of their radio series Outta Road, which means “What’s happening out on the streets.” The show, which focuses on teens, uses a reggae beat and local street language. The characters deal with challenges like HIV and teen pregnancy. Surveys show 56% of listeners were inspired to avoid risky behaviors, say no to sex and avoid gangs and gun violence after listening.

“People feel a bond with the character, so they really connect with their emotions,” Elmore says. “The characters are serving as role models for good decision-making.”

Another long-running show, called Paginas da Vida (“Pages of Life”), aired for several years in Brazil. It showed a teen mother struggling in poverty. PMC teamed up with a local Planned Parenthood clinic to measure the results. A total of 36% of women said they were at the clinic because they heard about family planning on Paginas da Vida.

Laura Zaks, a spokesperson for International Planned Parenthood Federation, calls these programs “innovative,” and applauds their preventative health messages and their ability to spur positive behavior changes. “They show the important role that mass media can play in ensuring that all people, particularly those who are harder to reach, access the services and information they need to lead healthy lives,” Zaks says.

Dr. Rachel Jones, a professor at Rutgers College of Nursing, is making similar videos with an HIV/AIDS prevention focus as part of a National Institutes of Health-funded study.

“There’s tremendous power in this modality,” Jones says. Instead of radio and television, she is streaming videos on cell phones with 3G. Jones was also inspired by the Sabido Method, and says providers in Iraq, South Africa and Thailand have all asked for copies of her videos.

She hopes family planning and HIV/AIDS-prevention messages will spread to major Hollywood shows and movies. One of the experts on PMC’s advisory board is a producer for the ABC hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy.

“It takes a lot more to stand out in the U.S. because we have a saturated media market,” Elmore says. “But we are really excited about starting to explore a program here.”

Specifically, PMC is working on a new drama in the U.S. that will target Hispanic audiences with a teen pregnancy message. Like all of their shows, it will have strong storylines and relatable characters. “It’s not about telling the audience what to do,” Elmore says. “It’s about showing the outcomes of various decisions.”

The agency is also exploring interactive video games with a team-building message for a primarily male audience. They tested a soccer game called Break Out during the World Cup in South Africa with positive results. Winning the game requires making good decisions; it promotes teamwork and respect.

“Not all problems can be solved by opening a clinic,” Elmore says.