Sex Sells

A Tiny Nonprofit Uses Mass Media to Encourage Family Planning


photo of young people using recording equipment, scripts evident Courtesy Population Media CenterSince 1998, PMC has created dozens of radio soap operas in countries around the world to
educate listeners about domestic violence, women’s empowerment, and HIV/AIDS awareness.

Fikrite is a girl in trouble. Her grandfather has just died and now a neighbor, a man named Damte, has taken over the house and is trying to turn the place into a bar and brothel. Fikrite says she won’t allow it, so Damte starts spreading rumors about the girl and soon everyone, including her boyfriend, thinks that she is hiding a child born out of wedlock. Damte then seduces Fikrite’s stepsister, Lamrot, gets her hooked on booze and drugs, and knocks her up. When Lamrot tries to abort the pregnancy, she almost bleeds to death and lands in the hospital, where she finds out that she is HIV-positive.

If this sounds like overcooked melodrama – well, that’s the point. The story comes from “Yeken Kignit” (“Looking Over One’s Life”), a radio soap opera that gripped much of Ethiopia for 257 episodes beginning in 2002. The show had all of the elements that make serial dramas popular: sex, romance, mischief, betrayal, suspense. But the wildly successful program – which reached more than one half of Ethiopian adults during its two-year run and sparked a craze for naming baby girls Fikrite – wasn’t designed just for entertainment. Produced by a small US organization called the Population Media Center (PMC), the show was written with the express purpose of encouraging family planning, women’s empowerment, and HIV/AIDS awareness. Not all the listeners knew this, however, and that was also the point.

Since 1998, PMC has created dozens of radio soap operas like “Yeken Kignit” for listeners in Rwanda, Senegal, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, and 10 other countries. The group has used its shows to warn against female genital mutilation, highlight domestic violence, and demonstrate the most hygienic way of slaughtering a chicken. Crafted by local writers working in local languages and dialects, the programs take typical family situations, give them some dramatic spice, and then weave together a cast of characters and a slew of plots designed to foster powerful emotional bonds among the listeners – bonds strong enough, the shows’ creators hope, to prompt changes in real-life behaviors.

“These bonds mean that the characters can be hugely influential, both emotionally and intellectually, with the audience,” says William Ryerson, who founded PMC after spending more than 30 years working at other NGOs focused on population stabilization. “So if they [the listeners] are making a decision about how many children to have or when to get married, or whether to insist on condom use, the characters can be dealing with the same issue and really allow the audience to see some innovative techniques for dealing with the situation.”

Of course, using entertainment as a medium for education is a device as old as biblical parables. Even the crudest propagandist can find a way to fold a glib lesson into an interesting tale. All too aware that didactic dialogue would be the death of their programs, the PMC producers are careful to avoid pedantry. Their goal, they say, is to ensure that the tale takes precedence over the teaching, because if the programs aren’t genuinely popular, they won’t achieve their education goals. In prioritizing good old-fashioned storytelling, the PMC programs are more like the socially conscious sitcoms of Norman Lear than a public service announcement.

“If you don’t have an audience, you don’t have anything,” says Virginia Carter, a PMC board member who regularly travels to other countries to train local writers in crafting a gripping soap opera. Before joining PMC, Carter worked as a writer-producer on “All in the Family,” “Maude,” and “The Jeffersons.” She says, “People have seen the billboards and the posters, but they are tired of it, they are bored with it. It’s too late for pamphlets – you need to use the airwaves to reach more people.”

The PMC programs go beyond the casual “awareness raising” of what (at least in the US) is considered provocative entertainment. PMC producers combine a writer’s zeal for sizzling stories with a social scientist’s passion for quantifiable metrics. Before any show is aired, PMC producers measure what listeners know about given topics, investigate the social services that are available to listeners, and closely study available demographic data. A detailed understanding of the target audience determines the timing of the broadcast and the broadcast area. Focus groups help writers to know the listeners’ existing attitudes on controversial issues. The lives of the characters in the PMC dramas may be chaotic, but the programs themselves are precision focused.

“Before we begin, before we choose the specific subjects, we get the government to sign off,” Carter says. “Then we send demographers into the country, and we ask what people think. We ask, ‘Do you think girls should be educated? Do you know where to get condoms? Do you know where HIV comes from?’

“In writing and producing, we use a technique called the ‘Sabido Method.’ That sounds high falutin’, doesn’t it? But it’s really pretty simple.”

In 1974, Miguel Sabido was working as a writer at the Mexican network Televisa when a company executive asked if he would like to produce some socially responsible programming. Sabido – who had already earned a reputation as a strong writer for a series he created about Mexican president Benito Juárez – suggested writing a typically melodramatic telenovela and then taking over one of the subplots to address a critical social issue. The network executive agreed – on the condition that the show would not lose any ratings.

“People have seen the billboards, but they are bored with it. It’s too late for pamphlets – you need to use the airwaves to reach more people.”

Sabido titled the telenovela “Ven Conmigo” (“Come with Me”). One of the main characters was a working-class teacher, and many of the subplots involved her adult students – a maid, a carpenter, and an ex-con all just learning to read. Thanks to the show’s realistic depictions (dark-haired actresses in place of blue-eyed ones) and sexy plots (the teacher is wooed by a wealthy man who loves her), the program was a commercial success, posting higher ratings than any of Televisa’s previous soap operas. “Ven Conmigo” was also a blockbuster in terms of social change: Close to one million people signed up for adult literacy classes during the show’s run.

“I was more than surprised,” Sabido says. “I was very satisfied that I proved my point. People thought that television didn’t teach. And my point was that during the commercial ads, people learn habits: Buy Pepsi, buy detergent, buy whatever. But as soon as the show goes on, nobody teaches anything. I really taught people values that can be useful to society.”

Sabido next turned his attention to population. Between 1977 and 1985, he produced five telenovelas that used their plots to address family planning issues. According to the UN Population Fund, the shows played a major role in reducing the country’s population growth rate by 34 percent, from 3.7 to 2.4 children per woman. During the broadcast run of the first show, “Accompáñame” (“Come Along”), sales of over-the-counter contraceptives increased 23 percent in Mexico.

“What’s important is that you have to use the types of formats that will reach the audience you are aiming at,” Sabido says. “If you are trying to reach an audience that doesn’t read or write, it will be stupid to use a book or brochure. You have to attract an audience by using the same formats they already watch or listen to.”

Sabido’s method of attracting audiences relies on a carefully constructed cast of characters. Each story features several negative characters, individuals who demonstrate the traits and behaviors the producers want to discourage. The negative characters drink too much, they philander, they gamble, they sell off their daughters to repay debts. Then there are the positive characters, the paragons of virtue who are honest and trustworthy and compassionate.

The majority of the characters, however, are neither “good” nor “bad.” These neutral characters are repeatedly forced to decide whether to follow the negative characters or the positive ones; they struggle constantly over how to set the best course for their lives. The neutral characters are the personalities the listener is supposed to identify with, because, like themselves – like most real people – the neutral characters are often confused and conflicted. The hope is that as the neutral characters evolve in their attitudes and behaviors, the audience will too.

photo of a group of people in traditonal dress sitting on a blanket in an arid land Courtesy Population Media CenterThe PMC format works especially well with the style of radio
dramas much of the world is obsessed with.

“Once we know what the population thinks, we know what attitudes to put into the positive characters and the negative characters and the neutral characters,” Carter says. “And over time, we reward the positive characters. They develop cottage industries. They get ahead. They go to Disneyland, or the cultural equivalent. The positive characters succeed. The negative characters don’t. We send piles of plagues on them. We literally kill them off – they get murdered or die of disease. And the neutral characters, who have been struggling with these issues, either shift positively and succeed or they fail and die of plagues and boils.”

This plot hierarchy might seem overly rigid, but the PMC producers have found that the format is highly successful in creating an emotional investment with the audience. After the airing of a program, PMC’s local offices routinely receive piles of letters from listeners who say that the show has changed their lives; “Yeken Kignit” fans sent more than 15,000 letters to the PMC address in Addis Ababa.

The format works particularly well with the style of radio drama and the Latin American telenovelas with which much of the world is obsessed. Unlike US soap operas, such as “Days of Our Lives,” which stretch on for decades, serial dramas in many other countries start and finish in as little as a year. This short running time is perfect for a neatly organized narrative arc and, more importantly, for quickly conveying key lessons.

PMC’s culture-shifting aspirations are a delicate task. Writers must navigate a narrow line between reflecting the local culture and being careful not to slavishly echo it.

“This allows the audience to observe the realistic consequences of behavior in say, two years, which otherwise they would learn in a lifetime in the school of hard knocks,” Ryerson says.

So does the method work? After all, using entertainment media to influence attitudes is one thing, actually changing people’s behavior is quite another, and going from the first to the second involves a crafty sort of social alchemy.

“We’ve been able to measure very significant behavior change,” Ryerson says. “In Ethiopia, in our first program, we had a significant decrease in ignorance among listeners about how to detect HIV status. The impact on behavior was startling. Male listeners went for HIV testing at four times the rate of non-listeners. And women went for HIV testing at three times the rate of non-listeners.”

Beyond its signature dramatic schema, the Sabido Method is distinguished by this kind of careful measurement of audience reaction. For the shows’ producers, it’s not enough to hope that provocative subject matter will ignite debate – they want to know exactly how the programs changed the public’s actions. “That’s where the methodology of PMC is interesting,” says Aminata Toure, chief of the Gender, Human Rights, and Culture Branch of the UN Fund for Population, which has funded the group. “It doesn’t stop after the radio program is done. They will also survey the surrounding health services to see if there was an increase in people seeking services. It’s comprehensive – they do research before the [radio] program and they do research after the program.”

The success of the Ethiopian drama “Yegen Kignit” is a good example. According to research conducted by PMC and the UN, during the show’s two-year broadcast, communication about family planning among married couples more than doubled. While the show was on the air, demand for contraception increased 157 percent. Interviews with people at Ethiopian health clinics revealed that 63 percent of new clients interested in reproductive health services were regular listeners of the PMC drama; 27 percent of new clients said the show was their primary motivation for seeking family planning services.

In many of the countries where PMC works, the UN and international NGOs have successfully established quality public health and family planning services. The main challenge is getting people to take advantage of those services. For PMC and its partner organizations, the trick is finding a way to convince people to overcome longstanding taboos and prejudices. “The cultural and information barriers are the biggest remaining barriers to solving the population problem,” Ryerson says. “In other words, if it were just about access, all we would have to do is get more services out there. Desired family size is really the big major issue driving high fertility rates. Motivation is really key. It can’t just be solved by building more clinics.”

PMC’s culture-shifting aspirations are, obviously, a delicate task. In places such as Sudan (not an easy place for an American NGO to work) or even the Philippines (where abortion is illegal), PMC writers must navigate a narrow line between reflecting the local culture, while being careful not to slavishly echo it. The stories directly – if subtly – challenge cultural norms: how many children make for an ideal family size, whether and how women should have a say in condom use, the use of child labor.

“We’re not stretching into an unreal world when we write drama,” Carter says. “We are dealing with subjects – subjects that real people are grappling with. The people in Ethiopia who are sending their girls off to suffer from female genital mutilation aren’t just thinking, ‘This is the way the world is, and this the way the world has always been.’ There must be some pain in the heart of people, pain in the hearts of the parents. When we show it, the result is that people begin to talk about it.”

Essentially, the PMC writers write common situations and try to lead the audience to what would be considered, at least in the local culture, uncommon conclusions. The idea is to take listeners through the looking glass, as it were, to get them to consider controversial issues from a new point of view.

Alleyne Regis, a PMC staffer on the island of St. Lucia, produces programs for the countries of the Eastern Caribbean. He says that close attention to the details of the audience’s lives is the key to the organization’s success. For example, in his region, where accents differ from one island to the next, PMC is careful to get actors who speak the unique dialects. “We only work with local people,” he says. “We try as much as possible for the situations to be a mirror of what’s happening in the community. How do we do that? We spend a lot of time on research. We have an advisory committee and they review all of the scripts before they get produced to ensure that they are relevant, to ensure that all of the situations are realistic.

“People like what we’ve done, they appreciate the local stuff,” Regis says. “The quality might not be as high as American soap operas, but because it’s the local language and the local situations, people look forward to the story.”

PMC’s success, it should be noted, also relies on the focus of the organization’s work. The classic themes of serial dramas – love, romance, infidelity, passion – lend themselves easily to the topics of family planning, women’s empowerment, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Making provocative, engaging dramas around, say, forest conservation or nuclear disarmament would be a much tougher task. Sex always sells – even when it’s safe sex.

And what happened to Fikrite? After courageously standing by her stepsister, she reveals Damte to be a liar and a fake. Isolated and desperate, Damte tries to kill her not once, but twice, and on the second attempt gets shot by a policeman in the hospital ward, a pistol in his hand. Fikrite recovers, marries her sweetheart, and, so the story goes, lives happily ever after.

Jason Mark, the editor of Earth Island Journal, is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots. He is recovering from an addiction to the HBO series “The Wire.”

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