The following article appeared in the Leader to Leader Institute’s April newsletter.
Innovation of the Week: Highlighting Population Media Center
As a graduate student in ecology at Yale in 1968, William Ryerson became interested in the relationship between population and global sustainability. “The world’s population grows by nearly 80 million people annually, the equivalent to a new Egypt every year. Population seemed a lot more compelling than insects,” Ryerson recalled.
Compelling enough for Ryerson to focus his energy and create Population Media Center (PMC), a social sector organization that works worldwide using entertainment-education to bring about social change. PMC’s work is concentrated on entertainment broadcasting, particularly long-running serial dramas, or soap operas, in which characters evolve into role models for adoption of family planning, delayed marriage and childbearing, elevation of women’s status, avoidance of HIV/AIDS, and related social and health goals.
“When I learned that Miguel Sabido, a producer of Mexican television, was using telenovelas to promote literacy, family planning and other social developments, I thought, soap operas? Really?” explained Ryerson.
But the statistics speak for themselves and by engaging audiences in riveting, dramatic stories, PMC is able to deliver important social and health messages to huge audiences, and most importantly, to motivate audiences to change their attitudes and behavior on the issues.
According to Ryerson, “Individual and community behavior change is essential to improving current global issues, and that strategy is central to deal with our most urgent need: global sustainability.”
Rwandan Actors PMC first identifies the cultural issues and prevailing attitudes affecting decision making about sexual risk behaviors in each country. Then, with the help of local writers, actors, broadcasters and producers, PMC develops telenovelas, radio dramas, traveling stage plays, capacity building workshops, print materials, and talk shows designed to promote sexual and reproductive health.
PMC’s work began in Ethiopia and is continuously focused on reproductive health and women’s status, with the ultimate goal of stabilizing population numbers and managing the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
4% of Ethiopians own televisions, but the majority own radios; so PMC focused their strategy to develop, to date, 5 radio serial dramas. In 2.5 years, the use of contraception used by listeners increased from 24% of married women to 79% of married women.
NigeriaMany believe that the lack of resources or the cost of reproductive health and clinical services account for the low percentage of users, however, 95% of people in the poorest countries in the world are aware of, and have access to contraceptives. “The lion’s share of the reproductive health efforts go into clinical services,” says Ryerson. “In reality, the issues of population stabilization and safe reproductive health face religious and cultural barriers and the need is education, which in turn leads to behavior change.”
In Nigeria, which has one of the highest birth rates in the world, 92% of married women do not use contraceptives and 55% never intend to. The fertility rate is 5.7 children per woman, and ideally, women would like 7 children. The men would ideally like to have 9 children. 0.2% of Nigerians cited non-use because resources were not available. 0.2 % cited cost as a barrier.
Nigeria Radio “I like to say, ‘We’re in a hurry, so let’s take our time,'” says Ryerson. “To overcome cultural and religious barriers, we cannot push our ideas. We can, through a long-running strategy use mass media to reach mass audiences and create role models. We let the viewer watch and relate to characters, who over several hundred episodes, struggle with similar issues and find new ways to overcome those problems. “When the audience bonds with a character, they forgive them for trying a solution outside of their cultural box.”
Katie Elmore, PMC Director of Communications, says that although their work has primarily been outside of the United States, PMC is in the midst of creating a trans-media effort in the United States aimed at preventing teen pregnancy. The project will include a webnovela with several complementary components that will be used to further audience engagement and participation; the transmedia pieces may include an interactive website, graphic comic books, video games, blogs, traditional media, and other interactive media formats. “Because our culture is overloaded with avenues of communication, our challenge is to engage the U.S. population in more creative ways to get the story to resonate,” said Elmore.
“We will continue to work until the global reproductive and health indicators are the equivalent to that of Sweden,” said Ryerson.
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