The Economist – May 5th, 2011
In the radio drama “Nau em Taim” (“Now is the time” in Pidgin) aired in Papua New Guinea, a widowed father takes up dynamite fishing—profitable but disastrous for the reef. Then he meets a dashing marine scientist who warns him off. The idea is that by the end of the drama, which debuted in February, both he—and the listeners—will renounce dynamite for sustainable fishing.
The show’s producer, the Population Media Center (PMC) in Vermont, has been a pioneer of programmes with the goal of fostering development. But other groups have increasingly followed suit. In Vietnam Khat Vong Song uses radio drama to teach its listeners about domestic violence. In Kenya Mediae promotes civil rights with a television soap called “Makutano Junction”.
Evidence that radio and television soaps can change behaviour was first spotted in the 1970s. But solid academic research was lacking until a few years ago. In 2008 economists at the Inter-American Development Bank, for instance, found that Brazilians receiving Globo, a television network, had fewer children and got divorced more often. Another study discovered that, as cable television spread, the fertility rate in rural India dropped by as much as if women had received five additional years of education.
Some thought that this was because couch potatoes were less likely to make babies. But research in Ethiopia showed that dramas can have a direct effect. Demand for contraceptives rose by 157% among married women who listened to the soap operas “Yeken Kignet” and “Dhimbibba”. Male listeners sought tests for HIV/AIDS four times as much as male non-listeners.
“The best results are when people identify with characters,” says Betty Oala of the PMC. This is why the organisation does extensive research, takes on local writers and uses native languages.
Not only are soaps effective, but they are also cheap. Radio programmes can cost as little as three cents to reach a listener in Africa. Yet trying to influence the poor can be controversial. Although producers do not hide their agendas, Charles Kenny, an economist, thinks that there could be a “quagmire of a debate over morals and a tangle of regulation”. An increase in divorces, say, may seem like good news to a woman activist, but bad to a Catholic priest.
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