Can the Radio Save Lives?

In West Africa, new evidence shows that telling stories can encourage healthy habits.

Ibrahim Ouedraogo (in orange), aka Busanga, and other performers record a scripted drama about public health at a radio station in rural Burkina Faso. (Photo: Erik Neumann)


Nov 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Erik Neumann is a radio and print journalist in Oakland, California. In 2014 he reported from Burkina Faso as a Global Health Reporting Fellow at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and School of Public Health.

In rural Burkina Faso, a few hours north of the country’s capital, local radio station Voice of the Farmer broadcasts a two-hour nightly program to nearby towns and surrounding villages. It’s here that host DJ Yampa welcomes listeners to Between Us, a soap opera–style drama featuring four actors depicting various health and lifestyle issues. Tonight's segment begins with a 30-something actor known as Busanga.

“I pray to God to give me money and a wife,” he reads from a script into a microphone. “If I have a wife, within one year, I’d love to have two or three children.”

“But how many children do you want?” asks Yampa.

“For me, each year should have a newborn,” Busanga says. “Look at me! I am old, I have a beard, but I don’t have any children yet. So once I have a wife, I will catch up on the number of children.”

A third actor, who is female, interjects. “Listen, births must be spaced! You guys don’t know Busanga. He would be married and still date other girls. He wants to spread himself like millet after the harvest!” she exclaims, referring to the main crop in the surrounding villages.

Today’s show focuses on the topic of birth spacing—the idea that to recover after giving birth, a woman should wait approximately two years before getting pregnant again. That’s the “interpregnancy interval” recommended by international health organizations such as USAID, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization as best for the health and well-being of moms and kids. Other days, the show shares stories on health issues ranging from the risks of treating illnesses with home remedies to the importance of regular hand washing. With each episode, narratives unfold with the aim of sharing potentially lifesaving advice.

Radio health dramas are not a new idea; Population Media Center and the African Radio Drama Association produce similar programs in countries around the world, including the United States. But there’s little evidence of how effective these media campaigns are at changing practices, according to Matthew Lavoie, country director for Development Media International. The London-based organization uses radio and TV to bring about behavioral change in developing countries.

Burkina Faso, Lavoie believes, may be the perfect place to change that. The nation of 18 million people is about the size of Colorado. In rural areas of the country, televisions, computers, and even newspapers and magazines are rare. But radios are everywhere. “Radio is, by several orders of magnitude, the most listened-to media in Burkina Faso,” Lavoie says. Towns are relatively isolated; many have their own radio stations.

So in 2012, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, DMI set up test groups and control groups throughout the country to study whether radio shows can save lives. After three years, they will compare mortality rates in areas that heard the dramas and those that did not. If DMI can show that the programs are working, Lavoie hopes it will be able to garner additional funding and expand its reach.

“It is much cheaper to run a mass media campaign than a vaccination campaign,” Lavoie explains. “It is much cheaper to run a mass media campaign than to build health centers. We think we can have a stronger impact—more bang for your buck, basically.”

DMI is only halfway through the study, but so far, Lavoie and locals say it’s working.

“Our goal as an organization is to reduce mortality,” he says. DMI employs scriptwriters in the capital, Ouagadougou, to produce skits for actors to read at stations around the country. The scripts are written in French and then e-mailed to local stations, where they’re translated into one of the six languages spoken in Burkina Faso and adapted for local cultures.

On average, DMI has shown 8.7 percent of the study group has improved its behaviors in the categories measured. According to midstudy results described on DMI’s website, “This represents, even at this preliminary stage, the first randomized controlled trial to demonstrate that mass media can cause behavior change.”

“Since we started this program, there have been a lot of changes,” says one of the actors, Fatimata Konfe. She adds that most of the skits focus on basic practices to reduce infant mortality.

“When a woman has an infant with a high fever, they don’t stay at home like they used to,” she says. “In the past, children have died because their parents refused to take them to a health center. All those practices have stopped.”

According to Lavoie, DMI’s work is grounded in quantitative research and a rigorous scientific trial, but the actors and skits are key to changing behaviors.

“Statistics always happen to somebody else,” he says. “Stories—we could all live those stories.”