At Hook Research, we regularly work with broadcasters in the UK, exploring the power of radio to connect with domestic audiences – and we’re always interested to learn more about the development of this media around the globe. Sonia Whitehead works as Head of Research, at BBC Media Action, the international charity of the BBC. She took a moment to share her thoughts with Hook on her work and the important role of radio drama in international development.
At BBC Media Action (where I work) we use media to support people.
This means helping people think about issues differently and supporting them to make more informed life choices. In a lot of countries, radio – often listened to through people’s mobiles – is the best way to reach people. Good quality radio drama has a unique power that gets people thinking and talking about their differences and the qualities uniting them.
The power of radio drama to change attitudes and create positive action is well established in the UK. A great example of how these programmes are leading change can be found in The Archers’ 2016 portrayal of emotional abuse (through Rob’s treatment of Helen). The story had such an impact that the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 20% increase in calls, an increase that they largely attribute to the ‘Archers’ effect’. At BBC Media Action, we explore how we can best use this power to generate dialogue and help people around the globe.
Impact of the BBC Media Action Team
In Afghanistan our radio drama New Home, New Life – sometimes known as ‘the Afghan Archers’ – began in 1994 and continued uninterrupted through the war, tackling issues like child health and education as well as mine awareness and the Taliban’s restrictions on women. There was a rapid decline in land mine injuries during the time that the drama was broadcast.
Another powerful example is our radio soap Story Story, broadcast in Nigeria. The show highlights the effects of corruption or a lack of government accountability on ordinary people. It is an incredibly popular programme, reaching an audience of over 13 million. Our research showed that dramas were effective at role modelling how people could resolve conflicts, question officials and participate in civic life.
Making Change in Syria with Radio Drama
Most recently, we launched a Syrian radio soap opera Hay El Matar (Airport District). It has now been translated and adapted for a UK audience into a six-part series aired on Radio 4. It has all the hallmarks of a classic soap opera: romance, personal ambition and revenge. “It’s about love and war, it’s about leaving or staying, it’s a question of life,” says the drama’s executive editor, Hozan Akko.
As anywhere else, quality is key – we’ve consistently found that good scripts are key to keeping audiences tuning in, as well as delivering a message without preaching. Each episode is scripted by a team of Syrian writers and touches on an issue relevant to life in Syria today such as the ongoing civil war; domestic violence; education and migration – to name a few.
Hay el Matar has been on air – and online – since last September. A panel that we have held collecting views inside Syria has shown that listeners find the show positive and humanising – portraying how Syrian people come together in times of need.
In a broad sense, I think radio drama works because audiences can relate to the characters being portrayed and the experiences being displayed. Sometimes the characters change their minds – and sometimes we change ours with them. For Syria, as we’ve seen in other conflicts, greater understanding is the vital first step towards a lasting peace.