WDR 2005 - Chapter 7: Radio in Afghanistan: challenging perceptions, changing behaviour

Despite recent advances in information technology, traditional radio broadcasting remains a vital form of direct, rapid communication with people most at risk from disaster, conflict or disease.

This chapter examines how radio can be used to build disaster awareness, reduce risks and promote reconciliation. It focuses on the BBC’s radio soap opera New Home New Life, broadcast to Afghans in two local languages three times weekly since May 1994. The chapter shows that radio broadcasts alone – when professionally produced over a long enough period of time – can change the way people behave.

During the 1980s, the BBC was perceived by the majority of Afghans to be fair in its reporting of the war against the Soviet Union. In wartime, travel is dangerous, people are isolated and afraid, and radio is an all-important source of reliable news and comment. Many Afghans made real sacrifices to buy batteries and those without radios listened with neighbours.

This was fertile ground for extending programmes from news to providing advice on everyday survival. In rural Afghanistan, most schools and health centres had been destroyed. The land was sown with millions of anti-personnel mines. Farmers faced new challenges in cultivating crops and keeping their animals alive. Basic services supplied by NGOs had to be supported by information about how to cope. The state-run Radio Afghanistan was not fulfilling these information needs.

The BBC decided to produce New Home New Life in the Pakistan city of Peshawar, as London was too far away and Afghanistan was too unsafe. This allowed recruitment of 150 Afghan staff – writers, actors, producers, educationalists and an evaluation team – who were refugees in Pakistan.

Storylines ranged from the romantic saga of the heroine Gulalai, whose health worker activities were a role model for female listeners, to the escapades of the village chief Jabbar Khan and his clowning servant Nazir. The comic scenes struck a chord with the black humour that Afghans found so popular.

The drama also tackled serious issues – lawlessness, child health, drug abuse, rural livelihoods, deforestation, mines awareness, forced marriages, sterility among men. Female education and employment have been consistently championed.

New Home New Life’s popularity was based on its mix of fast-moving, well-written storylines and fine acting. The audience became used to multiple storylines that focused on specific themes for months without being boring or didactic. Repetition is essential if key issues are to become accepted and acted upon.

The drama was not overtly political, but its storylines were controversial. Despite this, researchers found that the programme created a fictional ‘space’ in which taboo issues could be discussed within the family – the first stage of shifting social norms.

Maintaining editorial balance was critical, in such a patriarchal society. Despite the strong pro-women agenda, even the Taliban were avid listeners, caught up in the suspense of what would happen next to their favourite characters.

The BBC maximized the impact of its programming by repeating the show and distributing a cartoon magazine through aid organizations. Close collaboration with NGOs was central: they commented on draft storylines and advised on cultural and technical issues. Listeners were also regularly consulted.

However, the central test is whether the drama influenced people’s behaviour. Several examples stand out. One village woman wrote in her diary: “28/11/96: A team of vaccinators came to our village … I asked them if the elders tried to stop them vaccinating people. They replied that a few years back there were some people who allowed the children to come but not the ladies. Now that they have listened to the drama most people know that they should be vaccinated and they let women go too”.

During Taliban rule in 1998, a journalist reported: “One woman, who gave her name as Imam Jam’s wife, said that the example of Gulalai had persuaded her to let her daughters work outside the house”.

Meanwhile, an independent survey undertaken in 1998 assessed the most effective way of informing Afghans about the dangers of landmines. Researchers polled 86 Afghan communities representing 57,000 people. Along with the BBC, the efforts of three other mines-awareness organizations were assessed. The survey found: “Considering only those in mine affected areas, a non-listener was twice as likely to be a mine victim after 1994 [when the drama started], in comparison with a New Home listener. This encouraging indicator contrasts with the notable absence of evidence of impact on mine events by the three direct [face-to-face] training programmes.”

Nevertheless, the impact of media during crises can be greatly enhanced through alliances with aid organizations. In November 1994, a combination of BBC broadcasting and aid agency negotiations led to a nationwide ceasefire for a week – the first in Afghanistan for 16 years – during which 1 million children and 300,000 women were vaccinated. Subsequently, a number of ceasefires and national immunization days were negotiated, one just before coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.

In post-war Afghanistan, freedom of the media has been enshrined in law and, oiled by aid money, about 40 independent community FM radio stations have set up. Whether they will thrive after the short-term funds finish remains to be seen. For foreign broadcasters such as the BBC, this proliferation has fragmented the audience. New Home New Life will probably never have quite the influence it had in the past, although an independent study in March 2005 indicates that it remains the best-known radio programme in the country.

With the help of improved satellite delivery systems, deregulation of broadcasting and new digital technology, radio still has an important part to play in ‘socially useful’ communication with those threatened by conflict or crisis.

Ten lessons for employing radio to communicate vital issues to people at risk are as follows: Be credible, entertaining and informative; Ensure access to radios; Encourage audience participation; Produce good quality programmes at prime time; Partner with aid organizations and/or governments; Recruit the best local staff; Research and monitor role-modelling carefully; Use everyday language; Sequence key themes so the audience can absorb them; Stay for the long term.

Locally produced radio tackles AIDS in Madagascar

National HIV prevalence rates in Madagascar are estimated at 1.7 per cent – considerably lower than in other sub-Saharan countries. The government is committed to raising awareness of the disease and changing sexual behaviour to avoid an explosion in HIV infections.

An important part of the country’s prevention strategy is the use of radio, being pioneered by the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT). ALT has worked for six years on Projet Radio, a participatory initiative which involves 24 local NGOs and 17 radio stations delivering educational programmes to 300,000 people via wind-up or solar-powered radios. ALT trains local NGO extension workers – rather than broadcasters – to research and make programmes about local issues. The cost of broadcasts is less than one dollar per listener per campaign.

But explaining complex medical issues to an illiterate audience is challenging – particularly when people believe illnesses are a sign of possession by evil spirits. One broadcast used a farming analogy to convey the message that HIV/AIDS has a rational cause. Traditionally, farmers’ fields are protected from browsing or destructive animals by a fence made from a cactus plant. The radio programme dramatized a conversation in Antandroy dialect between two women, one of whom explains how insects (representing the HIV virus) can ravage the protective cactus (representing the immune system). As a consequence, local animals (representing opportunistic infections) can then enter the field (representing the human body) and destroy it.

Evaluations revealed that this particular drama was the second-most recalled programme in the region. Assessors also found that in the target town of Ambovombe, over 80 per cent of listeners were aware of HIV/AIDS and could name one method of protection, compared with 33 per cent before the broadcasts.