Radio Dramas Tell Public Health Stories

By Jo Lynn Orr

radio boothPam Cook and Emana Rachelle share the microphone during a recording session for Camberwell, a soap opera with a public health message that is produced by UAB professor
Connie Kohler.
Serialized melodramas—called soaps or soap operas because they once were sponsored by soap and detergent manufacturers—have been a popular staple of American broadcasting since the 1930s, first on radio and then television. Soaps resonate with audiences because they feature a permanent cast of characters who grapple with the types of challenging family and health problems that most people confront at some point in their lives. They also rely on the five Cs of a good story—character, change, crisis, choice, and consequences—which keeps audiences tuning in to find out how events are unfolding.

Because of their broad audience appeal, some public health experts have adopted the soap-opera format as a vehicle for communicating important health messages to targeted audiences. One UAB researcher, Connie Kohler, Dr.P.H., a professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the School of Public Health, teamed with Media for Health, a nonprofit entertainment-education organization in Birmingham, to create a radio drama that targeted the African-American community with important health messages about nutrition, coping with stress, and confronting diabetes and heart disease—two chronic diseases that disproportionately affect blacks. Called BodyLove, which also was the name of the beauty salon where the action took place, the award-winning soap first aired in 2003 on WJLD in Birmingham and ran for more than five years.

(Story continues below photo)

1111_soap5The Camberwell crew. Left to right: writer Cheryl Davis, Media for Health executive director Betsy Hunter, director Cheryl Hall, producer Connie Kohler (seated) and project coordinator Pamela Plummer.

More Stories to Tell

In 2011, Kohler and investigators at the University of Iowa College of Public Health joined forces to produce two weekly radio series in Iowa. La Noche Te Da Sorpresas (“The Night Gives You Surprises”) targeted the state’s Hispanic population and addressed the issue of unintended pregnancies. Queen Street revolved around issues of family planning and focused on the African-American community.

“We are just now analyzing data from La Noche,” Kohler says, “but one finding stands out in contradiction to current thinking. Namely, it’s not language barriers, as some believed, that prevent Hispanic women from effectively communicating about and adopting birth control; rather, it’s the communication within their families and with their partners. People often assume that language gets in the way of Hispanic women when it comes to learning about family planning. But our interviews indicate that it’s more cultural in the sense that they just don’t talk about that issue.”

Tune In

Catch up on all the stories and listen to complete broadcasts at the official sites for Camberwell and Promesas y Traiciones.

Kohler and Media for Health are also producing two new radio dramas aimed at Alabama audiences. The work is funded through two large Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grants that were awarded to the Jefferson County Health Department to effect change in policies relating to tobacco and obesity.

“We were awarded a small amount of that money to create a Spanish-language program and another that targets African-American listeners,” Kohler explains. “The Spanish soap is called Promesas y Traiciones, or ‘Promises and Betrayals,’ which revolves around an immigrant family, particularly the father and a daughter. The father works as a cook in a big hotel restaurant, and the daughter is finishing high school. It’s her parents’ dream that she attend college. Issues of obesity and secondhand smoke exposure are woven throughout that story.”

Co-producing this serial drama is Marcela Frazier, O.D., MPH, assistant professor in the UAB School of Optometry. Frazier was funded by the UAB Diabetes Research and Training Center to develop and evaluate a storyline in Promesas that focused on the management and prevention of diabetes. Promesas is playing on Saturday mornings at 10 on La Jefa 620AM through December 3, 2011.

Lessons with Bite

Kohler’s other project is Camberwell, which airs on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on WAGG 610AM through December 22, 2011.Camberwell is more of a direct approach to policy because it’s about a guy running for mayor on a health platform and the various obstacles he comes up against in trying to get healthier food in restaurants and smoke-free bars and eating establishments,” Kohler says. “Camberwell puts the issues right out there but through a fun, humorous story, which is mainly told through amusing characters—like the mayor’s wife who smokes. She tells her husband that she has quit but she hasn’t. Of course, she gets caught lighting up.

“One character—one of the bad guys—named Bravo Bob has a radio show in addition to owning ‘Bravo Bob’s Bar & Grill . . . and Bar.’ Bravo Bob kind of gets his in the end but again in an entertaining way—it’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek.”

New York playwright and attorney Cheryl Davis, who also wrote the play Tuxedo Junction, about the life and times of Birmingham musician Erskine Hawkins, wrote Camberwell. Most of the actors for both Camberwell and Promesas are local residents. “Some had no experience at all until now,” Kohler says. “We put out calls for auditions and had tons of responses for both programs, basically from community people who thought it sounded fun. They’ve all done really well.”

1111_soap6The cast of Camberwell

Don’t Touch that Dial

Kohler and Media for Health are hoping to partner with larger, more established organizations to help them continue producing serialized dramas. William Ryerson, founder and president of the Population Media Center in Vermont and president of the Population Institute in Washington, D.C., who recently came to Birmingham to speak at the School of Public Health, has expressed an interest in the group’s activities.

“In the entertainment-education biz, so to speak, Bill was one of the early pioneers and practitioners,” Kohler says. “His focus throughout his career has been on reproductive and population issues. He has produced many successful serialized radio dramas along these lines, including HIV prevention, in developing countries, which is where he has concentrated his efforts.”

Kohler met Ryerson about a year ago at a small meeting of devotees of Everett Rogers, another early entertainment-education innovator. “Bill expressed interest in learning more about what the UAB School of Public Health is doing in this area” she says, “He is now beginning to work on some projects in the United States.” His company’s first venture in the U.S. market is a program that addresses teen pregnancy in East Los Angeles.

Ryerson has extended an invitation for Kohler and members of Media for Health to visit the Population Media Center in Vermont or travel to Los Angeles to learn more about the teen-pregnancy program.

Regardless of what and where her next project might be, Kohler says that all of her work will incorporate the elements that made BodyLove so successful: “To be entertaining while providing listeners with models of personal and community change in relation to widespread health problems.”

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