Yegna girls singing in recording studio

How a radio drama can take girls on a journey of change

Behaviour change expert Nicola Harford on how Yegna can redefine girls' role in Ethiopian society.

Storytelling is a vital tool in human development. For thousands of years cultural norms and traditions have passed from one generation to the next through stories, songs and poems.

In the modern world storytelling is often regarded purely as entertainment - but it still has a profound ability to affect the way humans think, feel and act.

Nicola Harford is a communications expert who has spent the past 20 years creating behaviour change entertainment in Africa: TV shows, comic books, video games and radio dramas that use storytelling to influence human behaviour. 

The most recent project she worked on was Girl Hub Ethiopia's Yegna, a radio drama that uses behaviour change techniques to redefine how girls are perceived and valued in Ethiopia.

Here, Nicola explains the concepts that were used to ensure that the storylines in Yegna take the audience on a behaviour change journey…

BE CLEAR ABOUT THE OBJECTIVES

Yegna aims to reduce child marriage, give them control of economic assets and enable them to stay in school. So the challenge is to create multiple characters and storylines that model those changes, which is why the main characters in Yegna - five girls who come together to form a pop band - are all very different. Through what they say and what they do - and how that changes over time - the characters embody the behaviour we want the audience to emulate.

START WHERE THE AUDIENCE IS AND GAIN THEIR TRUST

We used data and insights about girls in Ethiopia and translated them into storylines that map out realistic journeys of change. Over the past 20 years there's been a whole host of behaviour change dramas in Ethiopia, particularly around HIV and other health issues. The audience has grown accustomed to spotting the message. We don't want to lose our audience, so we've tried not to overload each episode with too much behaviour change content. First and foremost, we wanted to make something that really catches people's attention and makes them want to be part of it. 

CREATE A ROADMAP OF THE JOURNEY

People move through a series of stages as their behaviour changes. These stages are the same for anyone who has tried to change something in their life: for example, giving up smoking, eating less or taking up exercise. So there is a clear structure to Yegna as the characters move through these stages of change:

  • Stage 1: Pre-contemplation - This is when the characters are living in the status quo and not even thinking about change. They might be in denial or just unaware of the need to change. 
  • Stage 2: Contemplation - There is usually a trigger point or an incident that encourages them to move to this stage. This is when they start thinking about change.
  • Stage 3: Preparation - In the preparation stage the characters start actively talking about the issue and sharing information about it. They start looking for other people who have done the same thing.
  • Stage 4: Action - This is when they actually try the new behaviour. There's a character in Yegna called Mimi who's going to try setting up a business; we have another one called Sarah who is going to try talking to her parents about what's going on at school.
  • Stage 5: - Maintenance This involves demonstrating that a character has been able to maintain a behaviour over a period of time.

MAKE THE JOURNEY REALISTIC

Change doesn't happen overnight: you have to reflect the fact that progress often comes with setbacks, and progression through the stages of change is not linear. In Yegna some of the characters initially get negative responses in the action phase.

It's also important to recognise that there's only a certain amount that girls can do for themselves. Parents, teachers, community leaders and religious leaders: all these people have a huge influence on girls. So we created secondary characters beyond the main ones, who demonstrate the changes we need to see in the wider community. 

CREATE EMOTIONAL CONNECTIONS

When people feel an emotional connection to the characters in a drama, they are more likely to copy their behaviour. There was a famous behaviour change drama in Mexico about a maid called Maria who took up literacy classes. The audience loved Maria so much that literacy classes across the country became massively oversubscribed. That's why Yegna is aiming to create long-term relationships between the audience and the characters, through its focus is on entertainment. Research shows that if girls, and those around her, like and trust the Yegna brand then they are much more likely to be receptive to the behaviour change messages within the drama. 

USE THE RIGHT LANGUAGE

Language is everything in radio drama. It has to reflect what you want the audience to do. In Yegna it's all about the characters gaining confidence as they build relationships with each other and overcome challenges. But you can't just insert factual information and messages; you have to craft them very subtly and make sure it maps to what we know about how change in humans actually occurs. 

REINFORCE IT

Yegna is accompanied by a talk show and listening groups, which is great for refreshing people's memories of the storylines and giving them an opportunity to process what they've heard. The drama provides the modelling of the new behaviour but the community engagement is where people get to act it out for themselves. It also means people coming to the show later in the series can be carried along by the existing audience.

MEASURE YOUR SUCCESS

The Yegna team has conducted a baseline survey on societal attitudes and behaviours towards girls with a statistically representative sample of the target audience. They can now use that data to measure changes in behaviour over time, and to understand how social communications plus community outreach activities can foster long-term social norm change. Periodic listenership surveys will also provide valuable data on the proportions of girls, boys, men and women who are listening to Yegna, how the audience is responding to the radio programming, and general media consumption habits. Feedback loops such as a Yegna SMS line, Facebook page and reports from weekly listening group sessions provide real-time data for the team to better understand audience reactions and to make adjustments to future programming.

Measuring the impact of communication is difficult, but it is possible to make a good case for a radio drama resulting in behaviour change. If you're clear about what you're trying to change, then I'm a firm believer that behaviour change drama can make a real impact.