Radio India’s Foremost Tool of Mass Media

By Manipadma Jena, Womens Feature Service

Yusuf Raza’s cell phone rings. A young female voice asks, “You wanted to purchase a motor bike?” Yusuf is surprised how anyone outside his friends’ circle knows this. “We give zero per cent loan and will need your grandmother’s identity proof to process the loan,” says the voice at the other end, matter-of-factly. “Come to the bank any time.” “And, yes, remind your bhabi (elder brother’s wife) to take your niece to the local polio booth tomorrow.”

“O-k-a-y,” Yusuf replies hesitantly, thinking security precautions in Kashmir were now at ridiculous lengths… grandmother’s identity proofs of all things! But zero per cent interest….wow! And polio prevention advice from banks!

Recorded laughter roars out – the call was from ‘Sophie Ki Topi’, Kashmir BIG FM’s prank show but, of course, with a social message.

“I would place my polio message in this manner,” says the charming Yushra ‘Sophie’ Hussain, 26, a popular voice on the local radio.

Sophie, along with 32 radio jockeys (RJs) and announcers from All India Radio (AIR) and private FM radio stations across India – a good number of them women – anchoring popular chat shows, have just got a new studio guest by the name of Polio Virus, whom they have to introduce to their listeners.

The nation-wide introduction over the airwaves is the result of a polio communication capacity and skill-building workshop organised for radio communicators in Delhi recently by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW); technical partner WHO; and with communication partner UNICEF. The RJs were trained to pitch polio information into their chirpy entertainment chats in the garb of attention-grabbing 30-to-60 seconds shots intended to get polio messages across to parents of young children.

With radio being India’s foremost tool of mass media, this communication strategy aims to cover the ‘last inch’ that remains for polio eradication. According to data (National Polio Surveillance Project, Government of India), 16 new polio cases were reported in 2010; while 2009 reported 741 cases, most of these occurring in western Uttar Pradesh and central Bihar. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the polio virus circulates ‘silently’ and may infect hundreds, depending on the level of sanitation, before the first case of polio paralysis emerges.

For many years, behemoth AIR had broadcast the staid polio ‘two drops of life’ radio spots; more recently, celebrity campaigns led by the likes of Hindi cine star Amitabh Bachchan, were used to powerful effect. However, private radio channels confined themselves to paid advertisements for the most part, fearing listeners would switch channels if polio messages were made part of their entertainment programmes. Witnessing the positive response of the RJs, this attitude may well change. A new refreshing media communication strategy is the need of the hour as health authorities are cognisant of the ‘fatigue factor’ among communities in high-risk areas who have been through up to 10 rounds of vaccination.

Surprisingly, while many have heard of polio, a detailed knowledge of the disease is comparatively poorer. A 2009 knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) study conducted by UNICEF in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar found that misconceptions exist among 97 per cent of the parents who have heard of polio.

One of the persisting myths in certain western Uttar Pradesh communities is that polio drops caused sterility when the child grew up. “Another dangerous development is communities in high-risk areas bargaining for water connections and better roads in lieu of allowing the administration of polio drops to their children,” says a field officer of the MOHFW.

The RJs counter such misconceptions and attitudes, which create roadblocks to polio eradication, with their informed creative quotient. “We will reach the mothers,” exults Suravi, lawyer-turned-RJ of Radio Today’s Meow 104.8 FM, dedicated to women.

Post-training, the RJs quickly got busy formulating short, attention-grabbing jingles pegged on film titles, cricket and film stars, as well as popular Hindi film songs. Megha Thakker, 24, with Ahmadabad’s Radio Mirchi, already has her imagination on fire. “Gujarat is polio-free but I’m going to talk about how migrants carrying the polio virus can re-infect areas that are free of polio. It is surprising so few people know contaminated water and poor sanitation are polio virus carriers. I didn’t,” she confesses, candidly.

Pallavi Rao, a radio media veteran of 19 years and based in Delhi as Head, Corporate Social Responsibility of Radio Mirchi, does not see listeners switch off when polio switches on. She intends to sensitise ten other RJs, producers and promo-producers back at Mirchi’s headquarters.

“With 400 million radio listeners in India, a 600-districts access – 50 of them from private channels – the communication impact of RJs feeding into the polio awareness campaign could be huge; it allows other radio stations to learn from the handful who are being trained,” says L.S. Bajpayee, Station Director, AIR, Delhi.

According to the 2009 Indian Readership Survey, Round 2 data, FM listenership was pegged at 118 million; the FM space is growing apace.

As Bajpayee and Usha Purie, former Director General with Prasar Bharati Corporation, intently sift through the evocative scripts RJs present – ‘throwing’ their voices in appropriate intonations, Purie suggests, .” ..put in the feeling that India is reaching super power status in economy, but what a shame that she cannot banish polio… Go on, call on the nation’s pride,” she urges.

Says Deepak Gupta, of UNICEF, “Promoting interaction between media and the government helps reduce wrong and unscientific reportage, which has caused major disincentives for polio campaigns in the past.”

Every media innovation that mainstreams polio awareness helps for that last-mile effort. One evening in March 2009, while watching tele-serial ‘Baa Bahoo Aur Baby’ – an Indian family drama – Deepak sat up, phoned producer Aatish Kapadia and asked, “Can you put in a message about Baby’s polio-affected limb?” The next episode had the mother regretting, “Mujhe dukh hai maine Baby ko theek time pe polio dawa nahe pillai thee” (“I regret I did not give Baby polio drops on time”).

The onus seems to be shifting subtly from popular idols to media idols and the swing is more towards women. In Delhi’s Anna Nagar slum, women made a pertinent observation, “When the target audience for polio awareness are mothers why are all the media messages delivered by men, such as Amitabh Bachan and Sachin Tendulkar?”

“RJs have a huge fan following among women and youth especially, particularly when some of their shows run for a couple of years,” observes Saurabh Agnihotri, an RJ with AIR FM Shimla and known for an SMS phone-in music programme. “The workshop was a mind-opener,” adds Saurabh, who has also made a brief appearance in the blockbuster ‘3 Idiots’.

Earlier programme producers of Prasar Bharati Corporation were trained in developing content for polio communication. However, the current workshop has resulted in creative interventions. ‘Wake Up Sid’, the popular Hindi film, is now one such creative peg for a polio message: “Ab hum ko wake karna he, to polio prevention” – (Now we have to wake up to polio prevention), urges Sophie, on her love show, ‘Nau Baje Ki Setting’.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.