Radio spreads the word

Tell me a story.

Family drama meets development education in Story, Story - an unexpected runaway BBC World Service Trust radio success in Nigeria, reports Kathy Watson.

Radio spreads the word spreadIt’s a busy market day somewhere in West Africa. Ejike, a young man recently released from his apprenticeship is setting up his market stall. He’s “a fine boy, no pimples with two dimples”.

His girlfriend Florence is a good girl studying hard for her exams whose strict mother worries about her all the time, concerned that she might turn out like her wayward sister Tami. The mother is holding the family together, working hard to put food on the table with no help from her drunken husband.

For the past two years, the radio drama Story Story, the weekly adventures of a lively and diverse set of characters, has been entertaining and educating listeners all over Nigeria. It’s the story of everyday people – market traders, farmers, people with money and people without. Some are angry, some triumphant; some are facing deep personal issues. All are three-dimensional and easy for their audience to empathise with.

Story Story has become more popular than we ever dreamed of,” says its creative director Akim Mogaji, who has been involved with the drama from the very beginning. The programme is broadcast on the BBC World Service (to a potential audience of 14.9 million around the world) and on 52 Nigerian stations, both state and private. New versions in the Nigerian languages Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are planned for 2006.

It has turned the actors and actresses into celebrities. Project Director Bilkisu Labaran says: “wherever they go, they are mobbed by people calling out their names. People really identify with the characters.”

The successful radio drama is the result of collaboration between the BBC World Service Trust and DFID Nigeria. The Trust is an international development charity that works with people in developing countries on ways to improve the quality of their lives through an imaginative and innovative use of the media.

Through its powerful human-interest storylines, Story Story is able to cover some of the complex social, economic and political issues facing Nigerians today. For example, Ejike’s recent release from his apprenticeship was the chance to explore the question of indentured labour. His girlfriend Florence works as a volunteer in an after-school lesson club and that was a way of raising awareness of basic education issues. Through the role of Chairman Rasheed, the man who owns the motor park, the writers could look at the issue of micro-credit. Another storyline involved major divisions in the market community as they debated whether to build a school or a health clinic.

One of the strongest of the recent story lines involves HIV and AIDS. Madame Fati, head of a market section, wife to Chairman Rasheed (and one of the drama’s most popular characters) finds out that she is pregnant with her fourth child. During tests, she discovers that she is HIV positive. Her husband is furious, convinced he couldn’t have infected her and accuses of her of infidelity.

“We deliberately gave the HIV story line to one of our heroines,” says Mogaji. “Madame Fati is a formidable woman and a pillar of the community so it was a big shock to everyone.” The storyline will raise awareness of HIV transmission as well as tackle stigma.

Mogaji describes the drama as “character-led and research-based.” The creative team has a close relationship with Nigeria and each series has an overall theme agreed with DFID. So far they have included topics like corruption, violence, empowerment of women, education, environmental sustainability, HIV and AIDS and citizenship.

Script development begins with a meeting with DFID to establish which issues will be raised and explored. The new series, for example, will concentrate on examining the meaning and importance of citizenship. A research document is prepared and then the team (12 writers and four researchers, ranging in age from 18 to 70, and hailing from all over Nigeria) go on a two-week retreat to thrash out story lines.

“The meetings are unbelievable,” says Mogaji. “I have never met such a creative group of people. We have moved beyond ‘a Hausa wouldn’t say this,’ or ‘a woman wouldn’t say that’. We want to identify a private space in each character that goes beyond the stereotypes and delivers vital information and education.”

The resulting half-hour drama includes 15 minutes of storyline and then 15 minutes discussion of issues raised that week. Key players are interviewed and the aim is to help increase listeners’ knowledge and provide them with tools to identify their own strategies for improving their lives.

Story Story is at the heart of the BBC World Service Trust’s commitment to providing education broadcasting in West Africa. Part of the Voices project, it also works with universities and other broadcasters helping to train Nigerian students and radio journalists to produce and broadcast educational radio programmes.

For the writers and actors of Story Story, it will be a busy year. “The story lines really resonate with people,” says Mogaji, “That’s what makes Story Story so fascinating”.

DFID and the VOICES project

DFID supports Voices because it offers the opportunity to raise awareness among Nigerians of practical and realizable routes to better governance, services and livelihoods and is aimed broadly at strengthening the citizen’s voice and the demand for change in Nigeria.

Monitoring the effect and impact of a project like Voices is never straightforward. However, the BBC World Service Trust are tackling this challenge by examining audience awareness in terms of:

  • Coverage.
  • Levels of understanding of issues raised.
  • Perceived relevance of such issues.
  • Awareness of options open to them.

This is further broken down by using research tools to deliver more detailed indicators of the effect of the programme’s messages. The evidence is not yet in.

But the fact that Story Story goes out on 52 stations and won two prizes at AFRICAST 2004 are very positive signs.

The aim is to help listeners identify their own strategies for improving their lives.