Why radio storytelling may hold the key to fighting vaccine hesitancy

Why radio storytelling may hold the key to fighting vaccine hesitancy

What role can entertainment play in nudging social behaviour? Whether it comes to public health initiatives like vaccine drives, or social change like Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. In an increasingly digitising world, is there any room for more traditional media to play a role? Recent experiments suggest that the humble radio can play a powerful role if the power of entertainment education (‘edutainment’) and the emerging insights from behavioural science can be weaved together.          

Two distinct experiments featuring edutainment in India provide some guidance on the possibilities.

The first one is a long-term multi-platform show called ‘Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon’ (MKBKSH) launched in 2014, that was broadcast on national TV (Doordarshan), radio (All India Radio), and the internet, focused on gender issues and reproductive health. According to research by the Population Foundation of India, the percentage of women respondents who reported using family planning methods increased from 49% to 62.4% after one season of the show. Further evaluations of the program suggested that the programme had massive reach and led to an increased awareness of issues like the Child Marriage Act, girl child education, and domestic violence.

A more recent experiment is a show called ‘Zindagi Mobile’ (ZM), broadcast on a national radio network in five languages across 58 markets in late 2019, that set out to inform, sensitise and help equip its audience to better understand and act on their right to privacy as well as the benefits and vulnerabilities introduced in their lives in this digital world. Its target audience was the Indian who has recently come online via her smartphone. While she benefits from realising the power of the internet, she is also exposed to the perils of technology such as online harassment, digital fraud, and fake news.

The concept of the show was simple: embed social messages in short, relatable but entertaining fictional stories narrated by a trusted storyteller, in a familiar format. The stories included plots like a family’s celebration threatened by fake news about salt becoming scarce that is resolved by a simple online search,  a father debating whether to buy his college-going daughter a mobile phone who in turn defuses a potential family crisis by using the same technology that her father is holding back from her and a young professional targeted by an online stalker who has illegally obtained her phone number, using her legal rights to stop her harassment. The goal of the show was to share how people’s lives can improve through the use of technology, but as importantly, sensitizing people to the harms of technology and their right to privacy, and introducing them to the recourses available.

But while MKBKSH dealt with tangible issues like child marriage and pregnancy, Zindagi Mobile dealt with the concept of privacy which is more esoteric to most people. So, can a radio programme using common stories of everyday people actually help people become more aware, and start changing their attitudes and behaviour towards privacy and other such complex issues? An impact evaluation of the programme by the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC) at Ashoka University suggests this is indeed possible.

The CSBC study showed that after listening to the episodes, listeners tended to share less data and were less likely to forward messages that they suspected might be fake. That these changes in behaviour weren’t just stated preferences but actually demonstrated in experiments conducted by CSBC, underlines the efficacy of the programming.

So, what are the learnings from both these experiments for tackling vaccine hesitancy?

First, with messages that seek to drive behaviour change, it is important to appeal to the emotional rather than the rational mind. Which is why edutainment is likely to be more effective than your average public service announcement. This is also in line with the communication theory of narrative transportation that people find it easier to take advice through a story than a message directed at them. Could we have messages around taking vaccine embedded in radio stories set in relatable contexts, narrated by a familiar storyteller?

Second, bringing out the specific negative consequences of what might happen if you did not act as is ideal, is powerful. The CSBC study found that such ‘loss framing’ was particularly effective in dealing with topics like why you should protect your privacy on social media and why it is important to ask why someone needs your phone number. Such loss framing should be considered to counter vaccine hesitancy.

Third, influencers can play a key role in helping build credibility with the audience and underlining the importance of that message. In MKBKSH, several actors like Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, and Farhan Akhtar made appearances to help with the action-related recall in the episode. In Zindagi Mobile, the storyteller, Neelesh Misra, was himself a popular voice who carried credibility. Leveraging influencers as part of the vaccine messaging, either as narrators or as characters in the story, could be quite powerful.

As India focuses on stemming any further waves of the pandemic and on vaccinating its population as widely as possible, it is timely to lean on its long-standing tradition of storytelling to help tackle this wicked problem.