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Special: An Interview with William N. Ryerson

Interview with William N. Ryerson,

President of the Population Media Center

I understand the importance of educating people about family planning and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, but why soap operas?

Three decades ago in Mexico, Miguel Sabido demonstrated that serial dramas can be very effective in informing people and promoting positive social behaviors. Just as importantly, soap operas are what people listen to. In many developing countries, it's the most effective means of reaching a mass audience.

What's the secret to the Sabido method?

The Sabido methodology involves creating serial dramas that are customized for the needs and circumstances of specific regions, cultures, and audiences. The key is to have characters that people can relate to and learn from. Social learning theory demonstrates that humans adopt many of their values and learn much of their behavior from role models. PMC's long-running serial dramas contain plots and sub-plots that unfold over many months. "Good," "bad," and "transitional" role models are developed, and audience members gradually learn the consequences of decisions the characters make with regard to a variety of different issues, including preventing exposure to the AIDS virus, the benefits of improving the well being of wives and daughters, and achieving smaller and thereby healthier families.

How many people have you reached?

Since we opened our doors in 1998, we have had programs in 24 countries. Altogether, we have reached over 100 million people with our serial dramas and broadcast more than 2,300 episodes.

Is your work confined to the production of serial dramas?

While soap operas can be effective by themselves, they are far more effective when used as part of a larger communications strategy. We use what we call the Whole Society Strategy (WSS) that combines print, television, radio, music, and new media with training for journalists and community leaders. Our broadcast programs include both serial dramas and talk shows.

You use a standard methodology, but how do you adapt it to the needs of a particular country?

We start with audience research. We look at each language, cultural, tribal, and economic segment of a national population to determine what media they utilize. At the same time, we conduct extensive research into the cultural realities of daily life, attitudes of the people about the issues to be addressed, and concerns the audience has. We then combine that information with two decades of experience in cross-promotions, audience analysis, and advertising and public relations. The result is an integrated, nation-wide or region-wide message that can impact the context of thinking about all aspects of family and reproductive health– sexuality, family size, AIDS prevention, and women's rights.

How important is your approach?

The biggest obstacle to achieving smaller, healthier families and preventing the spread of AIDS is not the supply of contraceptives--as important as that is--it's the need to change attitudes and behaviors. We have to overcome a lot of prejudice and bad information out there, and we have to improve the treatment of women. Supplying contraceptives alone is not enough. The programs we produce address the major barriers to achieving population in balance with natural resources.