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Radio Drama Makes Waves in Pacific 

Hundreds of thousands of people in the western Pacific are thinking about issues involving health and the environment thanks to a radio soap opera. These issues have become crucial to the future of some countries in the region where the population is doubling every 20 years.

, an international conservation group based in the U.S. state of Virginia, produces the radio drama called Changing Tides -- creating the stories with the help of local environmental and health officials. In one early episode, Tara, a singer in a local bar, confronts Rose, a doctor in a community hospital:

Rose: If you don't calm down right now, I will take him away from you!

Tara: You can't! What will happen to me? I love him.

Rose: Are you really pregnant with his child, Tara?

Tara: Yes. I wish I wasn't, but I am. I don't know what I am going to do if Marco leaves me!

Rose: Hush! What is this?

Tara: What?

Rose: These bruises on your arms.

Tara: Marco of course!

Rose: What he did that? When he knew you were pregnant?

Before the program began, Rare conducted research in the region. "We did focus group meetings and questionnaire surveys," says Changing Tides Senior Director Alleyne Regis. "We brought together representatives from all of the jurisdictions that are involved and they came with their issues as well. We identified what were the important things and how we would deal with them. The participants identified who the characters were -- the positive, the negative and the transitional characters -- named them and built the characters together as a group."

Mr. Regis says the topics -- from family planning and AIDS to sea turtle poaching and habitat loss -- are woven together in a convoluted but entertaining plot. "One of our characters is a tour guide and he has been taking tourists out to the mangrove, which is the same mangrove where Marco Franklin wants to build his hotel," he says. "What Marco Franklin does is to send someone to burn down this guy's shop because he saw it as a threat and perhaps this man is blocking the permits he needs to build his hotel."

That same Marco Franklin is the love interest for Rose and Tara and the father of Tara's unborn child.

Over the last two years, Changing Tides has produced 160 15-minute episodes heard by 200,000 people in the Marianas, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau. Research consultant Peter Vaughn says the programs are a big hit in a region where radio commands a captive audience. "The tracking results have been very, very favorable," he says. "The regularity of listenership -- we rank them as either sometimes listening or regularly listening -- ranges from about 53% in Palau, which is our lowest level…up to 84%, which is the highest we have in any country."

Surveys show that between 83 to 91% of listeners say they have learned more about health issues from the program. When asked to name those issues, the responses corresponded to the Changing Tides plot line.

Peter Vaughn says questions about the environment provided similar statistics. "They range a little lower," he says, "from 62% of listeners saying that they learned something about environmental issues in one country…up to 85%. And the issues that they mention are the importance of protected areas and invasive species, one of the program's main themes and an important problem throughout the Pacific."

Mr. Vaughn says Changing Tides creates a framework that helps islanders talk about important problems. "What happens when they listen to these programs," he says, "is that they see a role model of how a woman might adopt a family planning program within the context of their own particular social setting and that might provide a model of how she might raise it in her own circumstances. You know, that it makes it seem like other people are having these discussions and that you are not violating a cultural taboo by initiating a discussion like this. It makes it seem like it would be an acceptable thing to do within your own context."

Senior director Alleyne Regis says the soap opera has moved beyond fiction into the reality of daily life. "We have people tuning in every day not to hear an actor playing a role of somebody," he says. "For us it is real and far more than entertainment."

Mr. Regis has headed up this effort for Rare for two years. He is planning to turn control of the radio drama over to the local community soon. The conservation group is now seeking funding to create a similar program in the Eastern Caribbean.