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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2002 > Hope on the Air
Listen to Makgabaneng. Radio Botswana poster.
A calendar image publicizes
a radio drama in Botswana.

Hope on the Air

By Jennifer Acker '00

María Ramos was young, single and poor when she moved from her rural home in the Andes to Lima, Peru's capital and most congested city. She found work as a maid for a wealthy family, but soon she was seduced by a slick city man and became pregnant. When her employers found out, they fired her. Determined to create a better life for herself and her son, María attended literacy classes at night, bought a Singer sewing machine and launched her own dressmaking business. Through smarts and hard work, she rose above the desperate situations that confronted her, and for an hour every week night, from 1969 to 1971, millions of Peruvians turned on their televisions to discover what would happen to María next.

Simplemente María (Simply María) is remembered as the most popular telenovela, television soap opera, ever aired in Latin America, a region where most television systems broadcast a dozen dramas a day. Yet more interesting than the overwhelming volume of viewers was the effect the show had on the audience: "dressmaker" became the most aspired-to occupation among Peruvian maids in the 1970s, and the sales of Singer sewing machines skyrocketed in Spanish-speaking countries where the telenovela was aired. Enrollment in adult literacy classes rose, and the governments of both Peru and Mexico launched Simplemente María-inspired literacy campaigns.

The significant behavioral changes caused by the soap opera, though unintended by its producers, inspired Mexican television and theater writer-producer-director Miguel Sabido. He wanted to put serial dramas to good, educational use. In 1974 Sabido met with prominent social learning theorist Albert Bandura at Stanford University and worked to solidify the intellectual basis of entertainment with the goals of social change. Following the success of Simplemente María, Sabido produced seven different telenovelas, addressing issues like adult literacy, family planning and child homelessness.

The chapter on Miguel Sabido is earmarked in the book on entertainment-education lent to me by Christine Galavotti '78. The producer's work has been an inspiration to her, and his serial drama framework is a key model for the strategy Galavotti has developed and implemented in her own field. Simply put, her goal is to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. More specifically, she and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta—and their partners around the world—aim to effect individual- and community-level behavior change through radio soap operas. The story begins in Africa.

The method Galavotti has chosen to save the continent from the ravages of one of the worst epidemics in human history—or at least reduce the number of people who die of HIV/AIDS in Africa, over two million a year—has long, historical roots. "Entertainment" has been used for centuries to inform communities and cultures, in the form of folk tales, fables, theater, myth and music. Radio, cheap and portable, is the designated medium of this scientist's plan.

Continued >>

Photo: CDC


Online Extra


CDC Global AIDS Program and MARCH

The Communication Initiative

Galvotti's article (abstract), "Modeling and Reinforcement to Combat HIV"

U.S. Embassy press release about Makgabaneng

Population Media Center

Populations Communications International

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