[ExI] LA Times: A health message listeners can relate to

PJ Manney pjmanney at gmail.com
Sat Apr 12 22:09:57 UTC 2008

In the past, I've discussed the issue of communicating complicated or
confrontive concepts, like H+, to the general public.  Storytelling
works.  Instead of listening to their doctors or assimilating and
applying information from news sources (all of which they appear to
reject) what seems to hit these listeners where they live are the
stories about people just like them, battling the same diseases and
making crucial medical and lifestyle choices.  Living through these
character making the choices they themselves must make to survive,
they find the transition to better choices easier and fulfilling.

Talk about storytelling and empathy saving lives.



>From the Los Angeles Times
A health message listeners can relate to
In the serialized radio drama 'BodyLove,' characters wrestle with
diabetes and high blood pressure along with traditional soap-opera
problems. They get through to audiences in a way doctors can't.
By Stephanie Simon
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

April 11, 2008

MARION, ALA. — The doctors had been after Loretta Ragland for years to
keep her diabetes in check. Eat right. Exercise. Lose weight. She'd
heard it all time and again.

And ignored it all -- until she heard about Rosalyn.

Roz put off dealing with her diabetes so long, her kidneys gave out.
While she was in surgery, her husband died of a massive stroke --
after which it was revealed that he'd fathered a child with Roz's best
friend, Vanessa, whose alcoholic husband had recently run off, leaving
her to care for a suicidal daughter and an obese toddler.

Ragland first heard Roz and Vanessa bemoaning their plights on the
radio. She soon realized she was listening to fictional characters in
a drama.

No matter. She could identify.

Ragland, 57, cheered when Roz began taking exercise walks. Then she,
too, started walking around her hometown of Huntsville, in northern
Alabama. She gave up soda. She joined a gym. She quit sweets in
solidarity with Vanessa.

"When I heard it from a doctor, I wouldn't really listen," Ragland
said. "But when I heard it on the show, I was like, 'Wow, maybe there
is something to this.' "

That response is exactly what public-health professor Connie Kohler
hoped for when she created the serialized radio drama "BodyLove" (also
the name of Vanessa's beauty salon).

In weekly 15-minute episodes -- crammed with schemes, dreams and
cliffhangers -- two extended families wrestle with a slew of health
problems while trying to navigate prickly relationships and cope with
financial strains.

Written by students and faculty at the University of Alabama, the show
targets African Americans, who struggle with many of these health
crises in disproportionate numbers. Across Alabama, for instance, 35%
of black women are obese, compared with 20% of white women. The
diabetes death rate for blacks is more than double that for whites.

"BodyLove's" characters face those odds with more frustration than
courage. They give in to cravings for burgers. They resist taking
insulin. They quit smoking, then backslide; lose weight, then regain

In short, they sound real -- like your best friend, like you -- and
not like authorities lecturing from on high.

"We didn't want it to be a PBS thing," said Alex Urquhart, a creative
writing major who helped develop several scripts.

The characters make progress through modest lifestyle changes. No one
goes vegan or runs marathons -- they refrain from buying a tub of ice
cream, or get out for a walk twice a week.

Local hosts of the show also stress practical steps to better health.
Here in Marion, a small town in central Alabama, registered nurse
Frances Ford modifies her on-air nutrition tips to suit local budgets.
Nearly one-third of county residents live in poverty.

"Olive oil is the best, but it's more expensive, so we tell them
canola oil is better than vegetable oil," she said after a recent

Longtime listener Josephine Brand, who had come to the studio to pick
up a "BodyLove" T-shirt, looked crestfallen.

"I use vegetable oil," she said. "Or that Crisco."

"Try baking your dinner, with seasoning on it," Ford suggested.

Brand nodded. She'd tried some low-fat recipes, she said, and had lost
a little weight.

Encouraged, Ford pressed: "Now that you have the 'BodyLove' T-shirt,
you've got to start walking." Brand, 53, promised she would.

The first 80 episodes of "BodyLove" aired between 2003 and 2007. After
a fundraising break, Kohler and her partners are now writing and
producing several new episodes, which will air after local stations
cycle through reruns.

The "BodyLove" team is also working on a new radio drama with snappy
three-minute episodes. Focused on obesity and funded in part by the
National Institutes of Health, the soap opera will be marketed to
urban stations in cities with large black populations,such as Los
Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Kohler is also working on two soap operas about teen pregnancy -- one
in Spanish -- for distribution in Iowa.

The concept of soap opera as a vehicle for social change has been
around for decades. In Mexico, China, Pakistan, Kenya and other
developing nations, wildly popular TV dramas have taught generations
about issues such as AIDS, addiction, sexual assault and adult

"This is a model that's been so successful in other countries, I
wonder why we aren't seeing more of it here," said Pauline M. Seitz,
who directs a matching-grant program under the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation, which supports public-health initiatives.

"We all learn through stories," Seitz said. "We're captivated by them,
moved by them, motivated by them."

Seitz approved a grant of nearly $250,000 over three years to launch BodyLove.

Local donors matched that sum -- in exchange for some input on plot twists.

After the Alabama Eye Bank put up funding, for instance, one character
found herself in need of a cornea transplant. "It can end up being a
little forced," said Lee Shackleford, the lead writer and a
playwright-in-residence at the University of Alabama.

The dialogue, though, usually rings true -- especially in the hands of
the seasoned cast, which includes professional and amateur actors
under the direction of the university's theater department chairman.

Vanessa's son grumbles that her healthy meals -- cooked with less oil
-- taste like cardboard. Her mother pushes aside dread at finding a
lump in her breast with a brisk "I don't have time for this nonsense."

When her daughter, Maya, sinks into depression, Vanessa is not sure
how to react. Her mother advises the family not to take Maya's
lethargy seriously: "Maybe it's OK for white girls up in Hollywood,
but we need to be strong."

The drama hooked Ragland so completely, she began leaving work early
on Mondays so she wouldn't miss a minute of the soap opera. She took
to driving to the gym while listening to "BodyLove"; Roz's woes, she
found, make for a good motivational tool.

"BodyLove" is broadcast on half a dozen stations across Alabama, as
well as in Atlanta and Jackson, Miss. It has just been picked up in
Port St. Lucie, Fla., and negotiations are underway in Tacoma, Wash.

The stations that air "BodyLove" tend to be small and locally owned;
they can't afford to subscribe to Arbitron for official audience
ratings. But station managers report strong interest.

Here in Marion, "BodyLove" airs on a gospel station, drawing an
audience of about 20,000 across nearly two dozen counties.

The Marion station, WJUS-AM, operates out of a dingy trailer plunked
down in a field of weeds. Each Wednesday a few minutes before 8 a.m.,
Ford, the registered nurse, bustles in, puts on a clunky set of
headphones and tugs a small microphone toward herself. "As you drink
your coffee or your tea, as you get ready for your day," she says,
"I'm glad you're tuning in to 'BodyLove.' "

Midway through the soap opera, Ford breaks for announcements from the
county health department, mentioning a group fitness walk or free
blood-pressure screening. At the end, she stays on the air another 10
to 15 minutes to answer questions.

Over the years, "BodyLove" has built a sense of community and
camaraderie among listeners, as though they're all sitting around
Vanessa's salon. When they call in, few have questions for Ford.
Mostly, they just want to chat.

"Do you have any advice for Vanessa?" Ford asked one morning after an
episode exploring that character's mounting stress.

"I don't," a female caller responded. "But I'm sure getting fat. I'm
going to go out on the walking trail and start exercising."

Ford, beaming, broke into applause.

She knows many of her regulars by name. ("I bet you this is Miss Mary
Ann Johnson," she told one caller. She was wrong. It was Miss
Johnson's twin sister.)

Ford keeps tabs on her callers' weight. She nags them to get their
blood pressure checked. She delights in hearing how "BodyLove" has
changed their habits.

After an episode about the health benefits of "naked chicken" --
stripped of its fatty Southern-fried skin -- William Smith, 63, called
in to boast that he'd told his wife to roast their Thanksgiving turkey
instead of frying it. Ford was so proud, she recently made an on-air
plea for him to call back and tell the story again.

Bertha Kennie, another regular caller, credits "BodyLove" with
teaching her to read nutrition labels for sodium and sugar content.

"I never hardly paid any attention before," she said. "Just pulled
what I wanted off the shelf."

Kennie, 72, is fairly sure that some doctor, somewhere, must have told
her to watch the salt. "But doctors say a lot of things," she said,
"and sometimes it just rolls right off you, like water off a duck's
back." The show, on the other hand, makes her sit up and listen: "You
get real into it."

When she feels like complaining about her own burdens, Kennie thinks
of poor Vanessa or Roz or Maya.

"You don't feel like the Lord's picking on you," she said, "because
you realize everyone has problems."

The characters' travails have even affected the actors who give them voice.

"I don't eat as much fried chicken anymore. I take the skin off," said
James McCarty II, a regular on the show.

Then he flashed a sheepish grin.

He hasn't turned into a health nut, he admitted. It would be bad for
his career. His other regular gig: making commercials for McDonald's.

stephanie.simon at latimes.com

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