Pre-testing our audio announcements in Odisha, India.


The BBC Media Action team in India are used to tight
deadlines. But last October, we faced a deadline with a difference: after
cyclone Phailin hit the eastern state of Odisha, we had 72 hours to script,
produce and broadcast three radio public service announcements to provide
life-saving information to those affected.

The key issues that we needed to communicate immediately to
those reeling from the cyclone were: how to make drinking water safe, how to
avoid diarrhoea and avoid danger in flood water.

Then in the two months after the cyclone we produced a
further eight PSAs, which were played on loudspeakers on auto-rickshaws in
remote areas of Odisha where there’s no radio reception.  

Here’s what our team learned about how to use radio/audio to
help save lives in such an emergency:

Get the brief right

When it comes to lifeline communications, the one luxury you
don’t have is time so there is very little margin for error or delay.

That means the most important thing is to get the brief –
how you’re going to plan the outputs – right. And to do it quickly.

Unsurprisingly, communication here is key: our team in the
Bhubanswar office in Odisha were constantly on the phone, keeping our Delhi
team aware of every single development on the ground. This was invaluable in
fine-tuning our technical brief. 

Choose the right
platform – and change if necessary

It sounds obvious but it’s worth repeating: know the
platforms which are right for your audience.

Immediately after the cyclone, our announcements went on air
on the most popular radio stations in the state: commercial FM stations in
Odisha, AIR (All India Radio) and community radio stations.

And when incessant rain and electricity cuts continued for
days after the cyclone hit, we changed our approach by playing the messages on loudspeakers
on rickshaws.

Hit on a powerful
central idea

is perhaps the most crucial thing to get right.

brainstorming our central idea, we examined the devastating super cyclone which
hit Odisha in 1999 and had claimed thousands of lives.

We remembered the mayhem didn’t stop the day after the
cyclone hit but instead continued for months as people struggled to get
information. And while we talked, it became obvious that knowledge is key.

This insight led us to the popular Odia proverb "Janile
Kariba, Janile Jiniba" which means “When you know you will do, when you know
you will win.”  And that became the
campaign tagline.

Recording the PSA: Sandeep Kumar Sahu playing the dholak.
Know your local
idiom and local nuances

In the aftermath of any disaster, it’s important to strike a
balance between communicating the correct information and using the right tone
and format for your audience.

It’s got to be both full of correct information and
strike a popular chord.

Recognising this, we decided to use the dahuk sangeet format
for the eight PSAs we broadcast after the first few days of the emergency had

Dahuks are street performers who compose instant
couplets in their sangeets -  ‘songs’ - which keep crowds enthralled at the
famous Rath Yatra festival (Chariot Festival) held each year at Puri in

This format allowed us to communicate the correct
information in a way that we knew would be popular with our audience.

Test quickly

in such a short timeframe, rapid pre-testing is crucial. Before we embarked on
producing all the PSAs, we tested two of them in one of the worst-affected
areas, checking how much information people recalled after listening, how much
they liked them and how much they understood. 

6. Network! 

had less than 10 hours to modify our content after pre-testing.

this is where contacts come into play. We tapped into contacts among the local
film, TV and music industry and persuaded some famous Odia singers and
voiceover artists to feature in our PSAs.

Singer Mr Karunakar and voiceover artist Hriyandit Mohanty in action.

There will be cyclones again in Odisha. We cannot stop them.
But the last two months have taught me an invaluable lesson. If you communicate
the right things at the right time, you can save a lot of lives and help a lot
of people.

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