Author: Cassie Biggs, June 27 2014 - Voice of Hope radio station in the South Sudanese town of Wau lies in a green and peaceful compound, overlooked by an impressive red brick cathedral built in the 1900s.

I had the chance to visit this friendly station last month while training eight partner radio stations to produce Public Service Announcements (PSAs).

Voice of Hope has been on air since 2010 and is one of eight radio stations in the Catholic Radio Network. It is staffed by a small but dedicated group of journalists - some are paid, but most are volunteers.

While Wau town has largely escaped the conflict affecting much of South Sudan, Voice of Hope still  faces constant challenges. Earlier that month, for example, it had been forced off air for days when lightning struck the transmitter.

Building capacity

With me on the training course was Nick Miles, a BBC journalist and experienced radio producer, who has worked on our health and radio programmes.

Our goal was to leave the training sessions with at least four completed 45- to 60-second PSAs; two for our project on maternal and child health and two for our project on girls education, funded by the UK [United Kingdom] government’s Department for International Development.

But more importantly, we wanted to leave the participants with the skills to make their own PSAs, or to make PSAs for NGOs [non-governmental organisations] for which they could then charge a fee. As well as helping radio stations to generate income, these PSAs would provide key information on health and education issues affecting South Sudan.

Already one of the world’s poorest countries when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011, the last six months of conflict have devastated the lives of South Sudanese.

More than 1.3 million people have fled their homes, most now living in cramped and squalid conditions in UN camps, or isolated and inaccessible in the bush - ideal conditions for the spread of water-borne diseases.

Unable to cultivate food, get access to food stocks or migrate with livestock, four million people are now at risk of starvation. And now that the rains have started, malaria is rife. Cholera has also spread, leaving (at the time of writing) 37 dead and more than 1,700 infected.

Cutting through the noise

So how do you make an effective PSA?

Nick brought a range of examples with him, both TV and radio. One of the most effective exercises was when he asked the participants to talk among themselves while he played a very long and rather monotonous public information message about mental health among the elderly in South Sudan. Nick then asked: How many of you can tell me what that message was about? None could.

"It is very difficult to cut through the chatter of everyday life and get your message across. Especially with radio where you rely on only one sense - hearing - and people are usually doing something else as they listen to the radio," Nick told them.

In South Sudan this is especially true. While radio is the most trusted source of information according to a survey carried out by Internews last year, the ways in which people listen to the radio is not always taken into account by programme-makers.

Most people listen in groups - perhaps at home with their families, under trees, at street-side tea stalls or even while shopping in the market. Women rarely have control over what is listened to, and sometimes say they only hear the radio when their neighbour turns theirs on.

We explored a range of techniques for capturing the audience’s attention, using natural sounds such as a tea spoon tinkling in a glass to paint a picture of being at a tea stand, or speaking directly to the audience, asking them "What can you do?"

One Core Message

So once you have your audience’s attention, what then?

PSAs that try to say too much, or try to be too clever are confusing. In our malaria PSAs, our participants were asked to choose "one core message" that would resonate with our audience for the project; new mothers.

Some focused on prevention, such as keeping babies under mosquito nets, while others focused on treatment, getting your baby to a hospital, not a faith healer, if you think s/he has malaria.

Listen to one PSA on the importance of keeping babies under mosquito nets.

In Juba, we switched from malaria to cholera but the key learning point was the same: one core message.

So we focused on one method of prevention: boil your water for five minutes before drinking it; wash your hands with soap or ash; eat only hot foods and don’t drink local brew or anything that could have been made with untreated water. (Listen to one of the team’s PSAs.)

Our girls’ education PSAs were a bit trickier.

We wanted to make communities aware of grants to improve the learning environment for both girls and boys. But there was a lot of information and creating one core message was not easy.

In the end, we decided to address different messages to different audiences and to provide a helpline number that would answer any further questions.  (Listen to one PSA which focused on how schools can apply for grants.)

Call to action

Every PSA also needs a call to action.

Often this means thinking through the likely obstacles and providing realistic, practical suggestions. So while the WHO advice for cholera prevention is to wash your hands with soap, many people in South Sudan don’t have access to soap. So it was important to provide them with a realistic alternative, such as washing hands with ash (listen to the PSA here).

In our girls’ education PSAs, we told schools they could apply for grants to fix leaky roofs or build fences. The call to action was simply to pick up the phone and call the hotline.

For all 16 participants, the four-day training was an opportunity to learn new skills, but also to produce something that could have impact in their own lives and communities.

"At first it was difficult for me to make a PSA but on the second day I got the message and I enjoyed [it]," one participant told us.

"I am very confident because now I am able to grab the attention of the audience by putting sound effects, simple language and by using one repeated core message."

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in South Sudan.
Image credit: BBC Media Action

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