By Alexandra Fradelizio | m/Oppenheim Media Writer
When Bill Ryerson founded Population Media Center (PMC) 20 years ago, he sought to empower communities in leading healthier and more sustainable lives. Using radio and television outlets, the organization produces a variety of mass media, but focuses on serialized melodramas, to relay societal issues to audiences in 50 countries across the world.
“Our mission is to use entertainment mass media to bring about changes in behavior for health, social welfare, and a sustainable planet,” said Ryerson, who also serves as the President of PMC.
At any given time, the shows produced by the South Burlington, Vermont organization air in as many as 12 different countries and both inform and entertain audiences. The characters within the shows are designed to act as role models to audiences and confront issues such as gender equality, domestic violence, and environmental awareness. Over its history, PMC’s radio and television shows have reached 500 million people in 20 different languages.
One show that aired for American audiences was East Los High. The five-time Emmy nominated series ran for five seasons and was the highest rated show on its streaming platform, Hulu. The show followed the lives of teenagers living in East Los Angeles and was praised by critics and audiences for opening dialogue surrounding complex challenges faced by the current youth population.
“We find huge increases in self-reported, interpersonal communication about the issues among our audience members once we role model them in the programming,” stated Ryerson.
PMC’s shows have been astounding in improving the health and well-being of citizens. For instance, about half of the population of Sierra Leone listened to a weekly radio series produced by PMC, and listeners were nearly five times more likely to purchase a bed net compared to non listeners after a storyline centered on malaria prevention. In Nepal, a show centered on child marriage caused listeners to become more likely to stop marriages among individuals who were underage. Furthermore, in one study, 67 percent of Nigerians cited a Population Media Center show as the reason why they decided to seek reproductive health services.
“These shows have attracted huge audiences and have had dramatic impact on those audiences both in terms of attitudes and in terms of behavior,” explained Ryerson.
“These characters both demonstrate the benefits of the new values and behaviors that they adopt and also help the audience understand how to deal with the push-back that sometimes comes from adopting some new behaviors.”
Population Media Center conducts extensive research to identify societal issues within different countries. Once they select a country to feature within their programming, PMC staff hires local actors and writers to construct stories written in their native languages and based on cultural issues.
“We’re really there to provide expertise on both the issues and on methodology for character evolution, but they’re the ones who can take the research findings and apply them in what are very culturally specific and culturally relevant story lines,” stated Ryerson of the writers.
While Population Media Center does not seek to change policies, the organization produces shows that echo unique issues faced by communities across the world. Although Ryerson cites numerous organizations provide services to citizens, PMC molds its shows to open dialogue between cultural ideals and health issues among viewers.
Despite a “difficult funding environment,” Ryerson plans to triple the size of the organization by the year 2025. PMC recently completed a project centering on the worldwide lack of family planning and is set launch a new show in Zambia. While their shows helped to drastically improve communities across the Americans, Africa, and Asia, Ryerson and his team continue to search for areas that need their programming.
“We’re embarked on an effort to significantly increase the scope of PMC’s work worldwide.”