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Evolution of Radio Soaps

The last fifteen years – ever since I left BBC AED – have seen a lot of evolution as far as the topics covered in radio soap operas have been concerned. With BBC AED and its ground-breaking New Home, New Life, the topics covered were strictly related to education and development. Indeed, the genre itself at that time was known as Creative Radio for Development. New Home, New Life shied off covering political issues.

Partly, this was because the agencies funding New Home, New Life were not interested in covering political issues, and felt uncomfortable with their themes sitting alongside more political messages. However, when political messages were covered, usually by default or when there was a strong health or development connection, these proved very effective. As was the case with a storyline around employment of women in health centres. That storyline convinced the Taliban authorities to allow women to return to work in health facilities around the country.

To this day, I feel that we could have done much more to influence the political course of events in Afghanistan. Indeed, in later years we have done radio dramas in Afghanistan covering issues such as warlords trying to keep people away from voting, trying to force people to vote for their favored candidates and the harmful effects of giving refuge to unscrupulous outlaws. The fact is, storytelling is not only good for reflecting developmental topics. It is also a very good way of covering political issues in a constructive and subtle manner.

It was with this in mind that I was happy to accept an invitation to set up a soap opera, easing the transition to democracy in Bhutan. Of course, one reason was that I had longed for more than forty years to visit the hidden and captivating Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The other reason was that the subject matter of the planned soap opera would give me a chance to show that one can cover political stories through modern storytelling, just as well as one can deal with developmental, health and educational issues.

As with most societies, Bhutanese had been accustomed to one-off dramas, but were unfamiliar with long-running, structured drama. So the structure of long-running drama was of necessity one of the things we concentrated on in the training. Basically, the structure of long-running, serial drama is based on two things: strong suspense and strong characterization. Suspense is the essence of modern storytelling. It is the way one keeps one’s audience hooked, but from a more educational angle, it is the mechanism whereby people think over storylines and discuss them among themselves. “Have you heard what happened in such and such soap opera last night? What do you think will happen next?”. A lot of things happen when such conversations take place among listeners of radio serial dramas. One basic thing is that the audience stay hooked. Furthermore, if the storyline in question has any educational content whatsoever, that also sinks in and is consolidated in the course of discussion about what will happen next.

Another phenomenon that takes place as a result of leaving things hanging in the air for a period of time is something that is even more difficult to pin down and measure than consideration and discussion of storylines. This is secondary listenership. People who have not even tuned into your drama hear about storylines, by virtue of the suspense that is built into these storylines and the discussion that suspense generates. That, as they say, is another story.

The other mechanism whereby educational messages are carried in radio serial drama is characterization. One of the great advantages in long-running drama, besides the capacity for suspense, is that listeners develop an affinity with characters. They know what kind of behaviour to expect from particular characters. This means that one is able to use positive, negative and transitional characters, in educational radio drama, in order to encourage and discourage certain types of behaviour. Even one can use comical characters, but here one has to be very careful.

Care has to be taken in depicting a comic character as negative, since quite often people will relate to a comic character. There is a danger they will emulate a comic character if he adopts negative characteristics. One has to take measures to ward off this danger.

In Bhutan, one of the first characters we developed was a comic character. It is so important that people learn to laugh at themselves. Bringing sensitive topics onto the level of laughter breaks taboos and enables people to openly discuss issues and problems in their society. One problem that came to light in Bhutan was that people have quite unrealistic expectations of democracy and of democratic representatives. An incident that came to light was that of a boy who was in love with a girl. The couple came to the capital, expecting democratic representatives to be able to ensure that the knot was tied between the two. Not only that, they claimed expenses for their stay in the capital, while they were sorting out their problem. Naturally, they were told that their problem was a personal one and there was nothing democratic representatives could do to help

This was of course an extreme and isolated case, but such incidents highlighted the potential for a comic character in our Bhutanese drama, one who had unreasonable expectations of the democratic process and as these expectations were not realized, became more and more frustrated and disillusioned with the new system. But we took measures to ensure that this comic character was a laughing stock: every ridiculous demand of his was ridiculed by rank and file characters. In that way we sought to ensure that people would avoid his behaviour, not seek to emulate it.

It was an uplifting experience, developing characters, scenarios and storylines to ease the transition to democracy in Bhutan, in the company of some of the greatest minds in this sophisticated, thoughtful society. It is not our drama that will ensure that the transition to democracy in Bhutan is a peaceful and orderly one. It is the fact that the Bhutanese are determined to do what is right for their society, and to have a form of democracy that accords with their own standards and traditions. Our soap opera is one sign of their determination to get things right. Let’s hope it can be a facilitating factor in them doing so.

The head of PACT Radio John Butt was invited to Bhutan by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy to help develop a radio drama aimed at easing the transition to democracy in Bhutan. 

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