“The Hardest Sell P.1″

Ever since the world’s first paid radio commercial was broadcast in New York back in 1922 (a 10-minute message promoting real estate) broadcasters have searched for innovative ways to successfully deliver sales messages. Many of these tried and trusted techniques have consequently been employed by N.G.O.s and State-funded radio in developing countries to help “sell” educational and health related messages to the masses.


 The following series of postings explores various spot production training methods and the research employed to test their effectiveness. These findings are drawn from my experience working on a radio project based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

I’ll start with a little background history to explain how I ended up working as a spot production trainer. I come from a commercial production background and before joining UCE worked as Creative Director for the Northern branch of The Radio Network. T.R.N. is a Clear Channel network broadcasting across all major radio markets in New Zealand. The production department consisted of 18 full time creative writers, 3 producers and 4 extremely hard-working administrative staff. It was reputed to be the largest radio commercial production department in the southern hemisphere, although I’m not sure if anyone actually checked – I certainly didn’t have time to. Anyway, the team would write, produce, input and schedule an average of 500 commercials a week. Some might say it was an advertising “sausage factory”… but I like to think we occasionally made some quite tasty sausages.


 But that all seems a long, long time ago… I’m currently studying for my Masters in Education – based on the theme of radio as an educational tool. Thankfully, my research introduced me to Ben Chesterton, who in early 2006 was setting up the BBC World Service Trust’s latest Ethiopian radio project. Ben noted my commercial production credentials and thought my previous lecturing work on creative writing might assist with their capacity building. He invited me to work as a trainer on a one-off 6 week scheme for BBC WST staff and journalists working for Radio Ethiopia.


I was an independent consultant for the BBCWST and therefore it is important to clarify that these are my own personal opinions and do not represent the official views of the organisation.

 It was a two year project that used radio to promote sexual and reproductive health among Ethiopian youth and was funded by the European Commission in partnership with the Government of Ethiopia, Radio Ethiopia and BBC World Service Trust. The project started in Sept. 2006 and aimed to create a half hour radio show which would go out every week on the state broadcaster Radio Ethiopia with support from a substantial spot campaign. The messages were duplicated in both Ahmaric and Afaan Oromo as these were most prolific languages in a country which employs over 200 different languages and dialects.

I was acting as an executive consultant on the project, mainly as a trainer teaching digital editing skills to the young radio producers at Radio Ethiopia along with radio documentary production. However, my main role was as a trainer in spot production methods. My brief was to help increase the capacity building aspects of spot production. The project required the production of 150 radio spots or commercials in five languages – designed to promote certain messages to a wide group of audiences such as; parents, community leaders and health workers as well as young people themselves.

I trained the staff in basic spot production techniques and oversaw the production of 35 commercials over a period of six weeks. I also delivered several lectures on spot production to journalists at Radio Ethiopia.


The task of creating radio spots to address issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender equality, female genital mutilation etc. is an incredibly difficult one. The problems are huge – and that’s putting it mildly. Ethiopia is second only to South Africa in numbers of HIV infections and deaths from AIDS.In the space of just a few weeks these young radio producers, who had never made a radio spot in their lives, were expected to create messages that would instill deep behavioral change listeners living with thousands of years of ingrained religious and cultural “baggage”. Some of the preliminary research spoke of an almost supernatural attitude towards the risk of HIV/AIDS. For example, some believed that if you had sex with a virgin you would be cured of HIV/AIDS… Or that the disease was a Western plot conceived to decimate Africa… Or if you drank enough holy water – you would be cured. Although the virus still continues to destroy entire communities it is obvious that many Ethiopians still find it hard to believe that HIV/AIDS is real. This is especially true in rural communities where the disease is often seen as a form of witchcraft.


In the following postings I shall elaborate on the techniques used to train these radio producers as well as the finding of the research used to assess their impact and effectiveness.

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