|I directed the Voice of America's broadcast to Mozambique during the height of its civil war, and we developed a huge audience in that country. When I took over the position, the VOA broadcasts were clearly anti-Mozambican government and pro-rebels. I, with the help of others, set out to change that -- to make the programs more balanced and fair.
Then, some extraordinary things began to happen. Both sides in the conflict sensed our impartiality, and they made themselves available to us to explain their views. Of course, they wanted to reach this large audience on an official U.S. government broadcaster. But we took advantage of their interest, and I personally played a role in reaching out to the warring parties to get them on our shows. Overtime, our radio programs became a public arena in which the warring sides could make their positions known, and then third parties from religious organizations and civil society groups chimed in and made the first calls for peace talks on our airways. We had become what you might call the honest brokers of information and, I believe, a valuable asset to have in a fledgling peace process..
We pretty much just developed this peace-making role instinctively. I had not yet been introduced formally to conflict resolution concepts. It was later when I had the opportunity to head a Conflict Resolution initiative for all of the Voice of America that I had an opportunity to enlarge my understanding of the field of Conflict Resolution and apply what I learned to broadcasting.
But I want to make clear that I am talking about conflict in a wider sense, not just about violent conflict. The same innovative approaches to the media can be used in any type of pre-conflict or political transition situations - for instance, in military to civilian rule, or dictatorship to democracy. Most political transitions are volatile and can lead to conflict if steps are not taken to prevent this from happening, and unfortunately we have had too many examples of the media falling into partisan hands and whipping up passions and inciting people to engage in bloody conflict. The media can also be used for constructive purposes. That's what we are all about.
Host: And what about your interest in health?
Pirio: As I said, I first discovered the power of the media in health matters in broadcasts to Mozambique. We broadcast a weekly program, Your Health Family, that was designed particularly for mothers. It gave them tips on how to nurture and care for their children and themselves. I remember getting letters from listeners -- nurses stationed in the middle of war zones, thanking us for the programs and saying how it helped them in their work. Now these were nurses, women, if I recall correctly, who lacked medicines and other fundamentals for taking care of their patients. But just being reminded of practical ways of caring for children appeared to improve their ability to administer care.
Because the nurses felt empowered and expressed this to me, I jumped on any opportunity to promote health programming. Our formal research also told us that people everywhere wanted more information on health from the media. Ultimately we were able build relationships with USAID and international health agencies and others that allowed us to significantly expand what we did in the area of health programming. It also allowed us to provide training for broadcasters in health topics. This broadcast initiative was expanded to almost every continent in a couple of dozen languages in TV and radio. We produced soap operas, features, call-in shows, roundtables and others. We discovered that almost every format could be used in a constructive way.
I also discovered that health programming could be, what I like to call, the "back door to social change." When people feel empowered to take charge of their own health and well-being and that of their communities, it opens them up, emboldens them to seek redress and change in so many aspects of their lives.
And this is where health and conflict resolution come full circle to merge together. Both fundamentally come to address issues of healing, both of body and mind. At some level the programming in these two areas if pursued jointly can become inseparable; they reinforce each other; and the end result is authentic empowerment, and hopefully an environment that is healthier and more peaceful.
Host: Can you give us an example of how this works in practice?
Pirio: We have developed certain methodologies for advancing initiatives that deal with health and with pre-, post- and conflict settings. For instance, there needs to be an assessment or profound understanding of the current state of the media. We need to understand who will be our target audience and why it is important to reach them. Then there has to be a profound understanding of the issues facing the target audience. You have to determine what are the best media, formats and schedule for reaching audience. There has to be training of broadcasters in approaches, etc, etc. Media is really an art so often everyone feels their way through this process to get the right formulas. I say formulas but every case is different and needs specific . . . specific approaches.
We have learned ultimately that the more interactive the media and format and the more involved the members of the target audience in the design of the programs, the more effective the initiative will likely be.
Let me give you an example of this. In a radio project designed to reach the youth, especially young people in refugee camps, from Burundi and Rwanda, we decided that a peer-to-peer approach would be most effective. The research data supported this idea. We then took it a step further; we involved youth in all aspects of content development and radio production We called the program "Ejo Bite" meaning "How about the future?" The project went so far as to set up production centers in the refugee camps to assure that perspectives were as close to the target audience as possible. This was really an effort to air the perspectives of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations - truly giving "Voice to the Voiceless."
Youth were vulnerable for many reasons. Girls were very vulnerable in health terms, especially to HIV infection. Boys were vulnerable to manipulation by armed political factions wanting to impress them into militias. The program sought to empower the youth so that they could make better decisions for themselves and help secure a better future. All the evidence available to us suggests that giving a voice to their issues and asking them for solutions enhanced their sense of empowerment. That is what empowering communications is all about.
Host: How receptive have journalists and others involved in the media been to this type of approach?
Pirio: I have to say that in all the training exercises that I have been involved in that I haven't encountered any resistance, and I've had to ask myself why is this so.
I think, first of all, that most journalists really want to make a difference in the world. I went out and conducted dozens of interviews with journalists from a variety of countries. What stood out for print and radio reporters is that they got into the business because they wanted to make a difference. TV reporters tended to be different. Many of them wanted the glamour of being on the screen, but after realizing the impact that they could have on people they often began to think in bigger terms and wanted to give back to the communities in important ways.
So, you see, I have found a natural receptivity to these approaches.
As a consequence, there is no need to be preachy about such things. In all our training, whether it be with journalists or media executives or public relation types, it is a matter of bringing out what people already know at an intuitive level. So, this interactive approach in training brings out what people have inside them, and so how can there be resistance to what people already know at some level.