Two young lovers are walking on the beach. He is a conservationist. She is the daughter of a wealthy businessman who sits on the board of her beau's environmental group. While picking up trash and washed-up debris, the genial pair stumbles across a dead sea turtle. Distraught at the sight, she bemoans her father's failure to use his wealth and power to stop developers from destroying the beloved turtle's habitat.
The lovers are not real. They're characters in a radio soap opera called Changing Tides, cooked up by writers for Rare, a U.S.-based conservation group. The program, which airs in Micronesia, Palau, Guam, and other Pacific islands, aims to educate its listeners about local environmental problems and conservation efforts, all under the guise of entertainment. Alleyne Regis, a native of the eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia and the creative mind behind Rare Radio, says no topic is off-limits once listeners have fallen in love (or hate) with your characters: Beach cleanup, solid waste management, coral reef and mangrove protection, erosion, and habitat loss are just a few of the issues addressed in the serial drama. "But it has to be subtle," Regis says. "It has to be entertainment first; education comes afterward."
Regis started his career as a decidedly different type of communications specialist: a dancing parrot (his impish grin and electric gesticulations make you think he must have been a very good one). The parrot gig, his first job in the field of conservation, was part of a Rare campaign to protect the St. Lucia parrot, a native bird chosen as an icon for island wildlife protection. But the group soon realized that there was no way to solve the tiny island's environmental woes without reining in population growth: In the mid-1990s, St. Lucia's population of 145,000 was on track to double within 33 years, and people were clearing land and destroying habitat at an alarming rate.
In 1996, Regis gave up his parrot costume to direct and produce a radio soap opera that promoted family planning (aptly named Apwe Plezi, Creole for "after the pleasure"). After two seasons, 14 percent of listeners surveyed said they'd adopted some form of family planning as a direct result of listening to the program.
The initial results of Changing Tides look promising too. Nearly half of the population of Palau listens to the program, and of those, 19 percent say they've stopped eating turtle eggs and 32 percent have stopped littering in reaction to what they've learned. Regis laughs about the peculiar challenges that come with introducing a form of entertainment based on dialogue to a culture that does not have an established tradition of spoken-word drama. If the island accents and mannerisms weren't right, the message would be lost. So with the help of a former TV soap writer, Regis trained a group of local writers and actors.
Regis's next project is another soap opera, but this time back home in the Caribbean. He's now working with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, a group of nine island nations stretching from the British Virgin Islands to Grenada. Local governments are looking to promote a wide array of social behaviors, from family planning and HIV prevention to coral-reef protection and the adoption of clean energy. In April, Regis will gather his scriptwriters to create characters and plotlines for next year's program. Will there be enough conniving philanderers and Susie do-gooders to make this educational joyride another success story? Tune in next time...
-- Laura Wright