Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Soaps and Suds

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Soaps and Suds

Article excerpt

Listeners beware. Especially those of you who are unashamed Archers addicts. The antics of the denizens of Ambridge might seem like casual, everyday stuff, but they've probably been carefully designed to indoctrinate us with the 'right' kind of behaviour.

That's if a two-part documentary on the World Service, hosted by none other than Debbie Archer (alias Tamsin Greig), is to be believed.

Soap Operas: Art Imitating Life took us back to those first radio serials in America, funded in the 1930s by the big soap manufacturers to market their latest products.

Yes, soap operas are so-called because they were originally given the means to go viral by firms like Colgate-Palmolive. We might think that product placement is a post-recession invention by corporations desperate to find new ways to flog their products. Not a bit of it. Back in 1931 SuperSuds funded Clara, Lu and Em, the first daytime daily drama, produced and aired by Chicago's WGN-AM station. Clara and co. were gossipy housewives who twittered on about their boring neighbours and brash husbands while recommending the best suds to get that whiter-than-white finish.

Serial dramas were soon recognised as 'a powerful tool'. They still are. Greig talked to executives at companies with names like the Population Media Center and PCI Media Impact about their work developing and broadcasting soaps around the world. They call it 'education entertainment'.

A formula for success has been developed: no more than six to ten characters, some of whom are positive, some negative and some 'transitional'. The soaps are driven not by stories, plot, drama, but by these characters, who are made up of a series of key 'values' and have a serious message to convey. This 'methodology' works very well, we were told. Afghans are warned about landmines, in between conversations about the price of bread, South Sea Islanders are asked to welcome gays into their communities, Botswanans (where Aids has become known as 'the radio disease') are told about condoms.

It should be heart-warming stuff. And perhaps it is. But everyone on the programme, even Greig, talked in such ad-speak - smooth, glossy and determinedly upbeat - that it all began to sound rather sinister.

'A bold and beautiful vision is manifested in a few key characters, ' said one interviewee.

In my notes I've written 'Ever felt manipulated?'

On radio, we were told, you have to create a world through words only. …

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