A student of ecology and evolutionary biology, Bill Ryerson is a long-time proponent of sustainable population. He started his career with the Population Institute and followed that with a stint at Planned Parenthood. In 1998, he founded Population Media Center (PMC) which addresses gender and reproductive issues through entertainment. Originally based in Shelburne, Ryerson’s home since 1971, it is now located in South Burlington.
Now 74, Ryerson first realized the power of entertainment to change perspectives when he was working with the communications division of the Population Institute. The late director of that division, David Poindexter, worked with luminaries like Norman Lear and Mary Tyler Moore to get popular television shows to address controversial issues including vasectomies on “All in the Family” and abortion on “Maude.” On a trip to Mexico in 1976, Poindexter discovered a telenovela which was modeling family planning issues. After some unsuccessful attempts at avoiding pregnancy, the two main characters went to a clinic to learn about family planning and the wife subsequently advocated that their friends and neighbors do the same. Following the show there was a 33 percent increase in visits to family planning clinics and sales of contraception.
Ryerson left Planned Parenthood in 1985 and working with Poindexter, he visited the Mexican producer of the telenovela. In the late 1980s, they collaborated with a Kenyan radio show to produce storylines around land inheritance and family size. After the show, the average number of children went down from 6.6, to 4.4 and family planning increased by 58 percent. Intrigued, Ryerson helped spearhead a radio show in Tanzania which dealt with AIDS prevention and family planning and commissioned a study to see if it was effective. The show was intentionally blocked in one part of the country. Use of condoms there went up by 16 percent, but it rose 153 percent in the areas that had heard the show. Subsequently, the show was also broadcast in the blackout area and the numbers rose there, as well.
When Poindexter was ready to retire, his organization wanted to do something different. “The programs were too good to let them stop,” Ryerson said, so he founded the Population Media Center. In 1998, he launched nine serial radio dramas in Ethiopia.
“Half the population listened to them,” he said, “and the use of contraception by married women tripled. When we modeled HIV testing, the number of male listeners getting tested quadrupled and the women tripled.”
Ryerson often gets letters from people who have been inspired by the shows. He was touched by one he received after a series dealing with marriage by abduction in Nepal. A woman’s 14-year-old daughter had been raped on her way to school and forced to marry her rapist. The mother had been keeping her 12-year-old daughter at home to prevent the same thing from occurring. Through the show, she learned that the practice of marriage by abduction was illegal and she banded together with her neighbors to get the law enforced so their daughters could get an education.
Ryerson continues to serve as president of Population Media Center, which sponsors programs in 50 countries. The non-profit gets funding from the United Nations and several countries including the United States.
“Our programs help overcome cultural barriers by using an entertainment format,” he said. “Characters sort out positive and negative advice. They model the positive and show how to deal with pushback.”
Although PMC programing includes agricultural and environment practices and child nutrition, they never stray far from the basics.
“A good program requires a love story,” Ryerson said. “Reproductive health and gender issues are always the centerpiece.”