90.3 WBHM Birmingham--The typical Spanish novella drips with passion, love, and jealousy. It usually doesn't explain how to manage diabetes or stop smoking. But a Birmingham-based radio project is trying to do just that. WBHM intern Clare Gamlin explains how this broadcast is teaching new Alabamians health information they might not otherwise hear.


If this theme music comes from your radio, you know it's time for "Promesas y Traiciones." That's "Promises and Betrayals," a radio novella on La Jefa Radio, Birmingham's Spanish-language radio station. The radio drama is produced by the non-profit Media for Health and presents public health information to the Hispanic community of Jefferson County. As executive producer Betsy Hunter explains, their mission is to inspire healthier living.

"Our goal is to create interesting, dramatic, compelling audio content for radio, web, and other platforms that's focused on health promotion"

The program targets Latinos because they aren't usually reached by traditional health campaigns. Johns Hopkins University Professor Hae-Ra Han says recent immigrants also tend to have low health literacy. That's the basic knowledge necessary to function in the healthcare system.

"It involves a lot of different sets of skills including your reading ability, understandability, and your numeracy."

Han says recent immigrants must also overcome a language barrier which contributes to low health literacy. If individuals don't understand the health care system, they are less likely to get early screenings and treatment for chronic illnesses, and this can affect the rest of the community. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with low health literacy had more hospitalizations and spent more time in the emergency room, which can ultimately cost taxpayers money.

The radio novella "Promises and Betrayals" addresses that lack of knowledge with information weaved into the plotline. For instance, here two brothers discuss living with diabetes while they work in a restaurant.

Each five minute episode airs within a larger one hour talk show. On the show, guests answer caller questions about the issues presented in the drama. Listeners learn about disease management, but also about prevention.

Because the program airs in Birmingham, its audience could be affected by Alabama's new immigration law. Under this law, undocumented immigrants cannot receive primary or preventive care. Carlos Sanchez is with the Jefferson County Health Department. He thinks the law could create obstacles for public health officials.

"The issues of public health cannot be based on whether or not somebody has a piece of paper. If we really want to have a healthy community we really need to make sure that all the healthy community sectors or components are tended to."

Sanchez says good public health outcomes depend on support from the community. He says many of the immigrants in Jefferson County are documented, but he thinks the media gives them the impression that they are unwelcome. As a result, immigrants may avoid treatment because they are worried about discrimination.

"That's the biggest risk is people may not access healthcare at all, putting at risk their lives and those of the lives around them."

The radio novella "Promises and Betrayals" is one attempt at lowering that risk for both Hispanic immigrants in Birmingham, and the community at large.

~ Clare Gamlin, September 15, 2011.