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Stopping AIDS fatigue among students: Future Beats

Campus radio staff, trainers and partners at the Future Beats launch, with Miriam Behrendt (standing centre).

An innovative South African-German development collaboration aims to counter “AIDS fatigue” amongst South African students by bringing a fresh new beat to HIV media campaigns on campus radio stations.

An innovative South African-German development collaboration aims to counter “AIDS fatigue” amongst South African students by bringing a fresh new beat to HIV media campaigns on campus radio stations.

How can AIDS fatigue be addressed?

 Media campaigns have been an essential part of the global response to the HIV epidemic since the early 1980s, but as the decades have passed, many societies and individuals have become increasingly impervious to messages about the dangers, especially since the advent of effective drug treatments.

According to UNAIDS, there were some 6.3 million South Africans living with HIV in 2013, and 200,000 deaths due to AIDS, making it one of the most severely affected countries in the world. The prevalence rate amongst adults aged 15 to 49 was over 19%, and young people are particularly at risk. The latest household survey in South Africa also shows that HIV knowledge has gone down and condom usage has also decreased in the youth community[1]. In South Africa, as in other countries, it is crucial that AIDS messaging effectively targets new generations as they become sexually active, but the challenges of doing this in the face of growing complacency are enormous. Media campaigns need to be like a revolving door, constantly reitterating the same messages, but having to find fresh and relevant ways of doing this so that young people do not simply switch off.  

 Listen to an audio clip of Mphateleni Kenneth Mudau, programme manager at UNIVEN community radio

“Let us not make HIV a long, boring story, “ says Mphateleni Kenneth Mudau , the programme manager at UNIVEN radio, a community station broadcasting in Venda in northern South Africa since 1997, who believes too many media campaigns are inadequate or no longer relevant. So how can we find innovative and engaging ways to reach target audiences? 

Making tomorrow matter today

“Tomorrow matters today” is the slogan of Future Beats, a youth development and HIV prevention programme implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), in conjunction with South Africa’s Higher Education AIDS programme, HEAIDS. Set up in 2014, this innovative pilot radio project aims to establish a culture of reporting on HIV and related social drivers of the pandemic through seven campus and youth community radio stations and social media.

The seven campus radio stations involved in the project so far are located in Gauteng, Limpopo and North-West Province, and include: PUK FM (North-West University), TUKS FM (University of Pretoria), TUT FM (Tshwane University of Technology), UJ FM (University of Johannesburg), UNIVEN RADIO (University of Venda), UNISA RADIO (University of South Africa) and VOW FM (Wits University).

Future Beats poster for HIV prevention through campus radio

Future Beats was the brain child of Miriam Behrendt, then a young German junior development advisor working for GIZ, who had previously studied in South Africa and had also been involved in an AIDS drama project. The Deutsche Welle Academy helped her develop the Future Beats project in cooperation with HEAIDS, and BMZ agreed to fund it, through GIZ, for an intitial two-year period, in partnership with HEAIDS, whose mandate is to target students in South Africa. Previously HEAIDS had only worked on campaigns aimed at encouraging students to get themselves tested, and the organisation was now looking for a way to be more proactive and broaden its scope.  

Listen to an audio clip of Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS.

Reaching out to vulnerable students

HEAIDS’ Director, Dr Ahluwalia, says around two million students enter some sort of further education in South Africa every year, and this number is set to increase dramatically to three and a half million in the next few years. Since higher education includes all tertiary and vocational training establishments, some of the students can be as young as 14. The HIV prevalence amongst university students is around 3.5% – relatively low compared to the national prevalence – but the South African government has recognised the importance of this particular group of educated young people for the country’s economic future and overall development.

Many students come from rural areas where they have led relatively sheltered lifestyles and are not used to the freedoms that come with student life. HEAIDS research[1] has found that 90% of university students have sex for the first time in their first semester. That makes them particularly vulnerable, especially when alcohol or drugs are also involved: A very high proportion of those surveyed were so drunk when they last had sex that they did not remember whether they had used a condom or not.

The first thing the Future Beats project did was to conduct a baseline study aimed at researching current knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of university students with regards to sexual health. This study showed that although knowledge about HIV was relatively good, they often chose to ignore the potential consequences of indulging in risky behaviours. The project needed to find a way of re-engaging and re-sensitizeing student communities with regards to HIV issues. Clearly, argues Miriam Behrendt, now Future Beats’ project manager and technical adviser to HEAIDS, the previous approaches of nationwide mass public service annoucements and “one size fits all” AIDS messaging is no longer effective in South Africa, especially given the country’s huge racial and linguistic diversity.

Audio-clip-symbolListen to Miriam Behrendt, Future Beats project manager and technical adviser to HEAIDS.

The idea behind Future Beats

The baseline study conducted by Future Beats found that although 73% of South African students listened to campus radio at least two days a week, only 8% said that radio programmes had led them to take the issue of HIV more seriously. The primary aim of the Future Beats project is therefore to engage with this potentially large audience by strengthening the impact of HIV programming and establishing a much more creative culture of reporting HIV-related issues on campus and youth community radio stations.

In the first instance this involved increasing the knowledge and skills of campus and community radio journalists, programme managers and presenters to produce interesting, lively and factually accurate programmes that not only better suits their target audiences, but that listeners would also actually want to listen to.

Marching to a different beat for more innovative programming

To enable the radio managers and journalists to come up with their own radio programmes, Future Beats began with an extensive capacity building programme. Participating stations, managers and journalists attended workshops to make them more aware of HIV-related issues and to give them an opportunity to reflect on their own attitudes towards HIV and AIDS. 

Audio-clip-symbolListen to audio clip of Mphateleni Kenneth Mudau, Programme Mnager at UNIVEN radio and participant in Future Beats training project.

The seven stations involved in the pilot project vary enormously – some have a lot of listeners (UNIVEN, for example, has over 50,000 listeners from both the student and local community, but VOW FM only 5,000), some are talk show formats, some are music stations. Most are largely run by volunteers who may have little or no formal journalism training. The training offered by Future Beats has to be suitable both for people who have some knowledge of journalism, as well as others who may have little formal education or formal knowledge about either HIV or production processes.

PUK FM station manager Charonike Nel passes on Future Beats training to her staff

In a series of three-day training workshops volunteer radio producers and presenters received training about HIV-related issues and the social drivers, such as drugs and alcohol, that increase vulnerability in student communities. Programme makers were encouraged to think about how they could make lively and entertaining radio programmes that are relevant to the target audience, using different radio formats (such as drama, talk shows, illustrated packages and features, vox pops and use of personal stories rather than studio interviews with “experts”) to address HIV and related issues, as well as reduce stigma and risky behaviour.

It is up to individual stations however to decide what content to produce – the Future Beats project is there to guide them and provide editorial feedback on content. Bonita Du Plessis, the project’s managing editor listens to programmes on a weekly basis and gives feedback. The idea is also to establish a campus and community radio network exchanging ideas and best practice of HIV reporting. All the stations can share and use the material generated, which is made available via Sound Cloud:

Audio-clip-symbol Listen to some of the HIV content produced by campus radio stations working with Future Beats here:

Formats of the resulting programming vary a lot, as do the broadcast languages, although the main ones are Afrikaans, English, Venda and Zulu. Some stations have been able to produce radio dramas, others have addressed HIV through sports interviews with HIV positive athletes. PUK FM did a feature series aimed at white middle class audiences, who often think HIV is a “black disease”.

The training sessions also considered ways of building cooperation between campus and community radio stations and HIV units and NGOs, clinics and health care workers in the higher education sector and beyond. This cooperation involved tackling taboo issues, stimulating dialogue and creating greater awareness of HIV-related topics, both in higher education establishments and nearby communities who may also tune in to the campus radio programmes.

Using social media to stimulate dialogue

An estimated 70% of students use social media on a regular basis, so the Future Beats projects also trains radio staff in the use of social media as an effective way of addressing HIV issues and expanding audiences. Some stations – such as TUKS FM which has 18,000 listeners, but over 50,000 followers on Facebook – were already fairly sophisticated users of social media, whilst others had little knowledge. A local social media expert works with the project to advise stations about making the most of live Tweets, Facebook, instant messaging and so on.

UNIVEN Radio leading the way

One of the campus radios that has wholeheartedly embraced the new Future Beats approach is UNIVEN Radio, which operates on the University of Venda’s campus in the north of the country, but also serves the wider community. The station broadcasts 24/7 and is largely staffed by volunteer students, although the university does pay for some staff members. Around 65% of its schedule is talk format, and 35% is music.

Prior to the station’s involvement with Future Beats, UNIVEN had no regular programming on HIV and AIDS. Following initial discussions with Miriam Behrendt in early 2014, the station signed a memorandum of understanding with GIZ and HEAIDS. As a result of the training he received, programme manager Mphateleni Kenneth Mudau organized a workshop at the station to disseminate and exchange the ideas with producers and presenters. Consequently, 15 minutes in every daily three-hour segment is now dedicated to AIDS programming of some sort, in addition to regular information “spots” across the output, all carefully targetted to the audience of that particular programme. Even the prime time show which brings in most of the station’s advertising revenue, has run sensitive interviews with rape victims and HIV positive mothers. But the station also knows its limitations, says Kenneth : “We aren’t trying to do what we cannot do – such as complex radio drama.”

Audio-clip-symbol Listen to audio from UNIVEN’s AIDS programmeing here:

Measuring programme impact

Between February 2013 and February 2014 Future Beats conducted research into the impact of the pilot project on both stations and audiences, by conducting focus groups to assess programme content and collecting in-depth interviews with HIV care providers to find out whether the project had had a direct impact on students seeking health services.

The impact of the Future Beats project on radio production staff was found to be very highAll campus radio staff agreed that their knowledge of HIV and related issues has increased substantially and that the new programme output had changed their own perceptions to a large extent. An enormously valuable achievement of the project is that radio station staff are now aware of their role as agents of social change: Staff described the Future Beats experience as “eye opening”, “mind blowing”, “liberating” and “transforming”.

The impact on listeners has also been considerable: In University of Venda  station UNIVEN Radio for example, focus groups were randomly chosen and all participants had not only heard of Future Beats, but said they had learnt a great deal more about HIV as a result of listening to the radio programmes and now felt more comfortable talking about HIV.

In North-West University station PUK FM, there has also been some evidence of behaviour change, in that the university clinic reported a dramatic increase in uptake of HIV testing after the station conducted a campaign urging students to get themselves tested. However, in a media arena crowded with competing players, it is difficult to ascribe behaviour change directly to one specific agent. Future Beats is planning for any further campaigns to be accompanied by a clinic questionnaire that will ask how and why the student decided to get tested.    

One of the biggest challenges the Future Beats project has faced is that as most of the participating radio stations rely on advertising, this can have an effect on where AIDS-related content is placed in the schedule. Sometime it is not included in popular drivetime shows, and if it is tucked away in less popular slots, that obviously has an impact on audience reach.

What does it cost?

The Future Beats project received a budget from GIZ of 200,000 Euros (2.8 million Rand) from the beginning of 2014 until the end of 2016. This constitutes approximately 50% of the whole project budget, with HEAIDS funding the balance with money from the South African Department of Higher Education and Training. This combined budget is mostly used for training projects and staffing costs, plus providing a small travel allowance to station producers to gather material outside the studio. It does NOT include direct funding for onair or online content because the project’s aim is to make the programming sustainable.

Great hopes for the future of Future Beats

Future Beats is in the process of expanding its work to include an additional seven campus and community radio stations in the more rural areas of Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, both of which are focal areas for Germany’s development cooperation programmes in South Africa. The research in this second phase of the project will be even more focused on the impact of the radio and social media programmes on radio listeners, and this may mean adapting the project design. For example, a “training the trainer” model has been used for knowledge transfer so far, but it was found that key messages sometimes get lost and the model was not totally effective. Some of the feedback received from participants was that the project should try to train larger groups of students and adapt more direct models of teaching.

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, the Director of HEAIDS, has close personal connections with Germany, having trained there. He’s very grateful for the German government’s support for Future Beats, and says the resulting radio programmes are very innovative and proving popular with audiences. He strongly believes that investment in South Africa’s educated young people is an investment in the future of the country: “If you don’t safeguard this group the economy collapses.”

By Ruth Evans

July 2015

[1] 2012, South African HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, published by HSRC in 2014.

[2] HEAIDS: “HIV Prevalence and related factors, Higher Education Sector Study South Africa”, 2008-2009.

Other sources

Pilot Project Research Report 2015: Future Beats – Tomorrow Matters, Today 
Adobe PDF, 79 pp. 875 kB

To find out more about the Future Beats project, listen to audio content and visit its Social Media Platforms:


–       @HEAIDS #FutureBeats

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