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A health message listeners can relate to

The doctors had been after Loretta Ragland for years to keep her diabetes in check. Eat right. Exercise. Lose weight. She'd heard it all time and again.

And ignored it all -- until she heard about Rosalyn.

Roz put off dealing with her diabetes so long, her kidneys gave out. While she was in surgery, her husband died of a massive stroke -- after which it was revealed that he'd fathered a child with Roz's best friend, Vanessa, whose alcoholic husband had recently run off, leaving her to care for a suicidal daughter and an obese toddler.

Ragland first heard Roz and Vanessa bemoaning their plights on the radio. She soon realized she was listening to fictional characters in a drama.

No matter. She could identify.

Ragland, 57, cheered when Roz began taking exercise walks. Then she, too, started walking around her hometown of Huntsville, in northern Alabama. She gave up soda. She joined a gym. She quit sweets in solidarity with Vanessa.

"When I heard it from a doctor, I wouldn't really listen," Ragland said. "But when I heard it on the show, I was like, 'Wow, maybe there is something to this.' "

That response is exactly what public-health professor Connie Kohler hoped for when she created the serialized radio drama "BodyLove" (also the name of Vanessa's beauty salon).

In weekly 15-minute episodes -- crammed with schemes, dreams and cliffhangers -- two extended families wrestle with a slew of health problems while trying to navigate prickly relationships and cope with financial strains.

Written by students and faculty at the University of Alabama, the show targets African Americans, who struggle with many of these health crises in disproportionate numbers. Across Alabama, for instance, 35% of black women are obese, compared with 20% of white women. The diabetes death rate for blacks is more than double that for whites.

"BodyLove's" characters face those odds with more frustration than courage. They give in to cravings for burgers. They resist taking insulin. They quit smoking, then backslide; lose weight, then regain it.

In short, they sound real -- like your best friend, like you -- and not like authorities lecturing from on high.

"We didn't want it to be a PBS thing," said Alex Urquhart, a creative writing major who helped develop several scripts.

The characters make progress through modest lifestyle changes. No one goes vegan or runs marathons -- they refrain from buying a tub of ice cream, or get out for a walk twice a week.

Local hosts of the show also stress practical steps to better health. Here in Marion, a small town in central Alabama, registered nurse Frances Ford modifies her on-air nutrition tips to suit local budgets. Nearly one-third of county residents live in poverty.

"Olive oil is the best, but it's more expensive, so we tell them canola oil is better than vegetable oil," she said after a recent broadcast.

Longtime listener Josephine Brand, who had come to the studio to pick up a "BodyLove" T-shirt, looked crestfallen.

"I use vegetable oil," she said. "Or that Crisco."

"Try baking your dinner, with seasoning on it," Ford suggested.

Brand nodded. She'd tried some low-fat recipes, she said, and had lost a little weight.

Encouraged, Ford pressed: "Now that you have the 'BodyLove' T-shirt, you've got to start walking." Brand, 53, promised she would.

The first 80 episodes of "BodyLove" aired between 2003 and 2007. After a fundraising break, Kohler and her partners are now writing and producing several new episodes, which will air after local stations cycle through reruns.

The "BodyLove" team is also working on a new radio drama with snappy three-minute episodes. Focused on obesity and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the soap opera will be marketed to urban stations in cities with large black populations,such as Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Kohler is also working on two soap operas about teen pregnancy -- one in Spanish -- for distribution in Iowa.

The concept of soap opera as a vehicle for social change has been around for decades. In Mexico, China, Pakistan, Kenya and other developing nations, wildly popular TV dramas have taught generations about issues such as AIDS, addiction, sexual assault and adult illiteracy.

"This is a model that's been so successful in other countries, I wonder why we aren't seeing more of it here," said Pauline M. Seitz, who directs a matching-grant program under the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports public-health initiatives.

"We all learn through stories," Seitz said. "We're captivated by them, moved by them, motivated by them."

Seitz approved a grant of nearly $250,000 over three years to launch BodyLove.

Local donors matched that sum -- in exchange for some input on plot twists.

After the Alabama Eye Bank put up funding, for instance, one character found herself in need of a cornea transplant. "It can end up being a little forced," said Lee Shackleford, the lead writer and a playwright-in-residence at the University of Alabama.

The dialogue, though, usually rings true -- especially in the hands of the seasoned cast, which includes professional and amateur actors under the direction of the university's theater department chairman.

Vanessa's son grumbles that her healthy meals -- cooked with less oil -- taste like cardboard. Her mother pushes aside dread at finding a lump in her breast with a brisk "I don't have time for this nonsense."

When her daughter, Maya, sinks into depression, Vanessa is not sure how to react. Her mother advises the family not to take Maya's lethargy seriously: "Maybe it's OK for white girls up in Hollywood, but we need to be strong."

The drama hooked Ragland so completely, she began leaving work early on Mondays so she wouldn't miss a minute of the soap opera. She took to driving to the gym while listening to "BodyLove"; Roz's woes, she found, make for a good motivational tool.

"BodyLove" is broadcast on half a dozen stations across Alabama, as well as in Atlanta and Jackson, Miss. It has just been picked up in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and negotiations are underway in Tacoma, Wash.

The stations that air "BodyLove" tend to be small and locally owned; they can't afford to subscribe to Arbitron for official audience ratings. But station managers report strong interest.

Here in Marion, "BodyLove" airs on a gospel station, drawing an audience of about 20,000 across nearly two dozen counties.

The Marion station, WJUS-AM, operates out of a dingy trailer plunked down in a field of weeds. Each Wednesday a few minutes before 8 a.m., Ford, the registered nurse, bustles in, puts on a clunky set of headphones and tugs a small microphone toward herself. "As you drink your coffee or your tea, as you get ready for your day," she says, "I'm glad you're tuning in to 'BodyLove.' "

Midway through the soap opera, Ford breaks for announcements from the county health department, mentioning a group fitness walk or free blood-pressure screening. At the end, she stays on the air another 10 to 15 minutes to answer questions.

Over the years, "BodyLove" has built a sense of community and camaraderie among listeners, as though they're all sitting around Vanessa's salon. When they call in, few have questions for Ford. Mostly, they just want to chat.

"Do you have any advice for Vanessa?" Ford asked one morning after an episode exploring that character's mounting stress.

"I don't," a female caller responded. "But I'm sure getting fat. I'm going to go out on the walking trail and start exercising."

Ford, beaming, broke into applause.

She knows many of her regulars by name. ("I bet you this is Miss Mary Ann Johnson," she told one caller. She was wrong. It was Miss Johnson's twin sister.)

Ford keeps tabs on her callers' weight. She nags them to get their blood pressure checked. She delights in hearing how "BodyLove" has changed their habits.

After an episode about the health benefits of "naked chicken" -- stripped of its fatty Southern-fried skin -- William Smith, 63, called in to boast that he'd told his wife to roast their Thanksgiving turkey instead of frying it. Ford was so proud, she recently made an on-air plea for him to call back and tell the story again.

Bertha Kennie, another regular caller, credits "BodyLove" with teaching her to read nutrition labels for sodium and sugar content.

"I never hardly paid any attention before," she said. "Just pulled what I wanted off the shelf."

Kennie, 72, is fairly sure that some doctor, somewhere, must have told her to watch the salt. "But doctors say a lot of things," she said, "and sometimes it just rolls right off you, like water off a duck's back." The show, on the other hand, makes her sit up and listen: "You get real into it."

When she feels like complaining about her own burdens, Kennie thinks of poor Vanessa or Roz or Maya.

"You don't feel like the Lord's picking on you," she said, "because you realize everyone has problems."

The characters' travails have even affected the actors who give them voice.

"I don't eat as much fried chicken anymore. I take the skin off," said James McCarty II, a regular on the show.

Then he flashed a sheepish grin.

He hasn't turned into a health nut, he admitted. It would be bad for his career. His other regular gig: making commercials for McDonald's.

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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