“What we farmers want is a farming Dick Barton

So said farmers in post-World War II Britain, to consultants eager to improve agriculture and livestock. Numerous worthy endeavors had tried to educate this group with little success. Acting on this feedback, the now famous radio soap opera The Archers was launched in 1950 and has remained a popular part of broadcasting ever since.

Listeners to Musekeweya in Rwanda
Listeners to Musekeweya in Rwanda

Radio advice giving remains slightly different to that found in print media. It can use drama, where advice and information is embedded within a wider soap opera plot. Such as the hugely successful New Home, New Life – Naway Kor, Naway Jwand that has run for over 20 years in Afghanistan. Or New Dawn – Musekeweya in Rwanda, using a weekly drama to address and overcome community violence.

These advice-giving soaps may be run primarily for entertainment but include ‘real life’ dramas within them, or may be created by governments, NGOs or charities as a powerful way to highlight specific issues such as nutrition, smoking cessation, contraception choices or child welfare. They may run daily, weekly or monthly and may be followed up with additional resources like websites or cartoons.

Performers in studio for New Home, New Life
Performers in studio for New Home, New Life

Alternatively the advice column as we’re more familiar with it in print media can be exported to radio where an agony aunt or uncle, or resident expert (medic, therapist etc) responds to reader problems.

Formats for radio advice giving vary depending on the radio station, audience profiles, and time and resources allocated for programming. They may include

– regular programme where people can call in on any issue that is troubling them

– regular programme where each week a specific issue is the focus (e.g. heart disease, domestic violence, parenting a teenager, World Aids day), or is pinned on a celebrity crisis or news story

– occasional or one-off programme on a specific topic (e.g. tackling dating worries)

Audience letters, texts or emails may be collected before or during the programme and read out, pre-recorded interviews with experts or people talking about their problems may be used within the programme, or calls may be taken during the show. Sometimes the presenters/agony aunts can read out listener problems or actors may perform them.

Anna Raeburn
Radio presenter and agony aunt Anna Raeburn

Some programmes do follow up emails and phone calls for those who were unable to be answered during the programme or offer additional resources on their station website. Music, drama, excerpts from books or films can also be used within the programme.

There is a difference between general talk radio where current events, news and sports can be talked about; and advice giving programmes where attempts are made to find solutions to problems and offer audiences wider support.

Advice giving radio shows may be stand-alone programmes, or a segment within a longer show. They can be presented in a variety of ways that include

– A journalist presents the programme, with an agony aunt/uncle joining them to answer problems

– Agony aunt/uncle hosts the entire programme, perhaps joined by a co-host or guest presenters (e.g. someone who’s experienced a problem, is from a charity or NGO or is a clinician)

– A panel of experts talk about a topic together, perhaps facilitated by a presenter

– Audience members take over the programme, talking about issues and offering advice (this is particularly popular on youth radio)

– Listeners can call in to offer their advice to those seeking help, either alongside an agony aunt or uncle or in discussion with a regular presenter

Dear Abby Radio Advert

Different programmes and advice givers opt for different approaches, be that safe and nurturing, a factual discussion, or more confrontational and judgemental.

Problems may be dealt with on a first come first served basis or may be picked based on the caller’s problem and how articulate they are, this may happen with the assistance of the agony aunt/uncle or calls may be selected by the regular production staff and fed to the studio.

Agony Aunt Irma Kurtz recently presented a series of programmes on radio advice giving Worldwide – ‘World Agony’ – which you can listen to here.


Unlike print media (magazines and newspapers), radio advice giving is more likely to allow for a dialogue between the person calling in with their problem and the advice giver. Many inferences can be drawn based on someone’s accent, use of language, tone, delivery, pauses and so on. If someone becomes distressed they can be comforted and areas of uncertainty or ambiguity can be explored. The caller can also ask more of the advice giver and challenge or question them if the information provided doesn’t suit their needs. Those giving advice can also check what is being asked of them as often what someone presents with may not be their actual issue.

The drawbacks of such an approach is programmes need callers who are happy to talk on air, which not everyone is comfortable to do. Concerns around being identified may be off-putting, particularly for those calling local radio stations. Where other callers join in with advice the quality may be excellent or there may be issues of judging, shaming and dismissing people with problems or giving ‘this worked for me’ tips that may not be appropriate for others.

While dramatic and emotional exchanges where people become angry or distressed may make for entertaining listening, real concerns exist for those who talk about suicide and self harm. Some agony aunts have famously kept people on air so as to talk them out of harming, or until such time as health workers could reach them. But the ethics of broadcasting potentially triggering issues need careful handling. As do the choice of guests where there can be problems of those in authority offering advice that seems credible due to their status or qualifications but is in fact inaccurate or damaging (for example the medic who told callers to one African radio station that masturbation would cause infertility and the solution was to fast for several days to remove any temptation).

Radio, if done well, can be a powerful medium for reaching wider communities. It includes those with literacy or visual problems and permits taboo and mundane topics to be shared. However to deliver it ethically, accurately and safely remains a costly business.

Further Reading
Bosch A. 1997. Interactive Radio Instruction: Twenty-Three Years of Improving Educational Quality. Education and Technology Notes 1 (1) pp.1-11.
DeCapua A and Dunham JF. 1993. Strategies in the discourse of advice. Journal of Pragmatics. 20 (6) pp.519-531.
Fryer ML. Heath education through interactive radio: a child-to-child project in Bolivia
Hall BL and Dodds T. 1977. Voices for development: the Tanzanian National Radio Study campaigns. Radio for education and development case studies. 260-299.
Ho M. Radio Talk Show Hosts Advice Giving Strategies.
Hudson T. 1990. The discourse of advice giving in English: ‘I wouldn’t feed until spring no matter what you do’. Language and Communication. 10 (4) pp. 285-297.
Jamison DT and McAnany EG. 1978. Radio for Education and Development. People and Communication
Nwaerondu NG and Thompson G. 1987. The Use of Educational Radio in Developing Countries: Lessons from the Past. International Journal of e-Learning and Distance Education. 2 (2) pp.43-54.
Rice R and Atkin CK. 2013. Public Communication Campaigns. 4th Edition. Sage.
Thornborrow J. 2001. Questions, Control and the Organization of Talk in Calls to a Radio Phone-In. Discourse Studies. 3 (1) pp.119-143.
Vaughan PW and Rogers EM. 2000. A Staged Model of Communication Effects: Evidence from an Entertainment-Education Radio Soap Opera in Tanzania. Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives. 5 (3) pp. 203-227.
Weller S. 2006. Tuning‐in to Teenagers! Using Radio Phone‐in Discussions in Research with Young People. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 9 (4) pp.303-315.
Radio for Peace Building

New Home, New Life Evaluation Documents
In pictures: The Archers in Afghanistan
How Soap Operas Bring About Change
Red Cross Report – On the Air in Afghanistan
Unesco Case Study
20th Anniversary Speech
USAID final project report