Signal Boosting: The Power of Radio for Latinx HIV/AIDS Outreach

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In recent years, social media campaigns have become the predominant way to raise awareness and spark change. Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter and the like are now the vehicles of choice, and hashtags have replaced flyers. But one radio station in central Pennsylvania is using its traditional media platform to spread information about HIV/AIDS prevention, education and services to its Latinx community.

WLCH Radio Centro, a public radio station run by the Lancaster-based nonprofit Spanish American Civic Association (SACA) has dedicated a large chunk of its programming to raising awareness about HIV prevention and treatment among Latino/as in Lancaster and York counties. Every Tuesday morning starting at 10 a.m. WLCH airs Alerta Al Sida (AIDS Alert), a half-hour block on HIV and AIDS health news featuring experts, advocates and health professionals. Once a month, WLCH interviews a person living with HIV or AIDS on its daily news and public affairs program, Café Con Leche, which broadcasts from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. And throughout the day, WLCH runs public service announcements on HIV prevention and treatment.

"We know that HIV/AIDS is still in our community and some people are affected every day of their lives," said Wilfredo Seda, news analyst and commentator for Café Con Leche. "Thus we tackle [HIV/AIDS] on a consistent basis and not as subject matter that is presented on our station once or twice a year to fill air space."

Among the Latinx population, radio is quickly growing in popularity and more and more Spanish-language stations are launching to service the emerging need. In last year's Audio Today report, Nielsen found that the weekly national Hispanic radio audience had climbed 11 percent since 2011 -- from 36.5 million to 40.4 million. The media research company also discovered that Latino/as listen to more than 12 hours of radio per week, mostly outside the home. That means Latino/as are also listening to the radio while in transit, on construction sites, in restaurants and in the field, says Alison Rodden, chief executive officer of Hispanic Communications Network (HCN), a social and health marketing organization. For many, radio is even their primary source of information.

"Radio is highly intimate," Rodden says. "[It] is accessible, highly consumed and one of the most cost-effective vehicles with impact to reach Spanish-speaking populations with educational messages on HIV."

Radio is an "incredible" tool to share HIV/AIDS health information with farm-working, rural and migrant populations, says Carlos Ugarte, director of health programs at Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for the civil rights of the estimated two million seasonal and migrant farmworkers across the country. These communities tend to listen heavily to the radio while working in the fields or doing household chores because of the "historical comfort" the platform provides, he says.

"That's what they grew up with," Ugarte says. "From my perspective, radio continues to be underutilized as a tool to be able to deliver info that compliments and supplements what's going on in the community."

Hispanic Communications Network (HCN) has partnered with the Latino Commission on AIDS and Farmworker Justice to produce original and culturally tailored radio public service announcements on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Each organization's PSA is syndicated for broadcast to over 100 affiliate radio stations in HCN's national Spanish-language radio network. The PSAs run during the agency's daily health radio mini-programs -- such as the health and wellness-focused Fuente de Salud and lifestyle segment Para Vivir Mejor -- that reach more than six million Latinx listeners in urban and rural areas each week, says Rodden.

In working with HCN, Farmworker Justice developed two Spanish-language radio PSAs to promote HIV testing services at community clinics and organizations. According to Rodden, farmworkers at first hesitated to speak to Farmworker Justice's promotores de salud (or community health workers) who provide HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and education outreach in rural areas. But, she says, the farmworkers became "more receptive" to the promotores once Farmworker Justice's PSA campaign began to air. The farmworkers heard the public health workers on the radio.

"Stigma surrounding HIV continues to be an issue among Latinx friends and families," says Rodden. "The more frequently consumers hear about HIV on the radio, and hear it being discussed by personalities they know and trust, this translates to it becoming less taboo in their own lives."

WLCH is exceptionally positioned as a radio station to share HIV prevention and treatment information. It's the only bilingual, full-time, non-commercial station serving one of the larger Latinx populations in Pennsylvania. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, people who identify as Hispanic or Latino represent nearly 40 percent of the population in the city of Lancaster -- South Central Pennsylvania's second largest Latinx community -- which WLCH has served on 91.3 FM since 1987. That same year, the census reported that over 28 percent of residents of the city of York -- where WLCH began broadcasting on 100.3 FM in 2005 -- identified as Hispanic or Latino. Across Lancaster County, though, Latino/as represent less than 10 percent of the population. In York County, they represent about six percent. Combined, the counties are home to an estimated 1,635 people living with HIV.

"Our radio is a unique station because we don't only provide music," says Sandra Valdez, who has hosted Alerta Al Sida for nearly 17 years. "We also provide information and awareness [to] help them better their health and wellness."

Between 11,000 and 12,000 households tune into WLCH at any given time from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Seda says. After that time block, the number drops down to about 7,000. Sixty-eight percent of those listeners have used SACA's HIV/AIDS services at its clinic, Nuestra Clinica Education and Prevention Services, directly because of WLCH's HIV/AIDS radio programming, which is simultaneously broadcast on SACA's public access channel, TeleCentro, says Valdez. "We've gotten many individuals to come in to get tested and other services," she says. "The more you repeat that info, the more impact it can have."

These results suggest that HIV/AIDS health advocates might be able to increase their reach if they incorporated radio into their outreach. While online, web-based, and satellite radio are seeing upward trends in listenership, traditional AM/FM radio continues to dominate. According to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media 2016 report, 63 percent of people said radio was their primary source of in-car listening --up three percent from 2015. Although spotty through the years, public radio broadcasting has also seen an uptick in listeners, the Pew Research Center found.

As for Seda, he understands that certain WLCH listeners may bristle at its HIV- and AIDS-related programming. Some people the radio station caters to in the Latinx community are "very conservative," notes Seda, who is also producer and host of Jazzarama, a WLCH's Sunday Latin jazz program. "But HIV/AIDS can affect their lives too."

That's why WLCH has made such a strong commitment to featuring HIV/AIDS programming when other outlets won't even touch the subject, Seda says. By tackling the issue on a consistent basis, the radio station is able to break barriers and reassure even its most private listeners that they can talk about HIV. And that has had an impact. Seda says listeners are responding positively to the experiences shared by guests who appear on Café Con Leche every month. Listeners will even call in and share their own stories about living with or being affected by HIV -- for some, these are stories they have never told another soul. They now feel more comfortable opening up, he notes.

It all comes back to raising awareness. If WLCH can bring information about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment into people's homes, that means it has an opportunity to facilitate the conversation. "We have to continue to educate," Valdez says. "Knowledge is key."