Soap Merchant

This organization’s soap operas produce more than just a good story

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

bill_ryersonBill Ryerson, the founder and president of Population Media Center in South Burlington, works in countries around the world to effect change in the areas of human health, human rights, environmental protection, and economic equality through social-content dramas.

In 1975, Miguel Sabido, then vice president for research at Televisa (Mexican television), produced Ven Conmigo (Come With Me), the first of several telenovelas he would create for the company. Sabido telenovelas are social-content serial dramas — popular prime-time series known for their love triangles and cliff-hangers. They feature positive and negative characters who model behavior in these soap operas that can run for years, but always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The audience develops bonds with the characters and learns vicariously through each character’s decisions and repercussions.

Sabido found that inserting into the stories transitional characters who evolve into role models drastically increased the adoption of behavior change, says Bill Ryerson, the president of Population Media Center (PMC), which he founded in 1998 to further Sabido’s method of entertainment-education. “For example,” he explains, “in Russia, there are a number of women named Maria because of a Mexican soap opera playing there a few decades ago.”

To figure out why this was true, Sabido began researching the psychology of influence or role-modeling and dis­covered the work of Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, who, Ryerson says, “is the best-known of the living psychologists on the planet.”

Back in the ’60s, he says, “Bandura turned the common beliefs of psychologists on their head and said that basically people learn their behavior from role models.” Bandura is on the Population Media Center’s advisory board, as are 60-some other luminaries such as Paul Ehrlich, the author of over 45 books, including The Population Bomb; Gloria Steinem, who co-founded New York magazine and Ms.; and Paul Winter, founder and director of the Paul Winter Consort.

Aware of the potential impact of these telenovelas, Sabido produced Ven Conmigo, a melodrama whose characters were in poverty and unemployment, to see if it could address the Mexican Department of Public Education’s promotion for adult education classes in reading and writing.

Sabido held back his most popular character — a grandfather — until near the end of the program, when he graduates from the illiteracy class in an emotional scene, finally able read the letters he’s received over the years from his granddaughter. Then he reads the addresses where viewers can sign up for classes.

“A few weeks before the end of the serial,” says Ryerson, “Sabido warned the Public Education Department that they might see a crowd. They said, ‘Well, we signed up 99,000 people last year, so no worry.’ But the day after the grandfather graduated, 250,000 people came in a single day, and by the end of the serial a few weeks later, 840,000 people had signed up — more than eight times the year before.”

Sabido would go on to tackle, with similar results, issues such as family planning, responsible parenthood, sex education for adolescents, the problem of street children, and countering traditions such as machismo. From 1977 to 1986, when many of these soap operas were airing, Mexico underwent a 34 percent decline in population growth rate, and in 1986, received the United Nations Population Prize recognizing it as the foremost population success story in the world.

When Ven Conmigo aired in 1975, Ryerson was working at the Population Institute in Washington, D.C., where he had been since 1971, shortly after deciding that his work as an activist with Zero Population Growth was more compelling than his graduate studies in biology at Yale.

He grew up in Swarthmore, Pa., one of four children. His mother was a housewife (“from whom I benefited immensely; she was valedictorian of her high school class so very focused on education,” he says), and his father, an engineer in the oil business most of his early life. “He was the founder at Sun Oil of what’s called the Sun Tech program, which trains scientists and engineers in aspects of the petroleum technology outside of their areas of specialty.”

After his father faced automatic retirement at age 65, says Ryerson, “he chose not to retire but to move to Vermont to take a job as director of placement at Vermont Technical College, which he did for 15 years, when he took up downhill skiing, then switched careers and worked as executive director of the Randolph Chamber of Commerce for 11 years. After he retired from that, we went to Alaska and went whitewater rafting with him. He died at almost age 94, in 1996.”

Ryerson confesses that he fell in love with Vermont largely because his parents were living here. His sister Marjorie, a state legislator and journalist, lives in Randolph.

After undergraduate work at Amherst College, he went to Yale to earn his Ph.D. “In the time I was at Yale, from 1967 to 1971, the Yale biology department and forestry school had a series of lectures on the world environmental crisis, and many ecology and environmental experts gave talks on aspects like pollution and toxification of the environment.”

One of those was Paul Ehrlich. “I sat in the audience fascinated,” Ryerson says, “had dinner with him that night with my advisor, Charles Remington, and then became an activist the following year.” He didn’t finish his Ph.D., but “earned a master’s on the way out.”

In 1971 he joined the Population Institute in D.C. as head of the youth and student division, and a year later, met Leta Finch. Finch was studying in Hawaii and heard an announcement of a student intern program at the institute. The intern program in Hawaii wasn’t to start till the following year, when Finch had commitments, “but she came to meet me because she’d never met anybody from Washington, D.C.,” he says with a chuckle.

They married in 1975 and live in Shelburne, the parents of a daughter, Shannen, and a 3-year-old grandchild, Riley, “who has proven scientifically to be the cutest kid on the planet,” he boasts.

In 1979, Ryerson was hired as development director at Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia, where he learned fund-raising. From 1981 to 1986, he was associate director of Planned Parenthood of Vermont, which expanded during his tenure across New Hampshire and Maine.

“In 1986, I went to work with a former colleague who had taken this soap opera idea into his own NGO [non-governmental organization],” he says. “I did that until 1998, and then founded the Population Media Center.”

Today, the work of PMC, a nonprofit, has impacted more than 50 countries and employs about 65 people worldwide. That includes eight in the South Burlington headquarters on Kimball Avenue, a 2,700-square-foot space that still has a few unpacked boxes following a move last Labor Day weekend from Pine Haven Shores Road in Shelburne. Three headquarters people are not in the office, but outliers,” he says. The rest are in the various countries where PMC produces its radio and television series.

The organization does extensive research in the countries where its programs air, working with the policies of the country, “as long as they are positive from the standpoint of a UN perspective,” he says.

Research includes outreach for the best writers and producers in that country, recruited from the national theater or university based on their writing. From as many as 40 applicants, 20 are trained and the best five or so are hired. Scripts are written in the local language, on site. Occasionally, Sabido himself, who just celebrated his 77th birthday, will be brought in to train people.

2013’s income exceeded $8 million, of which 93.2 percent went to programs. Funding comes from various sources, including individuals, foundations, corporations, and the United Nations — a large contributor.

Sustain Condoms, a new company founded by Seventh Generation’s co-founder Jeffrey Hollander, is a backer. “I think Bill is absolutely brilliant at solving some incredibly important challenges and I think in many ways, he probably hasn’t received anywhere near the recognition he deserves,” Hollender says. “What’s quite amazing is how effective his work is at accomplishing critically important objectives.”

Ryerson spends much of his time traveling, particularly in Africa, but some in Asia and Latin America. “In 2014, I was away from home 55 percent of the time,” he says.

In 2013, says Ryerson, “we had the temerity to go into Hollywood and start competing there.” The result is a series called East Los High, which premiered on Hulu in June 2013. Season two, aired in 2014, became the Number 1 show on Hulu when it was released.

“We’re now into season three, and it’s generating revenue for us. Right now there are 36 episodes up there. It deals with teen pregnancy,” he says, adding that Hispanic teens have the highest rates of teen pregnancy of any group in the country.

A team of Hollywood producers and writers were engaged to create the series. The project includes character social media profiles and blogs and other transmedia elements. It was supported by two individual donors and five foundations. “Over 30,000 linked to a Planned Parenthood site from one of our sites in one month,” Ryerson says.

In many ways, Ryerson has come full circle since his days at the Population Institute, which is now a subsidiary of the Population Media Center. PMC is entering a strategic planning and board development process toward expanding both its capacity worldwide and its work in the United States, looking toward Harlem, Atlanta, and Texas.

One of PMC’s founding board members is Hope Green, past president of Vermont PBS and currently a principal in the management consulting firm Arns & Green Inc. She describes Ryerson as “a person with a passion. And he is a person who applies the serious test of fact to the work he does. That combination is hard to beat. The history speaks for itself: Soap operas can change the world. Who knew? Bill knew. And he is making it happen.” •