Public Health Advocacy on Live Radio

PHX Perspectives | October 28th, 2019

California Senate Bill 276, Immunizations: medical exemptions, was up for vote in California this past May, and up for heated debate in the media, especially as celebrities such as actress Jessica Biel publicly denounced the bill which closes loopholes that allow parents to take exemptions from vaccinating their children. When my friend Dave Congalton messaged me to ask if I wanted to come on his live radio show to discuss the bill and pending vote, I had mixed feelings. I had joined his show many times over the past 10 years to discuss a variety of topics, many of them health-related. But did I know enough about vaccines to be a public health advocate on this issue? What did I have to offer? What if I got the facts wrong? Anti-vaxxers could be very pointed and specific with their arguments.

What led me to accept his offer was twofold: one, my personal goal of putting myself in situations that challenge me and make me feel uncomfortable, so that I can grow, and two, realizing that I have a lot to offer my community as someone who did not always know what I now know about the science of vaccines. I, too, was once fearful about “Big Pharma” trying to take advantage of people in order to reap profits. I, too, once had trouble discerning legitimate health scientists from snake oil salesmen on the internet. There was once a time when I ascribed to magical thinking about health and healing.

That journey from ignorance to knowledge is a valuable one to share–albeit a vulnerable one. When those of us who “know more now” project an image of perfection and that we “always knew the right thing,” what we are doing is closing off the ability for someone else to be inspired by our journey. When we are vulnerable about who we once were and how we got to where we now are, others can relate better to us and learn the steps they need to take to acquire the skills and knowledge they need.

During my live radio interview which aired June 11, 2019 at 5PM, I made sure to let listeners know, “I’m not an expert, just a public health student”. I always stated where I got my knowledge: “We went over the history of the anti-vax movement in my epidemiology course and this is what I learned”. I let listeners know that they should always strive to be skeptical of anything they read on the internet and that some sources are more credible than others. I especially directed them to a great online forum, Vaccine Talk: A Forum for Both Pro and Anti Vaxxer on Facebook, where they can find experts presenting the best research and information available. Being a public health advocate is about challenging people to think critically and directing them to the right resources so they can find information for themselves.

The show, called Hometown Radio with Dave Congalton, broadcasts on AM and FM stations in San Luis Obispo (SLO), California to the public, every Monday through Friday from 3:00 to 7:00 PM. Dave invites guests to come on to discuss issues that are of interest to residents of SLO County on a variety of topics. Listeners are invited to call in and ask the guest and host questions and occasionally the show’s producer, Craig Hill, chimes in with his thoughts as well. In this way, the discussion always sounds approachable and relatable, which is a great vibe when wanting to introduce the public to new ideas and ways of thinking.

Tips to win people over on your issue:

  • Be humble. Nothing will push someone away faster than being a “know-it-all”.
  • Relate to people exactly where they are. When someone called in about being anti-vax I said, “I understand that you are wanting safety for your children”. Acknowledging the good intentions of people is the best way to open up their listening ear to new viewpoints.
  • Share your story. Share someone’s story. Even though in public health we deal with facts and numbers, which are important, people listen to stories.

The show was a hit with the phone lines ringing off the hook with people wanting to weigh in or ask us a question. So, we decided to create a monthly public health topic series. I joined his show 3 more times in June, July, and August. We covered sugar overconsumption and health, paid parental leave policies and childhood toxic stress, and the opioid epidemic. We pulled these topics from headlines when we could and had current events and articles to read from on hand to get the conversation going. For example, we chose the opioid epidemic to discuss during the week when a judge in Oklahoma ruled that corporation Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $572 million due to its deceptive marketing of opioid prescription drugs. “Was this ruling fair?” was a great question to spark our discussion and on which to hear from callers.

Each show, someone called in to say that they appreciated me coming on to raise awareness of these issues. It always felt good to get that feedback. Maybe I changed just one person’s mind. Maybe I inspired just a handful of people to think more critically about science and health. My hope is that even this small change will have a ripple effect–that they more share what they learned with a coworker or family member, that they might be inspired to go back to school to study science, or that they might find their own voice as an advocate to promote change and justice.

Listen to the series:

Visit Alison’s website here.

The PHX Perspectives blog is a platform that creates an opportunity to share public health stories and viewpoints. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be 600-800 words long, should contact Population Health Exchange reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Population Health Exchange or Boston University School of Public Health.