Sonny Fox contributed in many ways to the understanding of how to use storytelling as a tool for social change. Sonny filled leadership roles at Population Communications International (PCI), launching radio and video entertainments across the globe that addressed public health issues.
He organized yearly “soap summits,” bringing together medical experts and television writers and producers to increase the accuracy of dramatic portrayals of health. He broadened worldwide appreciation of the crucial work by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, who provided a needed intellectual foundation for creating effective “edutainment.”
Let me add two activities that might otherwise escape notice. In the late 1980s there was a shortage of empirical evidence that careful scripting of entertainment programming could improve reproductive health in developing countries. At the time, Ev Rogers was a leading scholar in communication and national development and faculty member at the Annenberg School for Communication, USC, and I was the School’s dean.
Sonny worked tirelessly to help us assemble resources that made Ev’s large-scale field experiment in Tanzania possible, documenting the impact of Twende na Wakati (Let’s Go with the Times), a radio serial drama. Repeated measures across time, inclusion of control groups, and data gleaned from clinics as well as individuals helped nail the conclusions. The soap opera “had strong behavioral effects on family planning adoption, (increasing) listeners’ self-efficacy regarding family planning adoption and. . .talk with spouses and peers about contraception” (Studies in Family Planning 1999; 30(3); 193-211).
Sonny also nurtured the skills of young media professionals in developing countries so they could create and evaluate their own social-change programming. In the 1990s, he secured funding from the Packard Foundation and we created early-career Fellowships in the summer months at Annenberg and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, through a vital partnership with Professor Doe Mayer. The program invited applications from film makers, broadcasters, even practitioners of street theater worldwide. Fellows took USC courses in communications, sociology, and cinema-television, along with other students. They also attended special lectures and field trips arranged just for them, across 13 weeks of tightly scheduled activities in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York.
Altogether, three groups of Fellows, 26 participants in their early professional careers, benefited from this innovative educational experience. In addition to conceiving and directing the program, Sonny and his partner Celestine Arndt, herself a long-term PCI board member, welcomed Fellows into their home and mentored them on personal as well as professional matters.
Professor of Communication
USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism