BROOKE GLADSTONE: That theme, familiar to anyone who's lived in Britain at any time over the last 50 years, belongs to The Archers, the longest-running radio drama in history. The BBC's idea was to instruct its rural listeners in the methods of modern farming, dressing up the lessons with the soap opera staples of romance and gossip.
In 1994, the BBC set its didactic sites on a more remote agricultural community --Afghanistan. [AFGHANI MUSIC] [YOUNG PERSON SPEAKING ON RADIO CLIP IN NATIVE LANGUAGE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Thirty-five million listeners -- that's 70 percent of the population -- tune in to each 15 minute episode of New Home, New Life. The lives of the characters who inhabit the fictional villages of the series are inextricably woven into the daily routine of real village communities; so much so that when one character was killed off, a day of public mourning was declared!
In a country where even music is banned, the BBC appears to have slipped through the cracks. Sharazuddin Siddiqi is the producer of the program in Peshawar, Pakistan. He says the original aims of the program have changed over the years.
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI: The show was initially set up to help Afghans to reconstruct Afghanistan. We were expecting that Afghans will go back to their country from Pakistan and from Iran, and the major issue would be the reconstruction of the country. But unfortunately as the-- the civil war broke in 1992, that did not happen, and the focus of the soap opera changed slightly. It tried to help Afghans to live better and cope with the difficulties of the sort of everyday life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now the program presents a number of -- I guess what are frankly artistic challenges. You have a 15 minute drama in which you're trying to impart some cultural messages and more importantly some plain instruction about health and, and how to protect it!
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI: Absolutely. For instance, hygiene is one of the most difficult things for the drama because there is very little tension in it, and so in a house we have two co-wives married to the same man. There are lots of problems, and hygiene is one of the issues there. One of these women do not really practice hygiene so much and the other is so critical, and there is always tension in that family.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I read a sad and fascinating statistic that regular listeners to your program are statistically less likely to be killed by land mines. What else have listeners learned?
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI: To give you a small anecdote for instance, I was talking to an elderly farmer in Afghanistan and he was telling me that he had learned to cultivate onions, and I said who told you this? He said Myam Kelnik Mohammed [sp?]. And I said is this Mohammed an agriculturalist or-- a community leader? Who is he? He looked at me and gave me a very firm look and said don't you listen to New Home, New Life?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Experts looking at Afghanistan say one of the greatest problems is that too many people are responding to the fear of the campaign by pulling up stakes and wandering around, bringing greater risk upon themselves. Is--Do you advise somehow in the program people to stay put?
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI: Yes, we do. We have interviewed for instance women who have left Jalalabad and have come to Peshawar all the way. She's walked through several mountains, and by the time she arrived in Peshawar, she lost one child and another child was totally dehydrated. So these are the real examples upon which we are [trying ?] our story lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now the show was on the air since 1994. That's two years longer than the Taliban have been in power in Afghanistan. They've banned what amounts to every possible source of entertainment in the country right down to music. How did your program escape the knife?
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI: Because we are talking about sort of 70 to 80 percent of the population listening to the shows, and a lot of the Taliban's soldiers are our ardent listeners, and they could not really enrage these foot soldiers by banning radio, because they were listening to it every day and night.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have music in your program?
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI:Quite a lot, and ever since the music was stopped and banned-- in Afghanistan and the radios, local radios in Afghanistan stopped playing music, we actually increased it a little bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you think that a radio soap opera can really penetrate the restrictive society that the Taliban enforces and change people's lives?
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI: New Home, New Life is the evident example of that. It has been created and it has actually crossed any boundary. It has cracked the restrictions and it has found its way to people's homes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much.
SHARAZUDDIN SIDDIQI: You're most welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sharazuddin Siddiqi runs the program New Home, New Life, and he spoke to us from Peshawar, Pakistan. [MUSIC]