West Africa Ebola epidemic

The 2014–2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa was the worst of its kind in history, causing over 10,000 deaths and disruptions to everyday lives and livelihoods. A number of factors exacerbated the spread of the disease, including poor healthcare systems, distrust of authorities, stigma around the disease and traditional practices.


BBC Media Action mounted one of the first and largest communication responses to the Ebola epidemic, initially working in Sierra Leone through an existing national network of radio stations, before developing mass-media programming in Guinea and Liberia, as well as providing training across sub-Saharan Africa in producing practical, life-saving “Lifeline” programmes.


In Sierra Leone

BBC Media Action devised and produced a range of linked communication interventions, as outlined below.

Radio programming  Kick Ebola Nar Salone (Kick Ebola out of Sierra Leone), a weekly pre-recorded radio magazine programme and Kick Ebola Live, a weekly two-hour live broadcast. Both programmes were broadcast by over 35 local partner radio stations across the country. The shows featured guests from national and district government response centres, health , district chiefs, religious leaders and Ebola survivors, as well as popular comedians and musicians.

Brief radio public service announcements – For example, to debunk emerging rumours or provide new advice about Ebola transmission and treatment. These featured in Kick Ebola Nar Salone and Kick Ebola Live, as well as being broadcast on their own by partner radio stations.

Radio drama – Mini drama Mr Plan Plan  used emotional storylines and engaging characters to enable people to prepare their own response and build their confidence. The episodes were produced in Krio as well as four local languages. They were broadcast within Kick Ebola Nar Salone and Kick Ebola Live, as well as being broadcast on their own by partner radio stations.

Support to local radio stations – BBC Media Action provided training, mentoring, equipment and resources to 42 radio stations across Sierra Leone, to equip them to produce weekly Lifeline radio programmes responding to the specific information needs of each community or district.

Social media – BBC Media Action used its existing Sierra Leone Facebook page and a newly established WhatsApp broadcasting channel to provide information about the Ebola response, transmission and treatment through text, graphics and other audio-visual content. The public service announcements and Mr Plan Plan episodes were also distributed through social media, reaching both in-country and diaspora audiences.

Collaboration – BBC Media Action worked within the Social Mobilisation Action Consortium (SMAC), which in turn worked with and through existing local community structures to reduce Ebola infections. Led by GOAL, the consortium also included Restless Development, Focus 1000 and the US Centre for Disease Control.


In Guinea and Liberia

BBC Media Action’s interventions in response to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and Guinea –  producing and disseminating radio and social media content – echoed many of the approaches it used in Sierra Leone.

Its radio discussion programme, Kick Ebola from Liberia, was produced in Liberian English and broadcast through UN radio (UNMIL), LBS radio stations as well as the BBC World Service, reaching listeners across the country.  It was also broadcast in French in Guinea on Radio National de Guinea and BBC Afrique. As in Sierra Leone, the mini drama Mr. Plan Plan was broadcast as one of the segments in Kick Ebola, aiming to help people respond to the crisis with confidence. 

BBC Media Action also established A Kick Ebola From Liberia Facebook page and WhatsApp broadcasting channel, as well as a SoundCloud page, to engage with social media users in Liberia and the diaspora.


Across sub-Saharan Africa

BBC Media Action trained governments, media practitioners and humanitarians in 10 “at risk” countries in Lifeline preparedness – how to use media and communication as a tool to help prevent the spread of Ebola. The training sessions took place in countries including Benin, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, The Gambia, Togo, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali and South Sudan.


BBC Media Action’s projects all worked towards using media and communication to help prevent the spread of Ebola and enable people affected by the emergency to cope more effectively.

They were designed to give people access to:

  • A platform where they could voice their needs, share experiences and propose solutions
  • Accurate information about the virus and its transmission, prevention and treatment, so that they could take measures to protect themselves, their families and communities
  • The motivation to make practical decisions and actions to protect themselves and others.


The Ebola context presented challenges for research because ethical considerations prevented research teams going into the field for long periods, for fear of spreading the virus. Alternative research methods involved inevitable compromises in the robustness of the research design. Desk research and interviews with experts helped to inform the research in 2015. Following local safety guidelines, listening groups were held several months after the initial outbreak.

In Liberia, BBC Media Action had the additional challenge of not having its own staff on the ground. To gather audience opinion, it used a GeoPoll SMS survey conducted through Liberia’s main mobile provider, which has 50% market share in Liberia, alongside phone interviews with experts. The GeoPoll survey was a non-representative survey – a random selection of subscribers to the MTN network received invitations to participate. This meant that research participants were more likely to be educated, literate and urban than the population as a whole.




Platform – A nationally representative survey conducted by BBC Media Action in 2013 indicated that over 50% of the population over the age of 15 listened to Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation radio stations, many of which carried BBC Media Action’s.

At the time of broadcasting, the Kick Ebola from Liberia Facebook page had 11,697 followers, which was the biggest Facebook news group for Liberians.2 In Sierra Leone, a WhatsApp service created for the programme had over 12,000 followers.

Listeners interviewed in Liberia were positive about the platform that Kick Ebola Nar Salone offered people in order to express themselves. In multiple SMS surveys, the majority of respondents (around 85%) agreed that the programme gave listeners an opportunity to voice their concerns. Focus group participants echoed this feedback and felt that being able to share their opinions and concerns would increase their visibility among responders to the Ebola epidemic.

Content – Social media was highly effective at giving audience members a voice and enabling the programme to address emerging issues and concerns in real time.

Listeners appreciated the programme’s content and themes, which they found to be highly relevant to their situation and needs – such as discussing safe burial practices and dealing with family members affected by Ebola. The information they found least relevant was on vaccines. Unlike many other topics in , which included discussion with members of the public or known and trusted figureheads, the vaccine episode featured interviews with unfamiliar experts, which may have contributed to a feeling of distrust.

Listeners in Liberia and Sierra Leone reported being engaged by BBC Media Action’s programme contents and formats. They liked the drama Mr Plan Plan and identified with the characters and their struggles dealing with Ebola.

People appreciated being able to hear the voice of ordinary people and being able to contribute to local radio stations (people were prepared to phone these programmes despite the cost of phone credit). Radio experts in Sierra Leone and Liberia noted that phone-in programmes on local radio stations need to be carefully managed to avoid contributing to misinformation or rumours.

Future programming in similar contexts should make further efforts to ensure that local radio stations receive support to deliver these types of programmes, particularly in relation to maintaining accuracy.


Audience members in West Africa did not trust all information sources to the same extent and BBC Media Action selected its broadcast partners based on audience trust levels.

Research showed that listeners affected by the Ebola epidemic valued and trusted the information they heard in programmes produced or supported by BBC Media Action.

Respondents picked out a number of factors that drove this trust, including the media channel, the content’s consistency with that from other trusted sources, the accurate depiction of community life, and the use of trusted and respected contributors such as religious leaders and health workers. This applied both to the Kick Ebola from Liberia discussion programme and the characters in the radio drama Mr Plan Pla.

In Liberia, project staff heard anecdotally that Kick Ebola from Liberia was particularly trusted because it was a BBC show covering events relevant to Liberian people’s lives.

I really love the programme because we can speak our minds and tell the people [what is really] happening so that those responsible can hear us and reach our communities to help us.

Female focus group participant, West Point Community, Liberia




Knowledge and practice

Research participants reported that BBC Media Action’s Ebola programming increased and consolidated their knowledge around Ebola, in particular how to avoid and prevent the disease, and information about treatment and how to interact with and care for survivors.

Liberian listeners valued hearing discussions and solutions from voices across the country.

Kick Ebola From Liberia listeners said they had learned something new from the discussion show, and Mr Plan Plan had encouraged them to continue practising preventative behaviours.

Anecdotal feedback and data collected by other Ebola responders indicated that many people learned about the Ebola helpline and other key response tools through the radio.3 Triangulating this with BBC Media Action’s findings indicated that radio had a strong role in improving people’s knowledge around Ebola.

With many organisations working to tackle stigma around Ebola, discriminatory attitudes drastically decreased between August and December 2014.4 Other BBC Media Action research carried out under SMAC in Sierra Leone also suggested that survivors’ stories in the media were valuable and complemented NGO efforts to support survivors.

Participants in BBC Media Action focus groups stated they would treat survivors differently after listening to Kick Ebola from Liberia. They spontaneously mentioned accepting, encouraging and interacting with survivors. Three-quarters (74%) of respondents to the mobile phone survey agreed that they would be comfortable buying food from a survivor after listening to Kick Ebola from Liberia.

Motivation and action

BBC Media Action’s Ebola-related programmes engaged audiences and motivated people to adopt disease prevention measures such as handwashing and safe burials. Listeners reported finding Mr Plan Plan particularly helpful, because it depicted reality and provided concrete advice. Local radio station staff echoed this, reporting that “having a plan like Mr Plan Plan” had become a community slogan.5 

Two elements in particular were highlighted as being important in motivating listeners to take action. Firstly, the fact that trusted experts responded to pressing questions, and secondly that (Kick Ebola from Liberia and Kick Ebola Nar Salone) focused on practical and actionable advice.

As Sheiks, we are the ones who sit beside the corpse when offering prayers and there is a possibility for us to touch it. With the help of this drama [Mr Plan Plan], I will no longer read the Quran very close to a corpse. We will return to our traditions after these plans have worked in eradicating the virus from the entire country.


Focus group participant, Kabala, Sierra Leone

1 See, for example: World Health Organization (July 2015) Report of Ebola Interim Assessment Panel. Online.

2 Statistics from socialbakers.com

3 Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs et al. (2015) Community Perspectives about Ebola in Bong, Lofa and Montserrado Counties of Liberia: Results of a Qualitative Study.

4 Focus 1000 on behalf of SMAC (2015) A Sierra Leone Social Mobilization Action Committee survey 2015 Follow-up Study on Public Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices Relating to EVD (Ebola Virus Disease) in SL (Sierra Leone) KAP 3 Preliminary Findings.

5 Feedback from staff at SLBC in Makeni, Sierra Leone.