A health message listeners can relate to
The doctors had been after Loretta Ragland for years to keep her diabetes in check. Eat right. Exercise. Lose weight. She'd heard it all time and again.

And ignored it all -- until she heard about Rosalyn.

Roz put off dealing with her diabetes so long, her kidneys gave out. While she was in surgery, her husband died of a massive stroke -- after which it was revealed that he'd fathered a child with Roz's best friend, Vanessa, whose alcoholic husband had recently run off, leaving her to care for a suicidal daughter and an obese toddler.

Ragland first heard Roz and Vanessa bemoaning their plights on the radio. She soon realized she was listening to fictional characters in a drama.

No matter. She could identify.

Ragland, 57, cheered when Roz began taking exercise walks. Then she, too, started walking around her hometown of Huntsville, in northern Alabama. She gave up soda. She joined a gym. She quit sweets in solidarity with Vanessa.

"When I heard it from a doctor, I wouldn't really listen," Ragland said. "But when I heard it on the show, I was like, 'Wow, maybe there is something to this.' "

That response is exactly what public-health professor Connie Kohler hoped for when she created the serialized radio drama "BodyLove" (also the name of Vanessa's beauty salon).

In weekly 15-minute episodes -- crammed with schemes, dreams and cliffhangers -- two extended families wrestle with a slew of health problems while trying to navigate prickly relationships and cope with financial strains.

Written by students and faculty at the University of Alabama, the show targets African Americans, who struggle with many of these health crises in disproportionate numbers. Across Alabama, for instance, 35% of black women are obese, compared with 20% of white women. The diabetes death rate for blacks is more than double that for whites.

"BodyLove's" characters face those odds with more frustration than courage. They give in to cravings for burgers. They resist taking insulin. They quit smoking, then backslide; lose weight, then regain it.

In short, they sound real -- like your best friend, like you -- and not like authorities lecturing from on high.

"We didn't want it to be a PBS thing," said Alex Urquhart, a creative writing major who helped develop several scripts.

The characters make progress through modest lifestyle changes. No one goes vegan or runs marathons -- they refrain from buying a tub of ice cream, or get out for a walk twice a week.

Local hosts of the show also stress practical steps to better health. Here in Marion, a small town in central Alabama, registered nurse Frances Ford modifies her on-air nutrition tips to suit local budgets. Nearly one-third of county residents live in poverty.

"Olive oil is the best, but it's more expensive, so we tell them canola oil is better than vegetable oil," she said after a recent broadcast.

Longtime listener Josephine Brand, who had come to the studio to pick up a "BodyLove" T-shirt, looked crestfallen.

"I use vegetable oil," she said. "Or that Crisco."

"Try baking your dinner, with seasoning on it," Ford suggested.