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Keeping the young at heart

Next Sunday, nearly 1,000 television and radio stations in half the world's nations will be united in a common cause. From Mexico to Madagascar, broadcasting organisations will be involved in giving children a voice, whether as programme-makers, presenters or as the subjects of programmes.

UNICEF's International Children's Day of Broadcasting is designed to raise awareness of children's issues around the world. The impetus came as a response to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, principally in the form of a challenge by UNICEF executive director James Grant to the 1990 meeting of the International Council of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

His message to broadcasters was simple: do more for children. They seem to have taken it to heart. Participating broadcasters agree to dedicate the day, or parts of it, to child-related programming. Networks are encouraged to produce their own material documentaries, films, news, light entertainment with children as the focus.

Last year, this brief took some innovative forms. In Poland, President Lech Walesa was interviewed on the position of children in his country and in Somalia, peace messages were broadcast by local radio stations belonging to rival clans.

This year should be similarly sparkling. Among the most interesting will be TVO-Ontario's 12 hours of live children's programming which will feature child hosts discussing relevant issues. Latvian Television is planning six hours of broadcasting, which will include a documentary about the problems of young people in Latvia and a press conference where politicians are grilled by young correspondents. The BBC World Service is running 30-minute features on six countries.

As well as encouraging the production of home-grown programmes for the event, UNICEF provides programming designed for radio and television either free or at very low cost. To get bigger audiences for these programmes broadcasters are tempting viewers with soap operas or sitcoms featuring children or teenagers as a hook to focus on a particular issue.

An important point of the day is to involve children in shaping the programmes they watch or listen to. UNICEF's role in the day is as facilitator, not as funder, says Jyoti Chopra, in the organisation's information division. "The broadcasters put in the money and the time." By putting children's issues on the political agenda, the day has "produced concrete results that have helped the lives of children," she says.

"People are seeing it as a good opportunity for broadcasters and governments to show their concern for children, whether from the perspective of their own country or more globally. We have been able to reach broadcasters and inspire them in new ways to examine children's issues."

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