In 1984, after watching a ten-minute BBC news report about a horrific famine in war-torn Ethiopia, the Irish rock musician Robert Frederick Zenon Geldof decided that he just had to travel there; and what he witnessed changed his life.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the civil war in Ethiopia was the longest-running war of the 20th century, and not only had fighting displaced millions of people from their homes, it also left 30 million people directly affected by famine. At this stage, the famine had killed hundreds of thousands of people, and it was expected to kill millions more.
Bob once said in an interview “There was a town in northern Ethiopia, where literally hundreds of thousands of people just sat down to die. It still resonates with me, and I sat there, very disturbed, and my wife had tears in her eyes. We just had had a little girl, and I was outraged by what I saw. I thought it’s not enough to put a pound in the charity box. This requires something of the self.”
To help the starving in Africa, Geldof decided to assemble a group of pop and rock stars to record a Christmas single written by himself and Ultravox singer Midge Ure, which was released on 3rd December 1984. It was the best-selling single in Britain to that date and raised more than $10 million.
The crisis continued in Ethiopia, and with neighbouring Sudan also stricken with famine, Bob wanted to raise more money and increase awareness for the situation, so he suggested creating a super concert. In just ten weeks, Live Aid was staged, and the line-up featured more than 75 acts.
Almost everyone in the eighties who witnessed the event, which took place simultaneously at in London and Philadelphia, no doubt understands just how impressive and momentous the double event was. Let’s drill down on some details here.
The “superconcert” lasted for a total of 16 hours, was globally linked by satellite to 95% of the televisions on earth, to 1.2 billion viewers in 110 nations. And during the broadcast, over 40 of those nations held live telethons to raise more money. This was the most ambitious rock concert of its time. The Guardian, has even labelled Live Aid as being “the prototype for a new style of celebrity activism – from Richard Gere campaigning for Tibet to the benefit concerts for the Asian tsunami.”
Impressive, right? So how did he manage to do this?
Bob Geldof engaged his attention and energy on the publics he knew he would need to affect change i.e., government agencies, private philanthropists, the performers that participated to both the single and the concert, and the general public.
Famous people have a long history of political involvement (even The Rock couldn’t stop himself) and using music culture and media together to promote social awareness is not a new concept either. Bob Geldof used the power of music to engage his audience and managed to convince millions of individuals across the globe to care about people living an existence so far removed from their own norms, values and beliefs.
The famine had already been picked up by the mainstream media for a few years before Bob created Live Aid, so there was a lot of footage in existence, and this enabled Bob to use these videos to influence high-profile entertainers to commit to a project of this type. From this, many of the ‘high-profile famous publics’ travelled to the affected areas to record a series of videos which provided the visual evidence and encouraged the millions of viewers to donate. Geldof, according to PR Distribution, in many ways, “wrote the manual on PR for progressive projects”. He even managed to get Phil Collins to play one set in London before jetting on a Concorde over to New York to play his solo set.
Nowadays, using ‘intense’ imagery has become synonymous with internet and television charity appeals, however in 1985, it was an innovative decision. During the concert, after David Bowie’s set, a short video was played on the large screen, which highlighted the horrendous conditions the people of Africa were living in. The pictures of the starving children shocked both the crowds at the live gigs, and the rest of the world. As soon as the film ended, the donations came in at over £20k every 60 seconds. Nothing like this had ever been witnessed before and this response from the public ensured the image formula would be used many times over.
Poignantly, Bob Geldof believes something like Live Aid could never happen now. In a recent interview for CBC he suggests that music is no longer the central spine of our culture, as it was then, so using music as the instrument of change is no longer conceivable.
He says “The web has broken down the world into individualism and that’s easy for authoritarians to use. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be Greta Thunberg and stand in front of your school silently and just say no. That’s still there. The possibility to steer your world in the direction you need to live in, that’s there, but it ain’t this cyber wanking into the digital void.”
He continues “We’ve reduced ourselves. The 21st century is reductionist and it’s using the great tool of reductionism, the Internet, and we need to know how to use this thing, which is the most powerful tool ever invented.”
Geldof may or may not have known then that he was a trailblazer for progressive PR, but one thing is for sure, he is a genuinely compassionate human.
In a recent interview he said, “to die of want in a world of surplus is not only intellectually absurd but is economically illiterate and, of course, morally repulsive.”
And whether you like him or loathe him, it is hard to argue with that.
Gary Gates is a final year BSc Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found on: LinkedIn – Gary Gates