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Desis Making Waves

Fine tuning Desi programming on the radio

by Angilee Shah

Johnny Blue (center) in the CNJ studio with co-host Lil' J (right) and DJ Ashish (left). Photo Courtesy: Nite Life/CNJ

The Hindi music that most South Asian Americans grew up with is infamous for its high-pitched female vocals and its gimmicky instrumental breaks. It's no wonder ABCDs are so confused: first-generation South Asian Americans had to blast Madonna and Bruce Springsteen just to tune out Lata Mangeshkar and Bollywood tunes with girly laughing and long “aaahs.” South Asians who grew up in America got stuck with whatever was available on whatever Hindi show happened to be on the American airwaves. Next to Downtown Julie Brown and Rick Dees, Hindi music programs in America just weren't cutting it.

Enter CNJ 89.3, the first 24-hour Desi FM radio station in the country. The station, which began broadcasting in 1998 as a tribute to the late Punjabi folk singer, Prakash Kaur, gives central Jersey and the New York City area a healthy dose of fresh South Asian listening fare.

As a non-profit station, CNJ cannot sell advertisement time, so they rely on underwriters, or corporate sponsors, to support their programming. The station is live from about 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. everyday, on the backs of a staff of five and about 40 broadcasters, most of whom are professional volunteers. "We are a community radio station--we want to contribute back to the community," says Chief Operating Officer Uday Zoaarkar.

Part of that contribution is programming that raises awareness and gives a voice to South Asian Americans. Zoaarkar says, "If you look at the media, as far as radio is concerned, there are hardly any options. Generally speaking, South Asians are not well-recognized compared to other groups." In America, while there is an AM Desi station, CNJ is the only one of its kind on the FM dial.

The broadcast is mostly in English, or what General Manager, Sanket Solgama calls "Hinglish," and reaches over 250,000 listeners. CNJ's web simulcast gets over 1 million hits and registers of 75,000 listening hours per month. While they cannot break down their audience by race or ethnicity because their market is not rated, Solgama is confident that CNJ is reaching across the borders of the South Asian community. Some of the station's programming is of interest to any listener. The station, for example, has had political candidates taking questions in-studio. In one such show, about one-third of callers were not South Asian, says Solgama. Even the Desi programming, much like Bollywood itself, attracts people from all over the world. The station once got a call, says Solgama, from a man in New York who had a heavy French accent. Because the caller could not pronounce Hindi words, he had recorded a clip of a Bollywood song so that he could request it.

Reclaiming the youth of a 'South Asian urban nation'

Solgama, says "Just until six or seven years ago, I never liked to listen to South Asian radio stations because they sound cheesy." Thus it became CNJ's goal to de-cheese Desi culture. With programming that covers everything from news to cricket to the Desi scene, CNJ keeps the electricity of today's Bollywood, but adds a touch of American broadcasting sensibility.

This unique combination, says Solgama, is what brings young South Asian Americans back to the Hindi music they dreaded as kids. "Instead of [young people] swaying away from Bollywood music completely, we can change the presentation and draw them back into our culture," says Solgama.

Johnny Blue (left) in the CNJ studio with co-host Lil' J. Photos Courtesy of Nite Life/CNJ

Instrumental to luring South Asian Americans back to their cultural roots is innovative programming. On one Wednesday evening in October, after a spirited discussion of the India-Australia cricket series on Full Toss, the hip-hop beat of Jump Around came thumping out of the radio at the beginning of the program, Nite Life. Don't adjust that dial, though--this is still Desi music. The Hindi song Mundeya De Dil Hilgaya was integrated into the American beat, in an exclusive track by bhangra artist, Kais. Nite Life host, Johnny Blue, 30, explains that Bollywood remixes, such as these are taking over the club scene in New York.

"We’re the voice of the South Asian urban nation," says Johnny, complete with shout-outs, plugs for "sick parties" (which means "good parties," in non-urban lingo), and tips for meeting those Desi girls. The programming includes not only South Asians, but artists from many ethnicities, including African Americans and Latinos. This urban nation is expanding says Johnny. "We get calls from the West Coast, Texas, Detroit--we're the first Indian

radio station to bring you what we're bringing you," he says. What Nite Life is bringing is not just a blend of cultures for a good time, though--it creates a space to talk about the issues South Asian Americans face. These types of issues, says Solgama, get ignored in other South Asian programs. "The mainstream South Asian media overlooks a lot of topics which are quite essential," he says, giving the examples of gay and interracial marriage. Nite Life successfully navigates these traditionally taboo topics using humor and the language of hip-hop, which began, essentially, as a medium for protest.

When Johnny Blue first pitched his idea to CNJ, the station had doubts. How would an insular and traditional community react to something so radically different? But soon after the show began in February, 2004, it became apparent that the program was filling a hole in Desi media. While bhangra remixes had already proven they could garner mainstream appeal--recall Jay-Z's mix of Mundia Tho--there was yet to be a program dedicated to the emerging culture of South Asian hip-hop. Zoaarkar, says, "The community was already there--we just needed to give them programming to listen to."

Part of the appeal of Nite Life, says Johnny, is that the show gives opportunities to up and coming artists, while still attracting big names in the industry. "[Guests] see the show as a portal to get out to the South Asian community," says Johnny. These guests include Juggy D, the Rishi Rich project, and Sumeet. Canadian Desi comedian, Russel Peters, will be in the studio on November 17.

"[On other shows] you'll never hear people talk about drugs or sex or anything controversial. Even politics," says Johnny. But Johnny, with his co-hosts Jay Dabhi and DJ Ashish along with comedian Anu Kalra, doesn't allow traditional propriety stop him from discussing the issues that affect young South Asians in America. South Asian American culture is full of contradictions; Johnny Blue, for example, grew up in New York City. By day, he is a computer technician, but after-hours he pursues his true passion for music and media. "I've never been to India before," he says, adding "I can't speak Hindi all that well." Despite this apparent disconnect--who ever heard of a Hindi music show host who can's speak Hindi?--in the absence of language and geographical closeness, music is the bridge between South Asian Americans and South Asia itself. "I love the culture," he says. This is the sentiment that drives Nite Life--the show is about, "trying to get the whole young Indian community to stick to the Indian culture," says Johnny.

CNJ radio is available online or in central New Jersey and the New York City metro area at 89.3FM. Nite Life airs from 8 to 10PM EST.

Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist in Southern California and Editor of ABCDlady.

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