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
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
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
CNJ radio is available online
or in central New Jersey and the New York City metro area at 89.3FM.
Life airs from 8 to 10PM EST.
Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist in Southern California and Editor of ABCDlady.
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