December 27, 2001 | By Oscar Avila, Tribune staff reporter.
Radio novice Jassi Parmar and his three partners started their show as a lark, hoping to entertain the booming Indian community in Chicago’s suburbs with feel-good tunes and lighthearted banter in their native languages.
But "Desi Junction," originating at a small AM station, has become an unlikely sensation. Phone lines are flooded, remote broadcasts draw scores of fans and the founders are lining up sponsors to increase the show’s length to two hours each Sunday.
Above all, "Desi Junction" (named for the colloquial term, pronounced "day-see," for people of South Asian ancestry) has given Indian immigrants in the suburbs a connection to their culture-and to each other. Avid listeners find the program fun but hardly trite.
“This kind of show is something we always wanted to hear, so we knew there was a demand,” said Parmar, 29, a computer engineer who moved from India in 1998. “But we didn’t think it would grow like this.”
Each broadcast captures a microcosm of the South Asian experience in America: the divergent cultural tastes of parents and children, the isolation of the sprawling suburbs, the backlash after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The program, broadcast in a hodgepodge of Hindi, Punjabi and English, complements an already rich menu of media with a South Asian perspective. Two local powerhouses, India Reporter and World News and SBC-TV, are based near the traditional hub of Indian culture around Devon Avenue in Chicago.
But “Desi Junction” is the only live radio show for that audience.
What sets “Desi Junction” apart, its founders say, is its geographic and emotional connection to the strip malls, subdivisions and temples that form Chicago’s new suburban axis of Indian culture and life.
The suburbs have been a draw since the 1960s when the first migration of Indian professionals took place. The 1990s saw another wave, fueled by high-tech workers arriving on special visas. The 2000 census found that 4 of 5 Chicago-area residents of Indian origin now live in the suburbs.
Three of the show’s founders live in Schaumburg, the fourth in Naperville. The signal of WJJG-AM 1530 in Berkeley is strongest in DuPage, Kane and suburban Cook Counties. On a cloudy day a Devon Avenue shopkeeper might not even hear it. The founders solicit mainly suburban sponsors.
“There really isn’t that one place in the suburbs where people come together, like a Devon. Our show is that place, in a way,” Parmar said.
`Somewhere to turn’
The partners–Parmar, Happy Heer, Baljit Gill and Dara Singh–had hoped to avoid political and social debates. They do not want to offend listeners, who hold an array of religions and political views. The partners buy the radio time and find sponsors to defray costs.
Parmar and Gill work in the high-tech field; Heer and Singh own gas stations. But all four have backgrounds in writing and acting, which fueled their vision of the show as a forum for the arts.
When “Desi Junction” went on the air Sept. 1, its founders envisioned a lighthearted lineup of modern music and oldies, nearly all from the “Bollywood” films of Indian cinema. The show takes requests by phone or e-mail and often plays Pakistani music as an invitation to listeners from that country as well.
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the compact discs went back on the shelf. The hosts abandoned their aversion to politics to let callers talk about the backlash they experienced. Entire shows were devoted to tales of harassment and fear.
“We shared a lot of stories on the air,” Singh, 23, said. “People felt relieved to have somewhere to turn.”
Three months later, the lighthearted fare has returned.
The show is a pleasant, some might say saccharine, blend of songs, trivia contests and conversation. This month’s terrorist attack on the Indian parliament didn’t warrant a mention.
One week, the hosts dedicated a song to dozens of taxi drivers after one sent an all-points message on his scanner telling his colleagues about the show. Another caller “paged” someone on the air, asking them to call home. And it isn’t rare for callers to send romantic, discreet dedications without using their names.
The result is a casual and relaxed back-and-forth among hosts and callers, who dish the latest Bollywood gossip, spread news about weddings, tell jokes or just send greetings to friends old and new.
“The show makes you feel at home, and that’s a good feeling,” said Indra Prakash Kinger of Hoffman Estates, who moved to the United States 20 years ago and listens weekly with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.
Although it’s too soon to measure ratings, WJJG owner Joe Gentile said the show’s call volume is among the highest at the station. After initially running for an hour, the show airs from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Parmar said he has received interest from two other stations about adding a second day.
The show cultivates interest by drawing on an e-mail list of nearly 2,200 names, created and expanded from the hosts’ other business interests.
When the show’s “mobile studio” (actually one of the hosts’ vans) hits the road for remote broadcasts patched via cellular phone, the response has been overwhelming. Scores recently awaited the van at a Schaumburg strip mall, hoping to be interviewed or win prizes.
The hosts also plan to use the show as a forum for Indian culture, including opening their airwaves to musicians, a la “Star Search.” The hosts also are looking for aspiring journalists to begin a weekly reading of Hindi news.
The show’s tone shouldn’t change, but Singh added: “We realize that the program has a lot of influence. And we take that seriously.”
It was a dark night in the year of 2009. Businesses were going bankrupt, sponsors were pulling out, the markets had crashed. The team entered control room of the radio station with a heavy heart. The plan was to announce the closure of their radio station and let that show be their last one. But then, a voice came – why not ask our listeners for help ! Soon, calls started pouring in and by the time the show was over they had a commitment for several thousand dollars from their listeners to keep the show going. With the love and generosity of its listeners, DesiJunction had survived. And since then there has been no turning back for the Midwest USA’s now fastest growing radio channel.
Desi Junction is a not-for-profit platform which not only keeps us entertained through 24/7 radio programs in various Indian languages but also organizes several fun-filled desi get-together carnivals, attended by several thousands of patrons, at least twice a year. “Do you feel like missing India ? Come to us and we will take care of that.We don’t just entertain people, we connect them.”, said one of the senior RJs, Charandeep. It is a classic example of how volunteers can drive a cause which is really close to their hearts. The not-for-profit set-up has ensured that programs remain meaningful, relevant and full of emotions, right from the inception in 2001.
All the programs have a heavy Desi touch. There are no scripts, no re-takes. RJs just sit with their cup of coffee speak their hearts out, with both old and new songs filling in the gaps. There are several other radio channels broadcasting Indian songs in the US but it is this frank, natural, intuitive and down-to-earth approach of the RJs at DesiJunction that sets them apart and makes people fall in love with their programs. “In the past 12 or so years we have both cried and made the callers cry on air. And those are some of the most unforgettable and proud moments of our lives.”, said RJ Nisha, who loves relaxing as an RJ after a hard day at work.
Except for a couple of members, like Nisha, who is an ex- AIR RJ, all of the people associated with DesiJunction have no prior experience of working for a radio channel. They just got drawn in. For example, one of the most articulate RJs working with the group used to be a nagging caller who used to bug the old-time RJs with his peculiar requests and suggestions. But under the nurturing leadership of Jassi Parmar, the founder of DesiJunction, such amateur talents have kept on joining the team at regular intervals and most of them continue to serve with the highest degree of professionalism. The team is an amazing mixture of backgrounds; as different as businessmen, research scientists, fashion designers, IT professionals, stage artists, and many more and almost all of them have a separate full time job to take care of their own financial needs.
DesiJunction tries to bring the South-Asian community together and is very popular among people of Pakistani origin as well who love Hindi and Punjabi music. They take their social responsibility seriously and keep sending messages through their programs and activities. The team keeps a close watch on developments in India and tries to keep their listeners well educated and updated. They supported the anti-corruption movement in India by organizing a big Anti-corruption March in Chicago. Most recently they have tied up with Swami Muktanand, an Indian spiritual Guru, to begin the days on a spiritual note with kathas and pravachans and keep particularly the 2nd generation of Indian-Americans morally and spiritually grounded. Till now the channel had been mostly serving the Chicagoans only with programs in Hindi and Punjabi. But in a bid to gain larger audience they have gone global with their internet-radio and are planning to start shows in other regional Indian languages as well. A daily show in Malayalam is already on-air. Switching from FM/AM frequency to the Internet has been a critical move to keep pace with the changing times. The high number of downloads of their iphone and android apps indicate that they might have lost few old listeners but the clout has only grown.
In an exclusive (and high-on-energy) interview the DesiJunction team remembered and thanked Sulekha as an old partner who have sponsored several of their local events. They had just one message to the patrons of Sulekha – “Missing India and feeling lonely ? Just tune in to DesiJunction to come home !”