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Ethnic radio in America

Bolly 92.3, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Bollywood radio station, is a new manifestation of an American phenomenon as old as radio itself: the ethnic radio station.

Radio exploded onto the American scene in the boom years of the 1920s. Radio was the defining consumer product of this consumeristic decade, and listening to the radio was an activity for the masses, not the upper class. Listening to the radio was also a social activity. In the early years of radio, the first family in the neighborhood to buy a receiver set could expect neighbors to come over to listen to the radio. (In much the same way, as I observed eight years ago, houses in the Garo Hills with television sets or DVD players would attract the neighbors to come watch.)

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was effectively unregulated, decentralized, and community-oriented. In Chicago, only 4% of stations were commercial broadcasters; the rest of the stations were operated by labor unions, church groups, and other noncommercial community organizations.1

Radio was also popular among ethnic communities. Before 1924, immigration from Europe was virtually unrestricted, and immigrants flocked to the northern industrial cities. They settled in ethnic communities, where they could shop, worship, and socialize in their native languages. Chicago had German, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and other ethnic enclaves. In the 1920s, these communities had their own radio stations, which promoted community cohesion by giving people something to listen to in their native languages.

Radio was regulated under the 1927 Radio Act, and at the same time the airwaves began to get more commercialized, with companies sponsoring branded programs. Ethnic radio stations started to disappear as NBC and CBS took over the airwaves. Before long, ethnic neighborhoods began to disappear too, as their inhabitants started to assimilate into the American mainstream.

But neither ethnic neighborhoods nor their radio stations disappeared entirely. The immigrants who began coming to the United States in large numbers after immigration law reform in 1965—such as the Indians of the Bay Area—set up their own radio stations. There is at least one Slavic-language radio station still broadcasting in Chicago, Polski FM. I was happy to run across it on a rental car radio in northern Indiana last month. Whether it is a survivor or a revival (I couldn’t say which it is, since its broadcast and website are naturally all in Polish), it perpetuates a century-old tradition of ethnic radio in Chicago.

  1. All details about radio in Chicago are from Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135-140. []

Bollywood over the Bay

Earlier this year, while driving someplace in the San Francisco Bay Area and scanning on her car radio, my sister-in-law stumbled across Bolly 92.3, a station playing Bollywood music. Even though she had no idea what the lyrics were saying, she thought the music sounded cheery and left the radio tuned to that station.

Bolly 92.3 was the first dedicated Bollywood music station I had ever heard of in the United States, so I was eager to listen to it once I’d learned about it. I got my chance when my brother and I drove from San Francisco to Death Valley in February. We listened to Bolly 92.3 as long as we could, until we drove out of range of the station. In the hour or so before we lost the signal, we heard a range of songs in different styles. I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but I did recognize the musical styles, which included:

  • Movie tunes with harmonium and tablas, and rich Hindustani lyrics. (Hindustani was the common language across North India before Partition, part Hindi and part Urdu.)
  • Hip-hop with simple and dumb lyrics, and a liberal application of autotune.
  • Indie music with guitars and strings, and Hindi lyrics.
  • Romantic nineties movie songs with tablas, flutes, and echoing (and shrill) female vocals.
  • Dance songs with synth and tabla, and very repetitive lyrics.

Bolly 92.3 is a commercial station, and the breaks between every few songs featured advertisements for law firms, realty agencies, and other businesses owned by Indian-Americans in the Bay Area. (Later, my sister-in-law also heard an ad for a stove hood designed to handle the high levels of frying demanded by Indian cuisine.)

For all the diversity of Indian culture, Bollywood is an overpowering, omnipresent cultural monolith, and Bollywood music is part of the background noise of the Indian environment. Spend any time in India, and you will find the same songs following you wherever you go: booming across the neighborhood from marriage gardens, thumping from taxi and bus radios, or playing tinnily from mobile phones at tea stalls or in train coaches. Some megahit songs have a limited shelf life, and are played over and over and over again before disappearing. (There was a time last year when I thought my head would explode if I ever heard this song or this song again.) Other songs are evergreens, enjoying decades of popularity (like this one and this one).

From all the exposure I’ve had to Bollywood music (willing and otherwise), I was surprised not to recognize any of the songs I heard on Bolly 92.3. If I listened long enough, I’d surely hear something I knew. But just my short experience illustrates an important truth: diaspora communities are never the same as the parent culture. Not only do the Indian-Americans of the Bay Area have to adapt to American culture by driving minivans and living in tract housing, they also have a different relationship with Indian culture, for the simple reason that they are not in India.

When it comes to relating to their traditional cultures, members of a diaspora are sometimes more conservative. As the parent culture changes, emigrants try to freeze their culture in the same state that it was in when they left. This is why (as I am told) Gujaratis in Gujarat are content to use costume jewelry at their weddings, but Gujaratis in East Africa would never dream of using anything but gold.

There may be some of this cultural conservatism among Indian-Americans of the Bay Area, and this may in part explain why I didn’t recognize any of the songs on Bolly 92.3. But diasporic communities need not stay frozen in the past, either. They can continue to develop their traditional cultures on their own lines, parallel to but separate from the parent culture. This is happening for Indians in North America; in Toronto, at least, there is a big Punjabi hip-hop industry. Toronto music has even made its way back to India, and not just Punjab. I once spent more than an hour watching surreal music videos from Toronto in a restaurant in Assam, of all places.

Stonewall Jackson statue, Richmond.

The Strange Case of the Bronze Confederates

Two weeks ago, workers in New Orleans dismantled a monument that had originally been erected in 1891 to celebrate the fight of white supremacist vigilantes against the city’s police forces during Reconstruction (1865-77). The workers were acting on a December 2015 city council resolution that this monument be removed, along with statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis. Although the city council was overwhelmingly in favor of removing the monuments—the vote was six to one—a minority of the city’s population was strongly opposed to removal. To protect themselves against violent reprisal, the workers removing the monument wore bulletproof vests, helmets, and masks.

Like New Orleans, most major southern cities have monuments to the failed Confederate States of America and its defeated leaders. Although they represent the Civil War (1861-65), these monuments belong to a later period, as they were built after the war’s end and reflect the concerns of the time when they were built.

Monuments built in the first fifteen years after the war were funereal (gravestone-like), usually obelisks with urns or drapes. The symbolism of the monuments, many of which were located in cemeteries for war dead, represented a sense of grief for the great numbers of men lost in battle.1

It was only after 1880, when the horrors of battle receded a little in the collective southern memory, that monumental memorials to the Confederacy began to appear. New Orleans completed its monument to General Lee—now slated for demolition—in 1884. In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, city leaders developed a new street for Confederate statues, Monument Avenue. Richmond’s own Lee monument was dedicated in 1890, and a busy (I would say ugly) memorial to Jefferson Davis in 1907. The Davis memorial was the last major Confederate monument built in the South.2

Before 1880, Confederate monuments commemorated grief and loss; after 1880, they boasted of heroism and moral rectitude. What changed in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was that the South adopted the ideology of the Lost Cause, which claimed that even though the Confederacy had lost the war, it had acted justly and with honor. This ideology was accepted by a North jaded about industrialization and beset by labor unrest and endless crises in its capitalistic economy. In doing so, the North also accepted white supremacy, a decision that continues to haunt the nation more than a century later.3

Confederate monuments have been caught up in the controversies of our own day. Two years ago, after a white supremacist murdered nine members of a Bible study group at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, activists graffitied “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on monuments in several southern cities. The Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond was one that got the spray can treatment. The monument vandalisms were part of a general rejection of Confederate imagery by much of the South’s white population, in reaction to the shocking mass-murder at the church. At the same time, Confederate flags disappeared from public monuments, the shelves of WalMart, and many private residences.

This newfound willingness to reinterpret the Confederate past—especially as it was reimagined decades after the war—is a good thing, and I only wish it hadn’t taken such an appalling crime to bring it about. As for the Confederate flags, good riddance, I say. The use of the Confederate flag to represent the South only dates back to the 1960s, when it was deployed in opposition to Civil Rights activists—so it really is a racist symbol.

The New Orleans city council also made the right decision to dismantle its Confederate monuments. The Confederacy only has a weak claim on New Orleans, because the city spent three-quarters of the war under Union occupation.

Other cities may make similar decisions, and they too may be making the right call. But when it comes to most Confederate monuments, I would not be in favor of demolition. Demolishing the monuments would amount to an attempt to erase the past, which we shouldn’t try to do lest we forget it. Instead, we should change how we remember the past. Rather than destroying monuments we now find distasteful, we should reinterpret them with interpretive signage, plaques, or even extensions to the monument that subvert the original white supremacist message. Some of the monuments can be moved to museums, but others should be left where they are, because it is easy to ignore things in museums, and harder to ignore what is in the middle of the street or in front of the statehouse.

  1. Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 41. []
  2. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy, 91, 100-102, 158. []
  3. Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 4. []

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