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Series: Ethnic radio in America

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.

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