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June 6, 2000

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On the right wavelength

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Madona Devasahayam in Washington DC

"Mera joota hai Japani, yeh patloon Inglistani, sar pe laal topi Rusi..." went a song from the Raj Kapoor-starrer, Shree 420.

The updated version goes: Meri sunglasses hain Versace, yeh patloon hai Armani, gaadi hai meri Japani, phir bhi gaane hain Hindustani! "Indian music takes me home," says Vikram Talwar, a public policy analyst in downtown Washington DC.

Doing just that -- taking Indian folks home -- is WCNJ, a New Jersey-based, round-the-clock Asian India radio station on the American FM dial (89.3 and 91.9 FM). Operating under the corporate name of Eastern Broadcasting Corp (EBC), WCNJ has become the first station outside of Asia to be granted affiliate status to broadcast BBC World Service news in Hindi and other south Asian languages. The station's mainstay, however, is Indian music, be it classical, pop or films.

WCNJ began its round-the-clock operations on June 21, last year, although it had been airing on a weekly basis since last February.

"Sometime around April, (founders and owners) Paul Suri and Arvind Agarwal decided to go all the way and make it America's first round-the-clock desi FM station," says Rahul Walia, general manager, EBC. The station began its worldwide broadcast live on the Internet ( last September.

The effort began with a English music station in Hazlet, New Jersey, where Suri's Hindi music collection would take to the airwaves every Sunday. He would store the equipment, cassettes and compact discs in the trunk of his 1993 Crown Victoria, and offload them when it was time to broadcast the music.

As the time he spent on broadcasting Hindi music increased, Suri decided to lease WCNJ 89.3 and 91.9 frequencies for 30 years from the previous owner. He hired disc jockeys and management staff and moved to a building in Metuchen, New Jersey.

For Suri, a former exporter and owner of apparel stores and gas stations -- and now a restaurateur -- the radio station has sentimental value. It is a tribute to his mother, Prakash Kaur, a known singer from Punjab. As a child, he often went with his mother to Indian radio stations. WCNJ often plays Kaur's songs. Besides, the radio station is a way Suri keeps his family "closer home".

The radio station is modeled after the third most popular US radio format, Contemporary Hit Radio.

"We try and cater to all age groups of the south Asian population by dividing the day into various parts consisting of bhajans, old songs -- the '70s, the '80s -- and then the contemporary pop songs of the '90s etc," says Walia.

The station has speciality shows such as Bollywood Quiz Time, Quiz Me, the generic morning and evening drive time shows, a south Indian music show, a talk show and a Saturday morning Bollywood Gupshup show. WCNJ also airs its top 10 film hits and pop songs.

"I am glad there is a station like WCNJ. I enjoy Hindi music and the station keeps me updated," says Nadia Samson, a graduate student who recently moved to New Jersey. Originally from Malaysia, she likes Indian films, Hindi songs, stars and Indian clothes.

"EBC is promoting itself as the leading voice -- in a mix of Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, English and a combination slang called Hinglish -- of the growing south Asian communities in the New Jersey-New York metro area and now the worldwide web," says a recent article in The Star Ledger. Considering the station's low output (10 watts), it is able to cover a small patch of the New York/New Jersey area.

"I listen to the station in my car and the clarity never keeps up. I find that a bit annoying. Besides, there are many DJs with an American accent and that can put off recently-arrived Indians. The station should talk less and play more music," says Anand Khanna, a technical recruiter from Edison, New Jersey.

Walia counters this, saying that "while in America, do as Americans do. The station has about 35-38 DJs, 50 per cent of whom are ABCDs (American-Born Confused Desis, a popular reference to US-born Indians). These DJs communicate more to the younger communities, the second- and third-generation Indians. The other DJs cater to the older generation and Indians who have come to the US recently," he says.

According to EBC's market research, the Indian community in the New York/New Jersey region is ever-growing. A study it conducted showed that there were about 225,000 people from the India living in the station's coverage area, up sharply from 40,000 in 1990.

Besides being large, this community is affluent as well. "The south Asian community is by and large one of the highest income grossers in the US," Walia told the Home News Tribune early this year. He was referring to the large number of doctors and software professionals in the area. According to the 1990 census, 58 per cent of the Asian Indians in the US earned at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 20 per cent for the US population. One-third of the Indian population has at least a graduate degree, compared to only seven per cent for all Americans.

WCNJ is arguably the first 24-hour desi radio station in America, as competitors are few and far between and not necessarily directed at the same niche. There are several radio shows on the FM dial, aired from radio stations in various universities and elsewhere. There are also channels not on the FM dial, like the chip radio station RBC.

WCNJ is marketing itself to the south Asian community through television spots, Internet marketing, newspaper ads, billboards, flyers, road shows and sponsorships. Its road shows are quite like Channel [V], with the disc jockeys organizing bashes for New Jersey folks and giving away free EBC merchandise.

The EBC web site records about 4-5 million hits every month. In March alone, it had almost seven million hits. It streams live onto the web via the Southern California-based, which also carries 200 other stations. But EBC is the number one station on that site, being responsible for over 15 per cent of their total traffic.

"(EBC has) done a really great job of promoting themselves. They're really pulling their weight," Scott Zafran, director of marketing for, told the Home News Tribune early this year.

EBC has also forged an alliance with the AVS television network, America's oldest and most popular variety show, reaching over 35 cities across the US and Canada. Recently, the company also tied up with New Jersey Online, a site catering to the diverse cross-section of people in New Jersey.

EBC plans to set up various affiliates in major markets across the US. It is also planning to strengthen its Internet broadcast business by combining entertainment and e-commerce.

"We feel that the right blend of songs, talk, and human talent that will enable the production of cutting-edge quality shows constitute as ingredients of a winning music channel," says Walia. And he may have got the mix right.

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