My FM Radio Community and Its Glory Days: A Memoir

I must have been around 13 and it must have been around 2007 when I first discovered All India Radio. After the family stereo broke down, I was forced to turn to the dials of my mother’s old Sony transistor.

Straining my ears, playing with the tuner, adjusting the loose aerial, I heard it; the gentle crooning of a male voice, “Just like an ever flowing stream, your memory haunts me constantly”.

“Cliff Richard! ‘Constantly‘!” My mother exclaimed, from somewhere in the background, before rushing to my side, beaming. We heard the entire show that day. And the next.

Little did I know that this happy accident would become a definitive part of the next five years of my life.

I started listening to other shows on 102.6 AIR FM Rainbow India; it was the only one that would play on the old radio. It had fixed shows for western music of one hour each, spread through the day.

I found love for Blue, Enrique Iglesias, Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin. It did not take long for Bryan Adams, The Eagles, Abba and John Denver to make it to the list. I listened with all my heart, belting out the songs I recognised, memorising the ones I didn’t.

“Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away (dream away)
In the wind of change”

It wasn’t just the songs that I devoured. It was as though my ears had been deprived of sound until then, as I absorbed the voices of the radio jockeys and everything they had to say. RJ Kiran on the show ‘Musical Memories’ read beautiful stories and played the classics. RJ Andrews hosted ‘Country Carnival’, had a booming laugh and admired Jim Reeves. RJ Satan loved heavy metal; RJ Sujay John had the silkiest voice as he took callers on air.

And then there was the show called ‘Just For You’, on which listeners sent in their requests via email. It aired in the afternoons, hosted by a different RJ each day. Some of these RJs enjoyed the following of regulars, who would write in every week. I figured I was late to the party. These were more than mere song requests though. These were letters, with messages for other listeners, strangers from different parts of the country, personal accounts, confessions of love, hopes and wishes for fellow listeners. It was a beautiful community.

One day, I found the courage to send in an email. I wrote to RJ Himani Monalisa Dutta, who hosted ‘Just For You on Saturdays’ (and loved Celine Dion). I don’t remember what song I requested, but my bet is that it was ‘My Love’ by Westlife.

At exactly 2 pm, I sat at the edge of my bed, listening as she read out one email after the other, and played the requests. Waiting while feeling anxious allows a person to live without breathing for 50 minutes – that’s something I learnt that day.

“Our next email is from TJ, from Delhi.”

That the heart is capable of making its way to the ears to beat like mad and the stomach is a mere deflated balloon, are other facts I learned that day. She proceeded to read my mail and played my request. I don’t remember if I remained seated as the song played, or if I jumped around like a teenage Taylor Swift singing ‘You Belong With Me’.

I wrote in again next week, on Saturday. And then on Thursday, to RJ Wendy. Soon I was one of them – a regular listener, one of the youngest. I shared anecdotes from school, and they wished me on my birthday too.

Sometime later, Delhi got its first fully English station – Hit 95 FM. It was new, fresh, and as dazzling as FM could be. If Rainbow had given me Nickelback, Green Day and Linkin Park in a transistor radio, Hit 95 FM presented me with Rihanna, Katy Perry and Black Eyes Peas in surround sound.

The station delivered what it claimed – uninterrupted music. Eventually, it introduced shows. Unlike Rainbow, a show here lasted four hours, launching RJ Sarthak and others. Of course, as a dedicated listener, I called in here too with my requests. And they took me on air! If I was Ed Sheeran, there would have been a song about that moment.

The introduction of English music on mainstream private FM meant more people discovered these songs. And if they had already featured in your playlist, you found the courage to speak about your interest. So I made friends in school who shared my joy for FM. “And we sang, “Ay oh ay oh ay oh ay”, and “the voices rang like the angels sing”.

Also read: An Ode to the Mixtape

If you were a teenager in Delhi during these years, you were about to be hit by a wave of Disney artists, pop music and the inescapable loop of ‘Smack That’.

If you were listening close enough, I mean, really, truly listening, the stations took you to lanes seldom traversed by middle school girls in the 21st century. HIT 95 took me by the hand along the gravelled path of Faridkot and Junkyard Groove, and Rainbow showed me the vinyl interiors of Kenny Rogers, Billy Joel, Elton John and Neil Diamond.  It was in college that I bumped into like souls who had strayed onto a similar path.

Music brings people together. Be it at grand festivals, or at a small music shop where a random stranger sees you looking at the CD of your favourite band and you end up in a conversation. For me, music brought me my FM community, at a time when, eclipsed by iPods and the internet, radio was living in the shadows of its glorious past.

If I tell someone today about the excursion with FM of my school days, they will probably think of me as odd. And yet, I know that there are others who shared this journey with me. I wonder how they are doing now, and if they too reminisce about those days.

This lockdown, I have been living with my parents. Sitting in my old room, I felt the instinctive need to switch on my old radio. With college, a job and life itself, this companion of my childhood got left behind somewhere.

So I tuned in. My nostalgia-driven excitement, however, dissolved when I heard how the old stations have lost their zing to newer ones playing the latest hits. I was met with a blaze of advertisements, corny fillers and nonsense jibber-jabber. It felt like the new had traded passion for entertainment. Deprived of any authentic personality, the songs and the stations were indistinguishable, the RJs distant strangers.

Rainbow is now also available on a mobile app. But the timings of the shows are different and many of the RJs have left. I still manage to tune in once in a while. It gives me comfort to hear familiar booming laughter.

In the age of individualistic streaming, I really hope someday I can once again experience the joy of being a part of a community that is not only passionate about music, but also celebrates life with each other. As Jim Reeves sang:

“I love you for a hundred thousand reasons
But most of all I love you ’cause you’re you”

Tarika Jain is a Delhi based lawyer and a pop culture enthusiast.

Featured image credit: 102.6 AIR FM Rainbow India/Facebook