In a poignant radio interview, a young man in his 20s opens up about the bullying he faced in school and college because he is gay. He talks to QRadio channel manager and RJ Vaishalli Chandra on her show HqO about the psychology of bullying, how he overcame the trauma, and came to terms with his sexuality. Then he makes a revelation to listeners – his own teacher encouraged the bullying and harassment and that is what prompted him to become an educator so that he can help students become more sensitive and supportive of inclusive behaviour. The programme, Vaishalli tells us later, celebrates gender fluidity and features audio documentaries, coming out stories and listeners calling in to talk about specific topics.
On another show, Let’s Get Beyond Ties, hosted by John and Sandy (the show is currently off air) a gay caller from Shirdi laments that he will not be able to make it to the Pride March in Bangalore organised for sexuality minorities because he cannot tell his manager at work why he needs to take leave. “I really wanted to be there and participate because I can be myself and show my solidarity to the cause,” he says.
These and other shows are all in a day’s work for India’s first internet-based radio station catering exclusively to the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. QRadio, part of a bouquet of 30 online channels offered by the online radio platform Radiowalla.in, has just completed three months. There is a sense of determined activism and positivity in the channel’s studio as ideas for new shows are thrown up. The online radio platform has just launched a QRadio app for mobile devices and is in the process of restructuring programming so that all groups within the community are represented.
“We have been slowly gaining listeners from the community as well as heterosexuals and they are from across India. Of late, we have even had callers from Germany, USA and UAE, and that’s the idea, to provide a platform for queer people everywhere to share their experiences and connect with each other,” says Vaishalli. “The aim is to promote diversity. Considering the inclusive nature of QRadio, we encourage heterosexuals also to tune in so that they can become allies to the queer cause.” When the show discussing bullying was on, a heterosexual woman called in to express her solidarity, she adds.
Other shows include Lavender Life hosted by Mari and promoting visibility of queer Indian women; QLIVE with Aaditya and Shreyas, two heterosexual men who bring in their perspective through debate; and Between the Sheets with Anil Srivatsa – a live show that is 10 years old and now simulcast on QRadio, featuring bold interactions about love, sex and relationships.
Anil Srivatsa, CEO and co-founder of Radiowalla.in
Anil Srivatsa, CEO and co-founder of the Bangalore-based Radiowalla Network, says his aim has always been to create niche radio stations that cater to special interest groups. So it was natural for him to launch one that focuses exclusively on the LGBT community. “Everybody needs a voice and the gay community in India does not have a platform for discourse and activism. We want QRadio to provide that platform and become a voice for the gay, lesbian, transgender group,” he says.
Anil is a veteran in this space with around 20 years of experience in radio networks in India and abroad. He was one of the first Indians to pioneer web radio in the late-’90s when he ran a 24x7 radio station on the internet at www.indiaradio.com. This was a collection of music shows, talk shows and a cricket commentary channel called Radio Bakwaas. A number of the shows on Indiaradio.com were also aired on traditional FM and AM frequencies in the US.
While web radio started making its presence felt all over the world in the ’90s, the technology was a little late in stepping into India. Online radio is a technology that continuously transmits audio (this process is called streaming) over the internet to your computer and more recently to your mobile phones. The biggest advantage of internet radio as compared to traditional radio networks is the choice of stations and content, regardless of a listener’s location.
Apart from ease of access, internet radio allows space for content that may be very different from the fare that’s dished out on conventional radio networks. Take Radio Verve, another Bangalore-based online radio station that was born out of the need to support independent musicians whose music rarely airs on regular radio channels. In fact, online radio is not a new phenomenon in the IT city, and one of the earliest internet-based radio stations in India that focused on international music, myopusradio.com, was based out of here.
“Both traditional and internet radio have their advantages, but internet radio goes a step further as it allows the listener to be an active participant, allows content to be more inclusive, and is for the moment at least ruled by listeners and relatively ad-free. Some of the content may be based on subjects that are considered taboo on traditional radio,” says Vaishalli.
QRadio allows participation from LGBT communities worldwide, and a variety of issues are discussed here — coming out, sexual preferences, gender identities, difficulties at the workplace, acceptance and so on.
One of the biggest challenges for QRadio, Anil says, is gaining acceptance from within the queer community. It has taken them time to open up and while many listeners call in to thank QRadio for giving sexuality minorities an open and safe space, the channel has seen its share of detractors from the community itself.
“We want the LGBT community to accept the product as their own, but there is hesitation from certain quarters because it is a radio channel created by heterosexuals. Ideally, I would like NGOs, advocacy groups and activists working for the LGBT cause, be it transgenders or lesbians or gays, to buy air time on QRadio, create their own content and present shows that will highlight what they stand for. This way every group within the community will get visibility and can promote their agenda. Technically, we will give them all the support they need,” says Anil.
This also makes economic sense considering QRadio is free. The channel is funded by the Guild of Women Achievers and through a grant from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). While some of the channels from Radiowalla run on subscriptions, it was a conscious decision to keep QRadio available for all. “Otherwise it would have been counterproductive,” he adds.
But it’s not only activism and advocacy on QRadio. There’s also fun and entertainment, and of course music. One such show is Querilicious hosted by Romal Singh, a two-hour show that brings out the fun element about queer life. “It is a show that celebrates being queer. From the jobs we do, to the lives we live, to how we choose to express ourselves, our love and our interactions with the larger heterosexual community. The show is positive and chatty and while we sometimes have expert guests who give information and advice, the larger goal is to entertain,” says Romal, an articulate and well-informed man who is openly gay.
Asked what he had to say about the suspicious attitude of certain gay groups which have not yet warmed up to QRadio, Romal makes a valid point: “Yes it is true that some people in the community may not have accepted QRadio as their own, but considering that we are always judged on the basis of our sexuality, trusting people does not come easy. It will take time. That said, we have received a great response not just from people in Bangalore but cities such as Chennai and Hyderabad, and now it is great that we have gone international.”
Romal also points out that perhaps the most dedicated callers and listeners are from the smaller towns of India and states like Chhattisgarh. “They do not have the same openings and avenues to express themselves as a person in a big city such as Mumbai might have, and a platform like QRadio is often the only one available to them,” he adds.
But there is no time to dwell on past laurels as the online radio channel looks to exciting new directions. There are a host of new programmes being conceptualized. A legal and health counseling show and Beyond Barriers with Akkai, a show that highlights the transgender perspective, are in the pipeline. Akkai Padmashali, a community worker and advocate of transgender rights, will host the latter show which promises to go beyond societal stereotypes.
After all, breaking barriers and traversing unconventional paths is what QRadio does best.
Sahana Charan is a Bangalore-based independent writer focusing on health and development issues. She has worked for leading publications like The Hindu and Bangalore Mirror and her interests lie in exploring public health and accessibility issues and social impact of technology.