It's 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the Irving office of Radio Salaam Namaste has all but emptied out.
The only one who hasn't gone to lunch among the station's Pakistani and Indian staff is DJ Neha Upadhyay, who is spending the hour with her listeners. Dressed in blue linen pants, a black shirt and gold crocheted slippers, the slight 25-year-old hops onto a stool in the air-conditioned studio, undecorated but for a pot of pink fabric flowers and a miniature American flag. She places a pair of headphones over her ears, and leans into the microphone. "Welcome back. You're listening to Lunchtime Special!" she giggles, peppering her accented English with Hindi phrases. "Right now, I'm playing beautiful tracks requested by all of you."
"All of you" is the Dallas-area "Desi" community, made up of South Asian immigrants and their children who settled here from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where "Desi" means "countryman." Though Radio Salaam Namaste (KZMP-104.9 FM) broadcasts all over the metroplex, its presence in Irving speaks to the flourishing Desi community in this suburb; at its founding just more than two years ago, the station became the first 24/7 Desi station in the United States on FM radio (another AM station broadcasts out of Richardson).
Upadhyay herself is a recent Irving transplant. She relocated to the city with her husband, a Verizon employee, from their home in Bangalore, India, less than a year ago. After she plays a few moments of Indian pop, a traditional-sounding melody soused with R&B overtones, Upadhyay pulls off her headset to answer the studio's ringing telephone.
"You want to hear 'Ya Ali' from Gangster?" she asks the caller. "You'll have to wait a few minutes. I have a few other tracks lined up."
The most popular songs during the request hour are from Bollywood soundtracks, she later explains, off the air. The Indian film industry's Bollywood imports provide a strong cultural connection for the diverse Desi community. Gangster happens to be an older film, but Upadhyay typically hypes the current movies by giving away tickets to callers who can name a song's film. This way, she drives traffic to Irving's Bollywood shows in Hollywood Theaters, which is operated by the same company that owns Radio Salaam Namaste.
Station owners Mohammad Abbas and Jaipal Reddy got into the radio business four years back, after Reddy had established Hollywood Theaters as a hub for Desi films. The pair dreamed of opening a South Asian-themed mall but knew they had to prove their business mettle to North Texas' most prominent Desi investors. So they took to the airwaves, first with a smaller AM operation, which they moved to FM two years later with the opening of Radio Salaam Namaste. The two form an unlikely duo—Reddy is 40-year-old Indian, and Abbas is a 30-year-old Pakistani—and they named the station for their friendship. "Salaam" is "hello" in Arabic, and "Namaste" means the same in Hindi.
"There is a huge rift between the countries," says Abbas, referencing the 1947 Partition of India, which divided the country into India and Pakistan, and pitted Hindus against Muslims. "In America there is not that rift. But there is no way I can conquer the entire market as a Muslim. There is no way that Jaipal can conquer the market as a Hindu. It has to be a combination of 'Salaam' and 'Namaste.'"
Since its debut on FM, Salaam Namaste has become a wellspring of information for the entire Desi community, with shows in English, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali and Telugu. On Fridays, the Zindagi ("life") program airs, with community advocate Dilshad Dayani doling advice to Desi parents befuddled by their Americanized children.
Nearly a decade before beginning her broadcast, Dayani held workshops for parents and made home visits. "I knew how desperately they needed the child development information in this country because of the lack of the support system. They did not have their mothers-in-law to turn to. They did not have their little village where everyone could go and ask what to do," she says. "I realized as I was doing these workshops, there was a medium where I could reach many people at one time."
"They are doing some good programming," says Mike Ghouse, an Indian community leader who started one of the first Dallas-area Desi radio shows in 1996. "They keep the sentiments of home alive, and they do a good job incorporating the entire South Asian continent."
Radio Salaam Namaste, however, managed to alienate some listeners when a DJ spouted anti-Sikh remarks during the station's now-cancelled call-in joke show last year. Though Abbas says that outcry was fanned by his competitor station in Richardson (KHSE-700 AM), he visited a local Sikh temple to speak with its leaders and played a recorded apology on the air the following week.
Despite the misstep, Salaam Namaste has secured the ears—and the dollars—of the Desi community and beyond. During Upadhyay's show alone, advertisements ran for Bollywood Grocery in Richardson, Subzi Mandi market in Garland, the Princeton Review and even Lufthansa Airlines. And, as far as Abbas is concerned, the station has accomplished its original goal. He and Reddy have secured investors for a $35 million Desi mall; construction will start this summer at the intersection of Interstate 635 and the President George Bush Turnpike. Called Everest Heights, the yellow, castle-like building promises to include a six-screen Bollywood theater, dance floors, a banquet hall, retail stores and restaurants. And it's likely to establish Irving—along with the older community in Richardson—as a center of Desi commercial life in North Texas.
Though Irving's Desi upsurge can be attributed to the vigorous IT sector in the region—particularly the Nokia and Verizon operations—the city has long welcomed South Asians. The area's first Hindu temple was built there in 1991.
"The Indian community makes a half-circle, spreading around the north and down to Mesquite," explains Southern Methodist University anthropology professor Caroline Brettell, who has studied the Indian influence in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "The earliest Indians came and settled in Richardson. The Irving growth is more recent, in the '90s." Most of the Indians in the area are "skimmed off the top," she continues, meaning that they are highly educated, highly skilled workers, who represent the tip of India's economic strata.
Numbers on the South Asian population are difficult to pin down. The 2000 census pegged North Texas' Indian and Pakistani communities at 30,030 and 5,841, respectively. But a report released last week by the DFW International Community Alliance, a group promoting diversity, indicates that Desi leaders see their ranks as much, much larger: 100,000 Indians and 50,000 Pakistanis.
"I can't verify what the community leaders say," says DFW International President Anne Marie Weiss-Armush. "But that is their best guess. It is significant. But it doesn't matter to me if it's 80,000 or 90,000 or 100,000. The family income and the educational attainment of the community are very impressive."
Back at Radio Salaam Namaste, Upadhyay closes out the lunch hour with a song called "Aaye Ho Meri Zindagi Mein," another Bollywood tune, which translates to "You Have Come Into My Life."
She promises her last movie tickets to a caller and readies the studio for the next program: a Punjabi hour. The phone rings another several times.
"I'm so sorry if I can't play your song right now," she says to her listeners. "The time is running."