The Telegraph
| Sunday, October 27, 2013 |

7days

Radio gay gay

QRadio, an online radio station launched last month, aims to give a voice to India's LGBT community. Manjula Sen listens in

  • Online connect: Anil Srivatsa

Most gay men feel it is difficult to find love," says Abhiram.

"But straight men and women feel the same," responds the radio jockey.

"It is a little more difficult for gay men," Abhiram replies.

Asked for his dream man, Abhiram ticks off "very communicative", "handsome" and "very gay". The last for him means completely gay, and not bisexual.

That was a conversation on QRadio, an online Indian radio channel for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in India, which launched last month.

Hosted on the radiowallah.in network, QRadio is the brainchild of Anil Srivatsa who sits behind a broad desk at the network's office in Bangalore. News has just come in that New Jersey in the US has legalised gay marriage. It is Srivatsa's home state — where he lived and worked for several years before returning to India to develop radiowalla.in.

In a country that only recently decriminalised homosexuality, the distinctions between alternate sexual and gender identities find little space or expression in general public conversation. QRadio tries to address that vacuum in the public discourse.

The idea for QRadio took root during a radio show that Srivatsa used to host on a FM station in Delhi in 2009. Called Between the Sheets (BTS), the programme talked about sex and related issues for a general audience. One of the topics on BTS was homosexual experiences for everybody: gay, straight, lesbian and even homophobes. "At that time Delhi's homosexual community appreciated the fact that I brought out the subject in the open. Someone told me that I was a gay icon because of that. It got me thinking — if one show was so significant for them it was time for their own media representation. There was nothing that spoke from their perspective," says Srivatsa.

When he launched his online radio network in 2010, it was to target "special interest groups" whose needs were not being met by mainstream media. "Look, inherently, I am a champion of the underdog. I believe we need to give everybody a voice," he remarks.

The network has 38 radio stations, with different themes ranging from lifestyle, women's programming, music and religious and spiritual discourses, including the official online radio channel for the Art of Living organisation.

QRadio has seven shows that cover different aspects of queer life — from jobs to love to interactions with the larger heterosexual community. Plus there are counselling shows, call-in programmes and so on.

Says Srivatsa, a former CEO for the IPL's Kings XI, "I am an activist, period. All voices must be heard on a national discourse level. My activism is creating that voice and space for the LGBT community. Whether they use it or not is up to them."

  • QRadio team members

He is quick to point out, however, that Radiowalla is not a non governmental organisation. It is a business that hopes to be profitable in the future. That said, the effort to give a platform to this community has resonated enough to get some funding from the United Nations Development Programme. Radiowalla got its first funding from venture capitalists Onjus Ventures. Its other revenue streams include customising radio content for companies and third party advertising.

Srivatsa says that by social research estimates, India has more than 20 million LGBT persons. This, together with their family, friends and associates, make this a 100 million-strong special interest group. "Yet, currently, they are too disparate to be recognised as such. For instance, you never see a political candidate seeking an LGBT vote. He doesn't know how to or where to go," he points out.

The reasoning that drives QRadio is that if the LGBT community can prove it has financial clout and purchasing power, it can drive political influence, fashion, advertising and so on.

Srivatsa points out that online radio has the advantage of creating space for those who wish to express themselves while retaining anonymity for those who are not ready to come out. "It goes even beyond FM stations which have an area of dominant influence defined by their signal. In this case it is one station which, through the proliferation of cellphones, makes this almost democratic," he says.

Running QRadio has earned him a fair amount of ridicule too. A woman friend told him he should be careful not to bend down to pick up a coin now that he was around LGBTs . "So I asked her if she was afraid to bend down when a man was around. Then she realised the point." QRadio aims to change mindsets, sensitise people about gay jokes by welcoming straight jokes and other tongue in cheek content, he adds.

As for the first caller on QRadio, Srivatsa has this story to tell. A man from Amritsar heard about the channel through a post on his friend's Facebook wall. He called in to talk about the small LGBT community in Amritsar and express his joy at QRadio's existence where he and his friends could feel more connected to the larger LGBT community in the country. Similar caller chronicles will soon be available as an on-demand service on radiowalla.in for a small fee.

Gay pride never looked more proud.