Radio for the Community! Spoken Histories From 3ZZZ

Today’s journey will uncover another gem that has sparkled brightly for its community for many decades. Founded in the early 90s, the Indian program at 3ZZZ radio station has been a beacon of culture, connection, and communication for the Indian diaspora. The mastermind behind this initiative is Rajeev Arora.

Radio for the Community! Spoken Histories From 3ZZZ highlights the impact that 3ZZZ broadcasters have made to their communities, increasing diversity in community media, benefits of multiculturalism, sacrifices made by new migrants in Australia, and benefits of volunteering in community radio.


Maram Ismail: Welcome to a new episode of the radio for the Community Spoken Histories from 3ZZZ podcast. I’m your host, Maram Ismail. Today’s journey will uncover another gem that has sparkled brightly for its community for many decades. Founded in the early 90s, the Indian program at 3ZZZ radio station has been a beacon of culture, connection, and communication for the Indian diaspora. The mastermind behind this initiative is Rajeev Arora.

Rajeev Arora: You have to still carry on the tradition, but you need to build a bridge to the present. If you don’t do that, the ethnic channels will become old people stations.

Maram Ismail: Join us as Rajeev shares his journey, his passion for media, technology and the challenges he faced in setting up the Indian program. Rajeev Arora, founder of the Indian programme on 3ZZZ, didn’t start his migration journey in Australia.

Rajeev Arora: I came in 89 and that was my second country of migration, I was in New Zealand for four years before that. It was purely an economic migration, so to speak. You know, look for better opportunities, there’s no compulsion to migrate. So that was in 89, which is 33 years ago roughly. I work in IT Information technology, which is effectively has changed our lives so much. And it’s even today continuing to change it, including for media and Hollywood writers and actors have gone on strike because, to be honest, AI can create the voices and, you know, visuals as well.

Maram Ismail: While many might stumble upon opportunities, Rajeev’s inspiration stemmed from a childhood connection, his profound love for the spoken word and his uncle’s radio program.

Rajeev Arora: One of my immediate inspirations was my uncle. He had a similar community radio in New York who migrated there in 60s. That was my, you know, kind of childhood inspiration, so to speak, of. But prior to that, you know, literature, love for the written or spoken word poetry writing that was there from me in schooling days. During university time I was editor of the literary magazine, one of the founding members of the Literary Association effectively had an impact on my studies. But so I think when I saw the opportunity here and I thought, it’s a good opportunity to, you know, bring those things together.

Maram Ismail: The Indian program name, Geetanjali, holds a special place in his heart and relates to his connection with his uncle.

Rajeev Arora: He’s no longer in this world, but, uh, I still have recordings of his shows, and I’ve shared some of those, even to our list of our broadcasters, and they absolutely love it. Another inspiration came, I think, when I was once visiting Delhi and my maternal grandmother. So my uncle’s mother, this uncle’s mother, she was actually having a heart attack and she actually passed away soon after that. So we were taking her from home to hospital once as she was having that and I was talking to her and she says, you sound exactly like my uncle. So I think I do have a bit of a same mannerism and style. And I actually learned the delivery also by listening to him. He had a way of speaking at a speed which gives the listener time to absorb what you are saying. So I think the broadcaster, when he speaks, when you are communicating verbally, you have to switch between leading and let the listener catch up, you know? So there’s generally a buffer between what’s in your mind versus what you are saying and versus when you are giving gaps, you know, so there’s an art to that. So we actually named the program after that program as well. So even today the name still carries on. Geetanjali an offering of songs.

Maram Ismail: As Rajeev settled in Australia, he recalls listening to the SBS Indian program, a program the 3ZZZ station did not offer. But one day, as he checked The Age newspaper, he chanced upon an opportunity in The Green Guide, which sparked an idea.

Rajeev Arora: The first came to know about the opportunity from the Green Guide. Green guide used to be a section in The Age, which used to print the TV and radio programs. I think it doesn’t come in in the age anymore and saw that 3ZZZ didn’t have an Indian program, whereas SBS did. So I just made inquiries, starting with a phone call, and came to know the procedure, how we needed to put together an application, built a group of friends circle, joined membership, created a proposal which went into like something like 50 pages. It was all the ideas that, you know, we came together, how we will put together the program, how it will impact the community. It’s another story that when we actually went to implement it, to implement something on a regular basis, we probably implemented half page of it out of 50 pages. But to be able to do that regularly starting.

Maram Ismail: The Indian program was challenging. The diverse linguistic landscape of India posed the question should it be an Indian program encompassing all languages or just a Hindi one?

Rajeev Arora: Once we finally managed to submit the proposal the first time it was rejected, it probably was rejected twice over two years, I think. Look, the reason is, uh, as common as it is, probably that reason is valid. Even today, being India is a country of many languages, and the station had the dilemma of whether to call it Indian program or Hindi program. And if Hindi, then what about 15 to 20 other languages? Whereas SBS is called a Hindi program, which is one of the languages and now 3ZZZ also has 1 or 2 at least other programs from other languages. And the Punjabi group at that time made it clear to us that, you know, they don’t want to be subsumed or linked up in that way, you know, so so I think that was the one reason. And the second one, I think, is to do with the usual demand versus how much opportunity is there.

Maram Ismail: But his determination paid off back then, and a change in the station’s council structure brought new hope, I think.

Rajeev Arora: In 90 late 91 or something like that, there was a change in the officials, the council structure changed, and when the new council came in, they approved our program. So it got roughly 2 or 3 months notice to get started. I had started building up some, you know, resources in that time, mainly music or what are the signature tunes, what are the different, those kinds of things. So that was the start of it.

Maram Ismail: Amid this exciting development, Rajeev also embarked on a personal journey.

Rajeev Arora: My daughter, my first born, she was born in 92 and I think 2 or 3 weeks after her birth, we went on live for the first time on air.

Maram Ismail: Speaking to many community radio volunteer broadcasters, I learned that building a community program from scratch is not an easy task. It needs personal dedication, commitment, and understanding of the audience’s pulse, especially as a volunteer.

Rajeev Arora: You know, as you’re starting, obviously, your initial programs, the quality is not that good. You can see your own mistakes. Even others are telling you them your mistakes. So my first goal, even though I was trying to get more sponsorship at that time and all that, is to build a brand in the community, and the only way you do that is by having quality program. Once the program was running for a couple of years till that time, we are actually putting in a lot of effort in getting a quality right, putting in the time, keeping the membership at the right level. I must say, you know, some people come to my mind from 3ZZZ, from other programs who were helping a lot, getting a lot of guidance, you know, so once the program started and initially I used to spend time actually to find out, you know, different events and I used to cover them without them asking me to do so, you know, effectively you do the advertising for them without being asked. And that gradually started producing results for people. So the program was becoming known. And it takes time, you know, for any new thing to become known. And then slowly people started approaching. And then also we started promoting other associations and other activities within the community. So Hindi Association, Senior Citizens Association, so different groups within the Indian community, we started promoting them. So membership was generally not an issue. And when it came to getting the broadcasting or, you know, help people have this impression that, you know, it is something that they walk in. They are like coming as a star and they just get to talk  but in 3ZZZ, you got to do be able to do your own cleaning, washing, technical and so on and so forth. You can’t just have the juicy bit, you know, and let someone else do the hard work. So that was a bit of a barrier in getting, you know, attracting the right people and keeping them.

Maram Ismail: As the years rolled on, the program saw evolutions, adjustments and received skills grew, mirroring the advancements in the world of radio.

Rajeev Arora: So I think for 3ZZZ and for Indian radio programme also, it’s been a big journey from when it started, you know, from early 90s. We are talking about pre-internet days, so having access to news, music was a big deal for, you know, the migrant communities. Whereas now, you know, the world is connected and anything you can get from anywhere and instantly. The station provides a very unique capability of nurturing the broadcasting and journalism talent at a community or voluntary level. I’ve seen the content and the engagement style change over time. When I say change over time, I don’t mean in terms of what it that model, contents of that model, but how different people have done it differently over time. So when I initially started doing the 5 to 10 years, there were regular events and there were regular training sessions. So it’s quite energizing to see, you know, you have technical training, legal training and knowledge of the broadcast law and so on and so forth, which are very handy to have the rest of the skills comes from doing. And there was also a time which probably still may be happening, but I’m not aware of it, wherein someone from the training group or someone from the broadcast sponsorship management area will actually listen to your program from time to time and pull you up on something you didn’t do correctly. So I think those training programs do continue. I think even today, in some shape or form, I think where probably I haven’t seen enough of is the new social media and the digital model. I think we’ve seen the programs becoming available as podcasts recently. It’s a step in the right direction, but I think the world has moved on a much further. But we are on a good technology platform, the technology we have, and that software is capable of a lot.

Maram Ismail: For over seven years, Rajeev and his team members who joined later possessed refined social and soft skills to effectively engage with their listeners. They always continued improving their tools and excelled by engaging with the community, even if it required forming partnerships as volunteers. They were committed to one goal catering to the diverse interests of their audience.

Rajeev Arora: As the population of Indian migrants grew, which generally has distinct groups, you know, generally along language or state guidelines. So we formed partnerships with respective, you know, region or language associations, giving them time. I myself have lived in different parts of India, so we will do a special on festivals particular to their areas. We’ll cover their events in our program normally without asking or even by simplest of request. They will, you know, join up in 3 to 5 members, additional members and so on and so forth. Same thing with the sponsorship as well. So getting sponsorship is not hard. The main I think, challenge between what’s now and what’s at that time, pre-internet days, the program had a very strong traction in the community. It has a lot of value, whereas now it’s a very different proposition. So you are competing with everything that’s digital. So if there’s a, you know, business or a shop, we have to prove that this program is actually heard by X number of people or who are the right number of people. And the reason why people to listen to the program and the kind of people who listen to the program has changed. So we used to have a time when a substantial number of our talkback listeners would be fresh, young students from India who are studying, but on the side they are doing taxi driving or working in a kitchen in a restaurant, and they have the program running on the side.

Rajeev Arora: So there’s always, you know, listener segment of senior people at home listening as well. On Saturday nights, for example, in planning the program, we made sure that we find different pockets, you know, different pockets of listeners. And also we provided a forum for Indian community leaders. So there are people within Indian community who are adopting leading roles. And we do that quite well even today.

Maram Ismail: As someone who also comes from the media field, I know that content strategy is the backbone of any radio program. Rajeev shared his insights into how they kept evolving with the changing times.

Rajeev Arora: The hardest one everyone knows is religion and politics. In media, you can be as free and independent as is the strength and budget for your legal department. So you want to be very careful. You don’t want to spend too much time and money getting into legal trouble. So especially in a community broadcasting perspective, you know, when we started, 3ZZZ didn’t even have enough funds to defend anything significant. We are probably better placed now than we were at that time. But so content strategy in the beginning started with leaning on music because it’s the least effort.

Then we brought in the Indian news because we’re talking pre-internet days. Once internet has come in, it became more of a community engagement and participation because the nature of activities in the Indian communities was growing and changing. There were many special interest associations forming, getting them to come and talk about it, getting them to present. So, this became more of a community engagement and also local content, as a consequence. I have a favourite approach of finding parallel music so I can find a Paul Kelly or John Farnham song which has same or similar meanings as Indian songs, for example, and that gels with people who have been in the country for a while, you know, and that is also crucial for building a bridge to the younger generation, because for the generation of Indian descent who’s growing up in Australia, for them Australian music is the local music and the way you connect is by bringing those together. So that’s been my kind of content innovation from time to time. Off late I’ve seen because we now have a group of six broadcasting teams, each one comes up with their own ideas. Each one has got on their strengths. So we do hookups with India interviews from people in India. We’ve had some very, uh, prominent people freshly migrated from India, for example, somebody who’s very active in sports or musicians or scientific innovation come and talk about it. And we are starting to build a library of pre-recorded interviews, for example, that we can leverage. So that’s one. And hopefully, probably we’ll get to experiment with a bit of AI based generation of scripts etc. as well. So, so that’s I think where we are going with content. Would you do, for example, news bulletin in an Indian program or a community program? Now I think that is being done ideally elsewhere anyway on the internet. So you know, so there are some things that no longer make sense to do.

Maram Ismail: But how does Rajeev ensure that their content resonates with the audience?

Rajeev Arora: That is done by opening the feedback channel? So when I was initially doing the program on my own 6 to 7 years, I would open the talkback lines either during the program or after the program. At times, if I’m the only one in the studio, I would take it after the program because it’s you require someone to filter through, and at times the phones will light up. As soon as the program finished, I had barely time to walk out of the studio and walk up to the phone. The phones will light up and it’ll be like four lines going at once. A lot of time positive, and a lot of times people giving me a piece of their mind, so to speak, or how things, new things could be done, for example. So I think that gives you a pulse of what works and what doesn’t work. At the moment our broadcast people, I think many of us do talk back. I don’t think we are listening to, um, the phone calls after the program or that kind of thing. Because we live in the world of social media, I think for people to interact with your content now is different. And I don’t think we are fully transitioned to that model yet. Our program does have a Facebook page, but it does not have a lot of activity, you know, so it’s mainly we announce the content from time to time. It’s not even two on a scale of ten. I would in my opinion, because that’s where the industry is at. Coming back to, you know, getting feedback again, everything is a resource constraint, you know, and also the resources of the Indian broadcasting group right now, we are like a team of six broadcasters. We could make it a mega program or something like that, but it requires a different kind of budget. So I’m sure, for example, the Hindi group at SBS has at least 1 or 2, maybe up to three full time staff who are paid, you know, to work on it 40 hours a week, plus a lot of support. For example, they don’t do their own technical work.

Maram Ismail: Rajeev founded the Indian program, and not only did he present it alone for many years, but he also wear many hats to accommodate the audience’s needs and his own creative aspirations. Handling various roles in a radio program can be challenging. Rajeev gives us a glimpse into his multifaceted responsibilities.

Rajeev Arora: When we see a movie, we don’t appreciate the role of the editor. What got left out? Many people don’t admire as much, but you know the role of the scriptwriter, or you know, the vision as well. So, I think imagining and scriptwriting is quite, uh, a crucial part. It can start by what it’s about. What’s the, you know, key subject you are trying to cover. Is it informative or is it storytelling? How much of it is fact based versus how much emotion based? What’s the mood of the or color of the program? You want it to be cheerful or do you want it to be very serious? Or is there a issue, you know, social issue you are covering so it changes how you to tell that story? So I think the main advantage of being a volunteer broadcaster that has been there, and I have no shortage of thanks for that opportunity or being, you know, grateful for that opportunity is you get to tell a story. And obviously there’s an element of you that comes out in that and be able to tell different types of stories. And there’s a famous, uh, writer and broadcaster by the name of Seth Gordon. He’s based in New York. He actually runs a podcast academy and his rationale for that is you get to tell your story. And one of the top 5 or 6 regrets of people who are dying, I wish I had told my side of the story. So that’s the, you know, beauty of being able to do that. And in that, yes, you know, you got to be able to structure your thoughts. You got to write the script. So, this is when you’re just working as a solo, for example, the moment you are interviewing someone, the moment you are doing a co-production with someone, then it becomes like another scale altogether.

You need to bring them on the journey. When it comes to, uh, doing a live production, for example, one of the things I learned was how much preparation is good enough. I think you learn that by experimentation you can prepare too little. You can prepare too much. I’ve had some of the best programs. When I had not prepared, I’d done very little preparation, and sometimes I had prepared, like put in 8 to 16 hours of planning for a one-hour program, and it went absolutely disastrous. So, I think that art of, uh, having the key anchors and key points and then some of it being spontaneous comes slowly. The other part is the technical production. It doesn’t matter how good content, how good the message you have, if the content is not technically of good quality, the sound level is not good. The volumes are up and down, or the gaps in between the listener will not buy in. Doesn’t matter how good a thing you have; you’re talking about postproduction, postproduction is something that you know generally you need for pre-recorded stuff, and if you’re a volunteer, that is extra time. So, if it is live, I used to find it most economical from time perspective. Do you go there? Glitches, warts, rub. A bit of things will happen, but it’s gone, you know? Thank God. I think there were. I think if I can think of major live on-air fiascos, there’ll be less than six.

Maram Ismail: In his programs, Rajeev had various interactions and opportunities to interview many guests, bringing diverse voices to the program. One of the most notable moments, he recalled, was his attempt to interview a mega Bollywood star.

Rajeev Arora: There was a time when a celebrity is visiting, let’s say from India. I would go up to their event with a microphone and a recorder and do that. It soon became clear that as a volunteer with the young family, it’s not something I could do very often. Then it became when some of these cultural events were happening by, you know, overseas artists who were visiting Australia, that we will I’ll get recordings from their local events or record with them offline. I have had times when these people have left an interview message or a one-way message on my answering machine, and I’ll use that. I have had a situation where I was doing a live hookup with, uh, Shah Rukh Khan, who is the top of the top-ranking stars in Sydney while the program was on air. So, this is 9 to 10 p.m. on Saturdays, and the sponsor of his show had organised for him to talk. It just happened that I think his live show ran a bit late, so he rings up at a 10:15, 15 minutes after the show and I had to tell him it’s too late.

Maram Ismail: It’s one of the disappointments of needing to keep to a schedule for live radio, but I’m sure there has been other rewards.

Rajeev Arora: I’ve had senior Citizen Association founder come up to the program and come and talk many times. When the Senior Citizen Association was being started, so when the number of Indian migrants was so low, but as it was going up, there were more senior citizens who wanted, you know, their own association. Now, I think Melbourne has 3 or 4 senior citizen associations. So that’s the scale now. So I can go as far as saying that the program helped in creation of that. You know, we’ve had now like there’s a Natyadarpan, there’s a theatre group. They come and talk about their activities regularly. We have 2 or 3 authors who come and talk about regularly. We’ve had, as I was telling you, some sports and technology people who come out regularly.

Maram Ismail: While some interviews were about celebrities and entertainment, Rajeev also focused on more pressing societal issues. He says that many of his colleagues’ interviews have also profoundly impacted the Indian community. In Melbourne.

Rajeev Arora: Three names come to my mind very straightaway Amit and Renu Tiwary. That’s one group. They’ve been very active champions in domestic violence and, uh, you know, family welfare. That was in early times. We have another broadcasting team in Vivek and Meenu Srivastava actually, they’ve focus has been mainly on mental health. They have actually even produced many movies. So they’ve got that hobby as well, uh, hobby or similar. So I think they’ve produced 2 or 3 shorts, movie shorts. And Vipin Gaindhar, he is very active on the stage theatre, for example. We’ve also had fairly active presentation from the Indian Classical Musical Society, and we’ve had them come and sometimes perform a piece of music or talk about the theory and the practical side of Indian classical music. So, we now have a team who goes and actually draws in different segments of the Indian community.

Maram Ismail: As we delved deeper into his career with 3ZZZ and the evolution of radio, Rajeev highlighted the technological transitions he witnessed and how he kept up with them, ensuring the content remained relevant and engaging.

Rajeev Arora: So the earliest memories I have of is, LPs, reel to reel tape and cartridges. I still have probably a few hundred LPs, and probably a few hundred cassettes and a few hundred CDs, and God knows how many gigabytes of music. So that’s the that side of journey. My latest is I have actually synthesized my voice using artificial intelligence. I can give it a piece of text and it will read it out as if I’m reading it. So I’ve done that. I’ve produced a couple of trial broadcasts and they’re live. Just proof of concept. I’ve not done anything regularly. I haven’t yet done like writing a script using AI, but I know the technical know-how when it comes to the actual production and post-production I do have God knows how many microphones at home. I have my own sound mixing deck, two mixers, two eight channel mixers, and also software mixer. I’ve got one my favourite software mixer, which is used by professional journalists, which does automatic sound leveling. You can throw music tracks at it and everything. You don’t have to manually do the leveling. I can do music, sampling, so on and so forth.

Maram Ismail: Rajeev admitted that his passion for media and community radio became, year after year, driven by a motivation to serve the Indian community of Melbourne.

Rajeev Arora: You see the light glow on people’s faces when people connect, so you’re sometimes helping them with, you know, whatever it might be, you know, attending a show or something at times they are sharing their feelings about homesickness or feeling depressed or mentally so it’s all that. And also, I think the other part is producing a good product. You know, when you’ve done a good show, the rest of life can be a mess, you know? And it is something you have creative control over. You say, oh, look who gives an F about work? Or somebody being mad at me or whatever. I produced a good show today.

Maram Ismail: This was an episode of radio for the community. Spoken histories from 3ZZZ.

Radio for the Community! Spoken Histories From 3ZZZ is proudly supported by the Community Broadcasting Foundation.