A red lenga, gold bangles, ornaments, mendi, music, laughter and tears! These are the accompaniments to any bride/dulhan as one chapter closes and another begins! Only, not so of a legendry radio presenter!
Instead, Sonia Deol wears a lenga woven out of fun, frolics and amazingly well-made radio! She wears ornaments of praise and accolades legitimately earned through-out her glorious media career. The mendi on her hands maps her journey from unknown teenager from Birmingham to passionate radio/TV presenter, compare, journalist and voice of the Asian Generation, the songs sang for her span 3 decades of brilliance she has shared with us, and the flowers at her feet are the hopes, dreams, wishes and prayers of all those she has touched with her talent. I’m sure that neither Sonia nor the BBC were prepared for the incredible stirring of emotions her leaving to get married has evoked, after all, radio presenters come and go, and the Asian media scene is arguably more fragile in this regard than its mainstream counterparts! In spite of this, radio possesses a unique talent to connect with hearts and minds, spanning the workplaces, homes, cars, light and dark spaces of its listenership, and Asian radio existed long before the era of facebook, twitter, blogging and Television! Perhaps that explains Sonia’s popularity (in part at any rate!), for in truth, our emotions run much deeper. I have spent the last 2 weeks in floods of tears whenever I hear Sonia Deol present her flagship show on the Asian network, knowing she will soon be leaving. I never expected to feel this way; most of the time, I don’t know whether I’m articulating or projecting, but I’m sure I speak for many when I say that saying goodbye to Sonia is like saying goodbye to a family member! Yet for those of us with an overwhelming affinity to radio, the kind of affinity that gave birth to Sonia in the first place, the loss is even more stark! Losing Sonia means losing our youth, our generation, the force that sustained us and created milestones within radio for some to listen to and others to follow!
Aspects of Sonia Deol’s career mirror my own. She was born out of obscurity, beginning her radio career in the curious backwaters of Radio XL and Sunrise! Radio stations long forgotten now, yet once served as the essential/only entertainment for Asian Britain! I started in local radio too (Awaz FM), yet didn’t get very far with Sunrise! Despite many interviews, CV exchanges and worked demo programmes, a 14-year-old visually impaired gori was not really what Asian media needed then, (or now it seems!). I continued at Radio Awaz however, and each Saturday morning, I’d watch Sonia Deol, presenting Network East, a magazine show which marked the BBC experimenting with a new genre of Asian/Ethnic programming! “I want to make media like that”, was all I could say! In Sonia Deol, I saw the person I desired to be! I saw youth, talent, creativity, innovation and a desire to succeed! Sonia was funny, flirty, an extravert with her finger on the pulse and, above all, a unique ability to spin humour and personality out of the mundane happenings in every day Asian life! Sonia Deol shot to fame at a time when Asian media was new, opportunities were thin on the ground; and thus, the media she made back in the late nineties is a living history, creating the backdrop to the sector we have today. Back then, The Asian industry was close, but not exclusive. It was easy to talk to people, to reach out and make things happen for yourself. People like Sonia wore their dreams in their eyes, so that aspiring hopefuls like me held firmer to our affirmations than we do today! And though I never did get to Sunrise, I did make it to the BBC; I produced some decent radio and spent 3 of the best years in Pakistan making the radio of my life; something the Blind Gori never imagined was within her grasp! Out there, I saw Many unknown Sonia’s, with aspirations beyond their circumstances. These ranged from the boy who worked as a child mechanic and had practised reading Dawn for one week before coming to audition for me, to the young assistant Danish Saeed who supported my production team and is now planning to launch a radio station of his own! All of them have come and gone, and some remain within the sector; and others, like me, have lost their way, station and opportunity. Sonia remained; and that too, within a time where the industry she joined back in the nineties was changing beyond all recognition. The culture she created through Network East, the BBC Asian Network and even her pilot magazine show for Channel East! All formed a subculture, and later a culture which empowered the youth and nurtured new talent, but with the expansion of the BBC Asian Network, these cultures were replaced. Bangra was replaced with street, Hindi with English, Punjabi with Urban, Hindi with Rap, Film songs with Fast, Fusion sounds which talk of everything and nothing. I don’t know Sonia well enough to guess what she made of these changes, though she has indirectly hinted at her disdain during her closing shows this week! Culture, by nature of itself must grow, change and evolve; but the outpouring of sorrow at Sonia Leaving the network hints that all may not be well! The essence of both what she created and represented is fast disappearing! The Live traditional music, arts and chat she has celebrated during her remaining days with us, tugs at the heart strings and makes so many of us recall our own youth, dreams and how Sonia was the soundtrack to so many. Her laughter, smiles, passion and ingenuity drove so many, whether to radio or to more conventional careers and journeys. Culture might evolve, but where Asian radio is concerned, change appears to have only induced stagnation! The Asian Network loses listeners daily, as the channel struggles to develop a sound which says any thing but “Asian Britain”. I could use this space to talk about how the Asian Network might well be synonymous with the double-edged integration debate raging within our government, but this is all about Sonia; and tomorrow, the queen of our airwaves will leave the land of her birth. Sonia closes one chapter, and will travel to Canada to live and marry the man who finally captured her heart from the radio that long-since held it captive. She begins her married life; (though, hints that a radio career might follow suit one day!). I don’t know what she has planned for her last appearance on BBC Asian Network tomorrow but I, for one, will be in pieces! This is, without a doubt, the hardest rukhsati I’ve ever witnessed! With Sonia, I send away my dreams of a place in this industry, I played the Asian media game when it operated according to the rules and styles I knew, but Sonia and the brand of journalists like her have left, either by force or by their own volition, and what remains is a generic, unfamiliar neutrality which neither interests me, nor offers me openings. While we might cry for Sonia, those of us concerned with Asian talent wonder who our rising stars might emulate? “have you listened to Sonia Deol?” was always the opening line I used when coaching my radio trainees about media awareness; and while they might find mentors in the mainstream, who now raises the bar for their sector? It amazes me that the Asian Network which Sonia Deol shaped with a selected few, seem less and less concerned with brand identity and about the pathways now closed to talent of the future. If Sonia’s brand of radio lives on in Canada, we will indeed be truly blessed!
This post seems negative and selfish, though it is not meant to. So many mixed emotions live behind these words! But Sonia, if you read this, you have my heart-felt congratulations for the journey ahead. For one like you, giving your heart is not easy, it means losing one identity and blending with that of another, trimming the edges to a place where they fit; and trying to accommodate radio in all of that will be challenging! I wish you health, wealth, happiness and peace, but above all, I wish you love in your new home! Married life can be tough, and so, when the mendi fades from yellow to brown, remember the beauty of these days and those traits which stole your heart from the airwaves. Remember what drew you magnetically to this man; and remember too, the values radio taught you; that it is your beautiful spirit and soul that make you; that draw even those who cannot see you towards your aura. My prayers, dreams and remnants of a career and time travel with you. Go forward and shine as only you can Dearest Sonia, thank you for the years, and for sharing the intimacy of your big day through Radio with us all. Who knows; in another time, another space and another set of Canadian waves; we might just capture the magic again!
Radio stars are not made, they are born; and in you Sonia the best was truly born, and will live forever!