Silent breathers, reluctant confessors and obsessed callers: Being a late-night RJ isn’t easy

RJ Neil, like his screen counterpart played by Vidya Balan in ‘Tumhari Sulu’, is both film song dispenser as well as relationship adviser.

Radio jockey Nilayan Chatterjee, best known to the listeners of his late-night show Masala Nights on 93.5 RED FM Kolkata as RJ Neil, gets a lot of strange calls.

“For the past few weeks, a girl has been calling in and just breathing. If you are lucky, you will probably hear her tonight.”

And call she does.

“I recognise her voice. This is her. We know, we are in the audio business.”

Like the fictional RJ played by Vidya Balan in the November 17 release Tumhari Sulu, 30-year-old Neil operates after sundown. He hosts the only late-night radio show in Hindi in Kolkata alongside a handful of similar shows in Bengali. A majority of the 11 radio stations in Kolkata play songs without a jockey after 9 pm.

In between playing Hindi film songs, Neil has two popular segments, both of which capitalise on the lowering of inhibitions associated with the after-hours radio spot. During Dark Hour, listeners are invited to share their secrets by calls or WhatsApp.

On Children’s Day, the first call received by Neil on Dark Hour is from a teenager who claims to be 16 years old and has had consensual sex with her teacher. Neil thinks it is could be his heavy breather. He is unsure of letting the confession go on air. For one, the caller could be lying, and also, would allowing such a subject on air on Children’s Day go down well with everyone?

In the end, Neil lets it pass. “It’s good content, nonetheless,” he reasoned.

RJ Neil at the 93.5 RED FM Kolkata studio. Image credit: Devarsi Ghosh.
RJ Neil at the 93.5 RED FM Kolkata studio. Image credit: Devarsi Ghosh.

Neil has been on air since he was 18. He had a natural knack for public speaking, anchoring and performing, he said, and was spotted by the right people at the right time.

Despite the number of radio stations in Kolkata, many people still do not consider radio jockeying as a full-time job. “Middle-class folks are like, oh, radio, nice, but what else do you do,” Neil said. “Nobody sees this as a proper profession. As if there is nothing between a clerk and a Shah Rukh Khan. You are either one or the other. In the middle, there is a lot of trying and testing times. Nobody sees that. They wonder what on earth you are doing.”

So did his wife, Ayantika, a radio jockey at a rival station. They met 11 years ago during one of Neil’s performances – he is also a guitarist and songwriter – and have been married for five.

In the middle of the show on Tuesday, Neil gets a call from the missus. “Yes, you send the list in a message, I will bring it on the way home,” Neil answers.

“None of my listeners know that she [a jockey for a rival channel] is my wife,” he said. “Unless, someone goes out of their way to stalk.”

RJ Neil with his band Rollywood.

Establishing a connection with his listeners is paramount for Neil, especially when they are spilling out intimate details of their lives. He once had hosted a contest where a man and woman, unknown to each other, could call in and ask each other questions. If they liked each other, they could swap numbers. Years later, one such pair informed Neil that they were married.

Then there was the time when Neil intervened between a warring couple on air and helped solve their differences. Later, the couple invited Neil to a ceremony involving their firstborn child.

Some of the confessions are of the disturbing variety – about being molested by a family member; holding grudges against parents. A woman recently called about quitting her job after she was unable to fight sexual harassment by her boss. Sometimes, people admit to being kleptomaniacs at work.

The Dark Hour segment is cathartic in numerous ways, making Neil a beacon of hope for night owls in the city. “At night, everyone is isolated,” Neil said. “Sound levels are down. People are listening quietly through their headphones or inside the enclosed space of their cars.”

The other segment is the yin to Dark Hour’s yang. Listeners call in and give Neil random words. Then Neil, a guitarist and songwriter when not in the studio, makes a four-line song out of it within minutes, records it, edits it, and plays it then and there.

For example, for the words “Rani”, “Aaina”, “Balti” and “Wonderful”, Neil created: “Aaine mein dekh ke wonderful chehra /khud ko samjhe selfie waali raani, Make up lagati itna jo / Dhone ko lagey sau balti paani.” (Seeing her wonderful face in the mirror, she thought she was a selfie queen. She put on so much make-up that she had to wash it off with hundred buckets of water.)

Radio work involves immense improvisation and on-your-feet thinking. “People have this idea that a radio jockey comes to the studio with a cup of coffee and a guitar, he relaxes and plays songs for three hours and then goes home,” Neil said. “It’s not that easy!” The show may last three hours but required double the time to prepare. Helping Neil in the process is his producer, Rohit Gupta, who sits in another room listening to the on-air feed.

For the Children’s Day episode, Neil is supposed to read out a passage about celebrities sharing pictures from their childhood. Something clicks in Gupta. He turns to Neil and says, “When you are talking about Sunny Leone sharing her adopted daughter Nisha’s photo, say ‘Samay to raat ka hai lekin news hain bari sunny.’” (It’s night but we have some sunny news).

Rohit Gupta and RJ Neil at the 93.5 RED FM Kolkata studio. Image credit: Devarsi Ghosh.
Rohit Gupta and RJ Neil at the 93.5 RED FM Kolkata studio. Image credit: Devarsi Ghosh.

A lot has changed since he began working, Neil said. Earlier, a radio jockey had to merely listen to phone calls. Now, messages come in through WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. A radio jockey is typically on several platforms at the same time in addition to managing the studio console and editing messages.

These days, RJs have to be available digitally as well as in the studio. “The content that we are releasing on air should be reflected online,” Neil said.

The mystique behind the identity of radio jockeys has disappeared. With one click, listeners know what their favourite on-air personalities look like. The competition faced from other platforms for music, especially the smartphone, means that radio jockeys face daily challenges in holding on to listeners.

But you cannot unburden yourself of the latest crisis in your life to your smartphone. “All said and done, the crazy ones are why we survive,” Neil said. “Yes, they are calling us using two-three SIM cards. Yes, the entire family sits together and jams phone lines to get the hampers. In fact, we have to maintain Excel sheets for winners so that the same faces don’t keep on winning repeatedly. But this is their madness and I appreciate their dedication. These are the listeners we owe our success to.”

A listener calls in saying, “I love my sister” and quickly corrects himself: “I mean my sister-in-law’s sister.” Neil frowns knowingly.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.