From basement tapes to broadcast: Punjabi radio station stays tuned in, 40 years later

Kulmit Sangha wants to hang up the microphone but his regular listeners won’t let him go.

Desh Punjab Radio has grown alongside Edmonton's South Asian community

Kulmit Sangha, 67, is one of the founders of Desh Punjab Radio. (CBC)

For the week of Sept. 10-14, CBC Edmonton is setting up a pop-up newsroom at the Mill Woods Public Library, to explore the stories and perspectives from one of Edmonton's oldest communities.

​ Kulmit Sangha wants to hang up the microphone but his regular listeners won't let him go.

Sangha is one of the founders of Desh Punjab Radio, a private radio station that has been serving Edmonton's South Asian community for more than 40 years.

With an eclectic mixture of Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English-language programming, the Edmonton station broadcasts on 104.9 FM Sideband and online, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

Edmonton's Desh Punjab Radio has grown over the past 40 years on the air, through the work of Kulmit Sangha and Ruby Toor. 2:05

Some listeners have been faithfully tuning in since the radio station launched in 1979, Sangha said, and those regulars have come to rely on the broadcast.     

And they've convinced the 67-year-old former city transit worker to delay his second retirement.

"That's pretty tough," said Sangha, who acts as a host and station manager.

"You talk to them every now and then and they appreciate this thing. And you hear what their life is going to be without the radio."

Station staff have strong personal connections with listeners, especially regular callers, Sangha said. 

"I have lived in Mill Woods since 1978 and it has been a great community," Sangha said.  

"Radio Desh is an ear for them. We listen to different problems that they have at home or in their families." 
Sangha has slowly been stepping back from the business side of operations but isn't ready to step away from the mic. (CBC)

Today, Desh Punjab Radio, based in Mill Woods, is all digital, but it began in the days of vinyl records and reel-to-reel.

The station started in 1978 as a collective effort by a small group of friends with a passion for news, current affairs and traditional music.

At first, they cobbled together a half-hour weekly program of news and Punjabi music and found a station willing to broadcast it on their behalf.

Without access to a professional studio, the program was recorded and mixed at home, using very basic tools and equipment, said Sangha.

One of the crew would drive the tapes to a community radio station in Wetaskiwin in time for the weekly broadcast, sometimes with only minutes to spare.

In 1998, the station began broadcasting on its own frequency, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Desh Punjab Radio moved out of the basement and established its own bricks and mortar station at 201 9241 34A Ave.

'A lifeline kind of thing' 

In the early days, the station was one of the few sources of Punjabi programming in all of Alberta. Today, the station blasts into thousands of homes and living rooms in the increasingly multicultural province. 

The station has grown alongside the South Asian community in the province.

"There was a time when there was not much in the community and this was the only source to get the information," Sangha said.

"Most of the Punjabi folks sitting at home, they're listening to the radio," he said. "It's a lifeline kind of thing.

"They get their information from the radio, whether it be for the Canadian affairs, what's going on around them or what's happening back home."  

Sangha​ said he has been slowly taking a step back from the business, allowing his friends and family to take the reins.

"If you have a good team, from family and friends, they can do a pretty good business here," he said. 

"You have to do some running around for the advertising and collecting the money, but they can make a good living out of this thing. Now I'm taking it easy because I don't have much time to run around."

After more than three decades with Desh, Ruby Toor says the station staff and his listeners have become his family. (CBC)

After more than 33 years with the station, Ruby Toor has little doubt that the station has staying power.

The South Asian community in Mill Woods has grown "like a dandelion" and the station is eager to serve new listeners.

"No doubt about it," he said. "People don't want to let us go yet. Whenever we even think about it, they say, 'No, no, no. if you guys are going to go, who is going to entertain us?' "

I'm with  Desh  Punjab radio until my last breath.-Ruby Toor

Toor, who was asked to join the broadcast crew in 1985, said his passion for music and his listeners have kept him on the airwaves for the past three decades.

The tight-knit staff at Desh Radio have no desire to cut their broadcast short, he said.

"I'm with Desh Punjab radio until my last breath," Toor said. "As long as Desh Punjab is here, we will be here.

"This our family now."