Canada 150: Shushma Datt pioneered ethnic broadcasting in B.C

March 24, 2017

By Vancouver Sun |

To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

Shushma Datt once chatted up a young Mick Jagger and George Harrison for the BBC. Now she’s the highly respected matriarch of an ethnic broadcast enterprise in one of the most ruthlessly competitive radio markets anywhere.

Born in 1946 into a large family in Kenya, she was the daughter of an accountant. She earned a degree from the University of New Delhi. She has worked as a reporter for the prestigious Times of India, ranked among the world’s top 10 newspapers. In 1965, she emigrated to London with her parents and five siblings. Both she and her father got jobs at the BBC but, she later wrote, her dad thought she was a secretary. Instead, at 19, she was learning the ropes of radio broadcasting at the place that invented quality radio.

It was a big jump from the 10-year-old in Nairobi whose interest in the medium was tweaked when she appeared in a local radio play. She had one line, which to her mortification she flubbed, but which, to her amazement had been perfectly repaired in studio when the show went to air.

The happy beneficiary of a traditional arranged marriage, there was nothing traditional about her approach when she emigrated to Vancouver in 1972 and found that she might be good enough for the BBC but not for mainstream broadcasters in B.C. So, she started her own station, Rim Jihm, broadcasting on a sub-carrier frequency and producing round-the-clock content for the South Asian audience. It was the first in the world outside the Indian sub-continent to do so. She soon branched into television, producing nine specialty programs for Shaw and OMNI TV, and in 2005 launched an AM band radio station — the first Canadian woman to obtain a CRTC licence — which began as RJ1200 but has been rebranded Spice Radio. Programming now includes 17 languages.

Datt is not overtly political, except when she is — particularly regarding women’s rights and the broader issue of violence against women, issues that cut across ethnicities, religions and social class.

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