Arts & Culture

Richard ’09 founds ‘NPR of India’

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thane Richard ’09, a self-proclaimed “NPR Junkie” was sitting in a crowded train from Bandra to South Mumbai, listening to downloaded podcasts, when he was struck by a realization. “Why am I listening to shows about Chicago and Boston when I am in Bombay?” he asked himself. “Why aren’t there these kind of podcasts about India?”

So Richard founded Dabba Radio, India’s first independent news radio station. The station, which broadcasts online, features shows about Indian art, news and politics and brings in guests from different pockets of Indian society.  

Richard’s interest in India began his freshman year at Brown, when he shopped an introductory Hindi class a friend had recommended. Two years later, he spent a semester abroad at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi.

Cornel Ban, postdoctoral fellow in international studies, worked with Richard on his senior thesis presentation about farming methods in Montana.

“He has a very charming presence,” Ban said. “If someone can talk about manure and hooves to an audience that would typically be repulsed by that, that’s a measure of extremely creative intellect.”

Richard found himself in India again after graduation, this time on a two-year contract with Mahindra & Mahindra, an automobile and farm equipment manufacturer  in Mumbai. While there, he decided to take a stab at media.

 “I needed a hobby,” said Richard, who had some experience with radio in high school. “I was thinking of pitching a current events show to a radio station.” But government restrictions in India only allow one station — All India Radio — to discuss news and current events live on the radio, he said.

Instead, he started a radio blog. He began by interviewing people he found interesting and posting his shows online. He discussed a snake fossil discovery in Gujarat with two paleontologists and internet censorship with a former head of public policy for Google in South Asia. He named the show “TiffinTalk” and hosted it under the pseudonym of Arthor Danchest.

The show represented an effort to fill a gap in Indian media coverage, which Richard said is dominated by Bollywood love triangles, the feud between the billionaire Ambani brothers and the social life of politician Sonia Gandhi. There were “all these great stories hiding behind the redundant smokescreen of the mainstream media,” he said. With TiffinTalk, he realized he had “hit the tip of an iceberg of something people wanted.”

But Richard said he wanted to involve Indians in a more “homegrown” approach, and slowly abandoned TiffinTalk. He began to focus his energies on creating a network of shows, with the goal of establishing  a respected media outlet that did not pander to politicians or corporate interests, he said.

To fund this project, Richard approached Anand Mahindra, vice chairman and managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, and asked for a donation. “Are you afraid to make money?” Mahindra asked Richard, and encouraged him to look at the station as a “potentially exciting business” which could create a new market.

Richard began developing a business plan for Dabba Radio as part of his work with Mahindra. He also hired Nonie Tuxen, a recent graduate from Australia, as a full-time station employee.

“It was an interesting insight into the condition of media in India,” Tuxen said.

“I was not interested with hits or how many shows we could produce,” Richard said.

Rather, Richard said he focused on “finding the right people to produce exceptional radio content.”

Christopher Lydon, visiting fellow in international studies at the Watson Institute, agreed to be on the advisory board and Sidharth Bhatia, a former editor at Indian newspaper Daily News and Analysis, signed on as the station’s consulting editor.

The station’s name was inspired by the Dabbawallahs of Mumbai, who deliver lunches to 200,000 Mumbai offices every day.

“Just like one of those dabbas,” the show is a “potpourri of different types of content,” Richard said. The pilot included shows about the jazz age of Mumbai, India’s metal music scene and interviews with slum residents in Dharavi, a segment Richard described as an Indian slum version of “This American Life.” In an homage to a show he worked on in high school, he also created a show called “Bridging the Gap,” which is hosted by 13-to-17-year-old students.

Because of the high cost of licenses, radio stations in India are reluctant to experiment with new formats, Richard said. Dabba Radio circumvents these restrictive costs by broadcasting online.

Though the deal with Mahindra fell apart, Mahindra has remained a “cheerleader” for Dabba Radio, Richard said. Richard is now back in the United States, seeking investors for the radio station. Richard’s ambitions include expansion to live stream on phones and computers, but until he returns the radio station will remain dormant, he said.

“I never thought it would evolve to be such a huge project — it could really change the media landscape in India,” he said. He hopes Dabba Radio will one day be regarded alongside respected media outlets in India like Mint, a business newspaper, and Tehelka, a weekly news magazine.

“If people looked at Dabba Radio and said, ‘It’s kind of like the NPR of India,’ then I would say I have done my job,” Richard said.

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