“End it with this new fellow,” Karan Johar tells a caller who confesses to still being hung up on her ex in an episode called ‘Secret Relationships’. “There is no debate because you are not into this new guy you are with right now.” In ‘Rejections in Love’, he listens to a woman talk about how a potential groom opted out of an arranged marriage with her when he heard she’d dated other men before. “It doesn’t make sense to me, I’m so sorry. I think you’re better off without a man like this,” he says. Both episodes are part of Calling Karan, a two-season show on 104.8 Ishq. On it, Johar advises callers with issues ranging from the absurd (“my girlfriend’s foul smell is putting me off kissing her!”) to the serious (“an accident left my girlfriend with amnesia and now she doesn’t remember me!”).
While Malaika Arora discussing her divorce with Kareena Kapoor is not a conversation you’d get to be part of otherwise, What Women Want on the same station tells you that her family kept asking her if she was sure she wanted to go through with it, right up till the night before she did. “It’s pure voyeurism. You’re listening in to two friends have a conversation with each other,” says former RJ Sucharita Tyagi (who’s currently a reviewer with Film Companion). As many as 4.4 million others are listening in with you, if the views on YouTube are anything to go by. Tune in and you can catch Zoya Akhtar, Sunny Leone, Soha Ali Khan and Karisma Kapoor on the show too.
Even the RJ on 92.7 BIG FM sounds distinctly familiar. Dhun Badal Ke Toh Dekho sees Vidya Balan, two-time reel RJ (Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Tumhari Sulu), turn real radio host, holding heartfelt conversations on loneliness, sexism, parental pressure and more. “Kabhi sharir ke size pe, kabhi aankhon ke size pe, kabhi rang pe, kabhi kisi ang pe chutkule banakar logon ko chidana sharm ki baat hai,” she says, in tears over body shaming. The clip has close to a million views.
The chance to engage with a high-information medium is exactly why celebrities turn to radio, says Rohini Ramnathan, who’s been a radio jockey since 2006. “People tune in and the engagement is so high. This is a chance for them to breakout and actually be human.” Like social media and personal YouTube channels, hosting a radio show is just another way for them to to connect with their fans. And what caller wouldn’t be ecstatic to hear their favourite celebrity on the other end of the line, dishing out life advice? It’s a match stations have been quick to capitalize on. “Season 1 of Calling Karan was based on the concept of ‘the 2 AM friend of the stars is now your 2 AM friend’,” says Indira Rangarajan, National Programming Head, Mirchi Love.
All three shows, in some way, however, hinge on addressing real-person issues. So why not just get a professional instead? For Rangarajan, having a celebrity on board was always part of the game plan. “Kareena is not a feminist in a traditional sense of the word but she really walks the talk. There’s no other heroine who’s been working for the past 20 years at the top of her game,” she says. Similarly, Sunil Kumaran, Country Head of Thwink BIG, BIG FM, says Vidya Balan’s “formidable persona and belief in doing meaningful roles” made her the obvious choice.
The gift of the gab is not the only thing mainstream actors bring to the table. There’s also their sizeable fanbase and undeniable star value
“The role of a radio jockey has always been that of a companion,” explains Ramnathan. “They’re not giving advice under the guise of being a counsellor. I know some fabulous counsellors, but not all of them can give you radio-friendly advice. Why are doctors not hosting radio shows? You need the ability to present something in easy ways.”
The gift of the gab is not the only thing mainstream actors bring to the table. There’s also their sizeable fanbase – Kumaran says Balan’s show led to a “significant inflow of newer audiences” – and undeniable star value. “If you switch on the radio station and listen to Anil Kapoor, you’ll know it’s Anil Kapoor. He can’t be mistaken for anyone else,” says Ramnathan, whose station, Radio Nasha 91.9 FM, hosted Jhakaas Mornings with the actor in 2016.
Just the voice may not be enough anymore though. Clips of Calling Karan and What Women Want uploaded to YouTube feature the hosts front-and-centre. Look out for their snazzy outfits, expensive-yet-cozy sets and frequent cutaways to brand sponsors. Ranganathan’s assumption that people on their lunch break might want to devour 10 minutes of content is correct – What Women Want’s most-watched clip, in which Kapoor and Sunny Leone discuss their life choices has 5 million views.
It’s a hectic gig – Vidya Balan had a hand in developing the pitch and tone of the show, picking the topics and crafting perspectives around them, says Kumaran. While Kareena Kapoor discussed the guests selected for every episode, Karan Johar would listen to follow up voice notes from callers he’d advised to find out whether their relationships continued, whether they broke up with their partners and whether they took his advice.
There’s one thing their packed schedules prevented them from doing – live shows. All of these segments were pre-recorded. And that’s exactly why RJs aren’t too worried about the current trend of celebrity radio hosts. “Let’s look at the role of the television host in India today – who’s the most famous host? You can’t think of one. Because they’ve all been replaced by celebrities. But that will never happen to radio because it’s precisely this live factor that makes a difference. A live RJ will never go out of style,” says Ramnathan.