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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