Desi Media's Next Generation

A flameout by MTV isn't slowing down growth for South Asian publishers and broadcasters in local markets and on the Internet.

August 1, 2007

WITH STORIES ABOUT speed dating and South Asian-inspired architecture, Ego Magazine isn't your parents' community rag. Actually, it isn't even a rag, but an Internet destination. visitors aren't looking for a calendar of community events or a good travel agent, instead they'll find fiction with a global perspective, reviews of the hippest new music and art, and interviews with gay desis.

Ego's streamlined design and artistic use of color photography starkly contrast publications like India West and India Currents, stalwarts of South Asian media whose audience might include the first-generation housewife or retired electrical engineer. Enterprises like Ego, though, are looking for that housewife's daughter who may have been born in Mumbai, moved to New York at the age of six and attended college in Montreal. She's interested in Indian affairs and swears by her mother's masala, but thinks of herself as cosmopolitan and wants to read about experiences like hers: the life of an Indian with allegiances to different homelands and worldviews.

Sumita Sheth, executive editor of Ego, remembers the South Asian publications of her parents' time fondly. "Those were the things that you grew up on and they build your foundation," she said, "and then you and go out and live your own life."

According to Sheth, Ego gets approximately 35,000 unique visitors a month, reassurance that she and the small band of volunteer editors who see the online magazine as a "passion" project, are offering content some people crave. They certainly aren't alone. Other online publications like Nirali and Sapna-the latter of which just moved to a print format-also aim to capture in the know desis.

But capturing this audience isn't always easy or successful. There's the case of MTV Desi, which launched in June 2005 along with MTV Chi for Chinese Americans and MTV K for Korean Americans. Finally, some thought, at least one boardroom of corporate America had recognized the ascendancy of the Asian American community, which make up 5 percent of the US population at around 14 million, according to census estimates.

Months after MTV Desi hit the airwaves, though, programs like Desi News, Bhangin' Bhangra and Kya Baat Hai-a talk show that "asks Desi kids the tough questions"-were hyped by many (including Hyphen) but seen by few. Available on DirecTV, the channel was impossible to get without a satellite dish. So when Viacom shut down MTV Desi (along with MTV Chi and MTV K) in February as part of a larger company-wide restructuring, the blow was not as intense, especially since there was talk of turning to another platform: the Internet.

Yet, the Internet is just one part of what has helped South Asian media expand in recent years. More traditional publications with older readerships have also continued to thrive. Savvy entrepreneurs, who in some cases started out as hobbyists, have seen substantial regional growth as an opportunity to cater to another audience: first generation immigrants. Magazines like Khabar and Saathee, both free month lies out of Georgia and North Carolina, respectively, have capitalized on booming South Asian populations and robust local advertising to produce in-depth, tailored coverage of topics like immigration, BoIlywood, and politics in India.

Khabar, which hoped to emulate the West Coast-based India Currents, debuted as an eight-page community bulletin in 1992. "The vacuum of media was phenomenal and we filled a gap," editor Parthiv Parekh said when the Khabar was founded. The magazine now publishes 30,000 copies each issue and its pages number 140. A recent cover featured Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who was interviewed about changing perceptions of India.

Keeping a connection to South Asia is what draws people, according to Divakar Shukla, president of Shukla Entertainment, which produces Saathee Magazine and Nazar TV in North Carolina. "People who immigrate here," he said, "are so willing to assimilate but they don't want to lose their roots. That's how we serve them." While Nazar TV, an hour-long program about Bollywood carried by Time Warner Cable, is widely popular, Shukla said that print publications dominate South Asian media because of the difficulty of penetrating radio and TV markets without substantial financial or corporate backing.

In other words, the Asian community may be on the rise, but at roughly 3 million, the South Asian population is tiny to potential advertisers who can reach 41 million Hispanics and 39 million African Americans when seeking ethnic niche markets.

RaJu Kotak, a long time advertising exec in South Asian media, is hoping to entice behemoth advertisers like Proctor & Gamble with a comprehensive survey about the community's purchasing habits, the first of its kind to his knowledge. "The most difficult part is the fact that the (South Asian) population is not concentrated," he said. "It's a very lucrative market out there but it takes a lot of patience."

Sheth says actually she prefers Ego without advertisements. "With them," she explained, "we'd have to tone down the content and become more mainstream." She'd rather continue to focus on breaking taboos and producing edgy stories about art, politics and relationships. Though Ego staffers have discussed the possibility of going commercial, they have decided to remain an all-volunteer outfit for now.

When asked how she would feel if Ego inspired a magazine for the next generation like her parents' magazines affected her, she took a second to consider the idea and then embraced it. "It would be cool in 10 years to be the foundation for other people."


Rebecca Ruiz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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