SURREY — Only a few journalists showed up at the news conference at Radio India’s Surrey office last week when Harpreet Singh handed 17-year-old Shai Fraser-Briscoe $3,800 to pay for a pricey hip operation.
On the surface, it looked like another ho-hum cheque presentation ceremony, replete with a cluster of local politicians who did most of the talking. Despite the scant turnout, Shai’s mother, Shelley Fraser-Briscoe, was overwhelmed and near tears.
“I’d like to really thank you guys. I don’t know what else to say,” the single mother of six told Mr. Singh. “I didn’t expect this to happen,” added Ms. Fraser-Briscoe, who is not Indo-Canadian. “You guys are the nicest people.”
Mr. Singh beamed.
In reality, the story behind the fundraising effort was a remarkable one. Listeners of Mr. Singh’s daily talk show Let’s Listen, Let’s Talk raised the money in a mere 15 minutes after hearing that Shai’s mother couldn’t afford his long-awaited hip surgery, which British Columbia’s Medical Services Plan won’t cover.
It’s not the only praise the 39-year-old radio broadcaster has been hearing. Mr. Singh’s profile, which was already high in British Columbia’s Indo-Canadian community because of his popular evening talk show, soared this summer when his station led the mainstream news media pack in its coverage of a string of calamities that hit the Fraser Valley.
Not only was Radio India first on a number of news events – from the bizarre slaying of an elementary-school teacher five days after her wedding to the horrific traffic accident that killed six people at a Sikh wedding ceremony in Abbotsford – it was instrumental in mobilizing a massive lobbying effort on behalf of a paralyzed refugee claimant fighting deportation to India.
At first, the case of quadriplegic Laibar Singh drew little interest outside B.C. But his Sikh-Canadian supporters and Radio India wouldn’t let the case go. They said the refugee claimant was too infirm to be sent to India. Sikh supporters vowed to pay for his medical care and upkeep in Canada.
Three days before Mr. Singh’s scheduled Aug. 20 deportation, Harpreet Singh opened the lines on his talk show and hundreds of callers responded, voicing their support for the ill refugee claimant. Two days later, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day announced a 60-day reprieve for Mr. Singh.
Now, provincial and federal politicians take note of what’s discussed on Let’s Listen, Let’s Talk.
“I’ve got a tremendous respect for him,” B.C. Finance Minister Carole Taylor said. “He’s using this power to help the community to improve things in the community, to get attention on issues.
Ms. Taylor, a former broadcaster, even stopped Mr. Singh on a Vancouver street to congratulate him on his work.
“I just went up and shook his hand,” she recalled. “I mean, what the best thing any of us can say at the end of our careers is we’ve been able to make a difference. And he’s making a difference.”
Known for his unruffled, unbiased on-air demeanour, Mr. Singh is a household name in Surrey. Articulate, deeply spiritual and competitive, Mr. Singh said he knows he wields power over listeners and he’s careful not to abuse it.
The bulk of his audience, he said, are Sikh Canadians from the rural, northern Punjab area of India. Many were farmers and trades people from small villages with little or no education.
Part of Mr. Singh’s appeal with his Punjabi-speaking audience is that his own story closely mirrors theirs. He is an immigrant who abandoned a rising journalism career in India to move to Canada to give his two children a better life.
Once here, he too faced closed doors even though he has two university degrees and a background at English-speaking news organizations, including Time magazine and the Hindustan Times.
Two years ago, Mr. Singh took a job with Radio India and soon was hosting a daily current-affairs show. With 350,000 listeners, Radio India is the largest Punjabi-speaking radio station in North America. And Mr. Singh’s Let’s Listen, Let’s Talk is among the most popular of the station’s four daily talk shows.
Mr. Singh said his strength is his objectivity. “People trust me.” That trust gave Mr. Singh the edge while covering the case of elementary school teacher Shemina Hirji, who was killed in her house five days after her marriage to Paul Cheema. Mr. Singh broke the news in July that Mr. Cheema was arrested en route to the Vancouver airport and later released. Mr. Singh was also first to report that Mr. Cheema’s death the next month was by suicide, a development police have still not confirmed. However, Radio India’s influence has raised some hackles in the Indo-Canadian community.
Last year, after a rash of domestic violence in B.C.’s Indo-Canadian community, Radio India organized a community forum which drew 2,000 to a Surrey community centre. It also launched an abuse hot-line, which it encouraged victims to call. Social agencies weren’t impressed and said the radio station had no expertise in domestic violence.
Mr. Singh defended the move, saying many frightened abuse victims don’t speak English and don’t trust government agencies.
Mr. Singh said his show will continue to hammer at social issues, especially the big problems like violence, drugs and gang violence. “The majority of the community. … is peace-loving and helpful. We also have a grudge, to be very frank with you. We feel that when something good happens it is not brought to attention.”
Mr. Singh and Radio India do have some diehard fans outside the Indo-Canadian community.
Ms. Fraser-Briscoe said her son, who walks with a cane and hasn’t played sports since his hip socket began disintegrating at age 10, is counting the days to his surgery, now scheduled for Tuesday. She said Shai is “crazy happy.”
“It’s just so unbelievable,” Ms. Fraser-Briscoe said yesterday, again choking up. “I really thought he wasn’t going to get the operation. I told him not to get his hopes up. I didn’t even imagine this would happen. He’s going to get his life back.”
– By JANE ARMSTRONG