Dilbagh Singh Bhangoo, better known as Baba to his fans on CKUA Radio Network, fell in love with radio at an early age. He spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Jana G. Pruden about his roundabout path to becoming a household name, from going to see Canadian music legend Ronnie Hawkins on his first night in Canada to landing his first radio show in university
Where did you get your love of radio and music?
I grew up in a really, really backward rural setting [in the Indian state of Punjab]. I think somebody next door had a radio, and that was the only radio in the village or that I knew of in existence. For me, it was like a possibility, like a portal of communication. I think he had lived in China or something, so he would be listening to Radio Beijing. This was in the fifties, so there was this magic of communication through space. It wasn’t so much music itself as other people in cultures living far away, even beyond my imagination, and then having an access channel to that. That was kind of the first awakening of the love of radio.
Where did it go from there?
My dad was a schoolteacher and he had been to live in Kenya in his youth, so he had this pull for me to experience the outside world. There were magazines and newspapers around the house. I would read about Elvis Presley or Beatles or something like that and I had no idea what it sounded like or what it meant, but it’s like, there’s a thing called music and records. In the village culture at that time they would hire what they called loudspeaker. It literally is a tweeter mounted on a big horn and they put it in the tallest tree and just blast about half a dozen 78s they had for hours on end. I’d go and hang out with the person who was manning the gramophone. Every record, he needed to change the needle and they’d throw away the castaway needles, so maybe there was magic in that. I’d find a broken record and check out the groove on it, maybe rub the needle back and forth and see something happen. There was technological intrigue with the medium more than the sound itself.
And when or how did you discover this love you seem to have for rock and roll, in particular?
I think the cool factor was there, that rock and roll was cool somehow. There was a sophistication in the music itself, and for me there was meaning in it. I landed in Toronto in ’71 and I was just hungry, ferociously hungry, to check out the scene. My first night in Canada, we went to see Ronnie Hawkins playing on Yonge Street. I didn’t know who Ronnie Hawkins was at that time, but looking back, he’s legendary in the Canadian music scene. I think it was partly fate how I kept stepping into situations which led me further into discovery. Digging like a dog, you know? You give a dog a bone and he keeps gnawing on it. You know there’s something for you in there. I went to shows, somebody is coming to town – Frank Zappa, David Bowie or something – then you buy records, magazines, and you find out more. It just happened. My brothers lived in Canada, too, but they were like, “Why do you keep buying records?” That’s all I was interested in. My family didn’t understand it.
How did you get involved with radio yourself?
I was loving radio from early on but I didn’t think of radio as a career. It didn’t happen until early nineties for me here. I was taking a filmmaking class, and one of my classmates had a commercial running from CJSR. I just basically latched on to him and said, “Could I come and see you sometime?” He was very kind and he invited me to come and watch and I started going back every week, and he started to teach me stuff and give me a bit of airtime. Next thing you know, the station manager gave me a show.
Then it was about making a transition to actually getting paid for that and actually make a career in radio. I was really insecure about it. I didn’t have a job at one point, I delivered newspapers and whatever. One career counsellor, I told her I really want to work in radio and she basically said, “What’s stopping you?” I got a job at CKUA operating weekends, then it was like, “Can you do weekend weather?” and that opened it up for me.
What kind of reaction do you get when you meet someone who knows you from the radio?
For me, it’s still a wonder how people connect to what they receive on air. One of the common expressions is, “I didn’t realize you were this tall.” That’s kind of on the surface. But people show devotion, which is very touching. It’s like, “Baba, I love you.” And I know what they mean. I know what it means to me.