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Shushma Datt: a South Asian broadcasting pioneer who paved her own path

By:
Rumneek Johal (@rumneeek)

While many know the name and face of long-time broadcaster Shushma Datt, a lesser few know the details of how the pioneer paved her own path in the media industry.

As a South Asian woman in media, Shushma, who is now iconically known solely by her first name, faced many challenges throughout her career.

Despite the uphill battle, she remained unfettered in her desire to be a storyteller. 

Shushma recently received the 2021 Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award for her decades of work in the industry.

She sat down with 5X Press to speak about her career and the many experiences and lessons that lead her to this moment. 

The recent honour is just one of many awards that Datt has received throughout her career, including receiving the Order of British Columbia, the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal, and a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award.

According to Shushma, she didn’t always know she wanted to be a journalist. In fact, she said growing up in Kenya, her parents thought that the “terrible student,” wouldn’t amount to much.

“My parents were not expecting anything from me. They thought, you know, let her finish her senior [year], and then we’ll get her married,” she said.

But a single line in a school play introduced her to the magic of radio, and although she didn’t know it back then, it would become a much bigger part of her life in the years to come. 

She said she practiced her one line in Hindi over and over leading up to the play. 

“When it came to my turn, I fluffed. And so the guy on the other side of the control room said to me, ‘say it again.’ So I said it two, three more times,” she said.

“And then when the play came a week later on the radio, I was like, I don't want to hear it, because I'm going to sound like an idiot. But when I listened, it was clean, [with] no mistake. And I thought to myself, what a magical world, where you can make mistakes and erase them.”

10 years later she got her start at BBC, an opportunity she said she got by chance, while working as a Hindi typist for the Hindi program, before her boss one day asked if she would be interested in having her own show.

“I started my broadcasting career with them in 1969. My very first program was five minutes long, that was it. And it was a musical program,” she said.

“Through that I got to meet The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cliff Richards, you name it, and I met all these people and interviewed them. So it was a totally different life. It was a different time.”

Shortly before she got married and moved to B.C., Shushma had become the studio manager at the BBC and was trained as a technician. 

When she came to Canada, she thought that naturally, she would be able to get a job with the national broadcaster here, but she was turned away from the CBC.

“I was told that I could not broadcast on mainstream media because I had a really thick accent,” she said.

Instead, she joined a new radio station and did an Indian music show three times a week in Hindi and in Punjabi. 

She also noticed that there was also not much programming for South Asians on TV, and took matters into her own hands.

“The very first program that was there for our community on television was in 1976. CHEK Television gave me 6:30 to 8:00 once a week on Saturday to show an Indian film. I would show half [of the film] one week and the other half the following week,” she said.

Throughout her career Shushma was taking the opportunities that were given to her, and creating opportunities where she did not see them.

“[When] opportunities come your way, you have to recognize. And for me, I needed a job for myself as well. So I gave myself a job, to expand [myself] wherever I could.

In 2005, Shushma became the first Canadian woman to obtain a CRTC licence for RJ1200 – now known as Spice Radio.

She said where she didn’t see representation or a space for women’s voices, she tried to help make it happen, despite the challenges of navigating a patriarchal society as a South Asian woman.

“Way back in the ‘70s, it was the same community, very patriarchal. You guys have it difficult, [but] it was 10 times more difficult for me at that time,” she said.

“It took a long time for me to be accepted. But you know, who accepted me quickly? The women of our community. They were the ones who were my backbone. They were the ones who would no matter what program I brought, they would support it.”

She added that she feels compelled to tell women’s stories, because many of them get overlooked in the mainstream.

From covering and exposing underground abortions in Blaine, Washington, that were being given to Punjabi women who wanted a son instead of a daughter, to the deaths of 30 South Asian women who were murdered from 1990 to 1996, Shushma said she is most passionate about covering stories regarding women’s rights. 

“I have the responsibility of doing it. Not that somebody is asking me to do it. It's my responsibility. I have the medium. If I'm not using the medium for the betterment of mankind, then shame on me,” she said.

Shushma added that during a time when she covered a story in the 80’s and began to get death threats and needed to get a panic button installed in her house, it was the women of the community that stood in solidarity with her. 

“I had interviewed Mrs. Gandhi in India 1984. I had brought the interview back here, the interview went on air in May, Mrs. Gandhi attacked the Golden Temple in June. She was assassinated in October. I lost my job because of that,” she said.

After the incident, she began to receive threats, but there was one instance where she learned that she wasn’t alone.

Shushma was shopping for her brother’s wedding with her mother in the Punjabi Market on Main street in Vancouver, and was warned that people may attempt to attack her. Regardless, she decided to go. 

She said she was shopping in a store when she felt like she was being watched.

“There was an older woman standing at the end of the store. And I looked at her and she didn't do anything, she just looked. So I looked back and she did her arms up gesturing come over to me,” she said. 

Shushma thought the woman was going to hurt her, but instead, she raised her arms and embraced her in a hug. 

“She hugged me so tight and she said to me, in Punjabi, “Theeyae, tu fikr nah kar, sariyan meriya saheliyan ithe ah Main Street te. Tu jithe shopping karni ah, kar.”

[Translation: My daughter, don’t you worry. All of my friends are here on Main Street. Wherever you want to shop, do it.]

“They've been there for me forever. So why wouldn't I be there for them?” Shushma said.

When asked for advice for other young women who look up to people like her, Datt advised people to look to the universe. 

“The universe is waiting for you to ask. And it's waiting to give it all to you. So dream to the utmost, and you will get it,” she said.

“But work towards it, work towards it. And be honest. Your profession, no matter what you do, be honest, and be truthful to that profession.”

As for her career, despite a lifetime of incredible work, Shushma said she’s not done yet. 

“I am 75-years-old and I still haven't finished my work. I will continue working till I drop dead. And I'm not going to retire. Retiring is not for me.”

5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.

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