A nurse by profession in Houston, USA, RJ Shiby is a radio personality with a difference. More than bringing fun, cheer and information to the Malayali diaspora, she spreads positivity and motivates countless individuals to tide over crisis through her FM channel Mallu Café Radio USA 99.5
– Renjith Leen
Doom and gloom were the order of the day when the pandemic reared its ugly face in the US. In the bat of an eyelid, thousands lost their jobs and were forced to remain locked up at home. The situation was the same everywhere, including Texas state, which is home to a large Malayali diaspora. For the Keralite community in its biggest city of Houston, what kept hopes alive, lifting many from the abyss of despair was the lively voice of a Malayali RJ, who is well-known as an influencer.
Popularly known as RJ Shiby among the diaspora, she and her colleagues helped many Keralites tide over depression through the weekly show ‘News Music Fun and Facts with RJ Shiby and Friends’ on Mallu Café Radio USA 99.5 FM, a Malayalam radio channel which she runs. It goes without a doubt to say that she owns a radio which is on a mission. “When confronted with the ugly reality of COVID-19, the fatalities, job loss and the strict lockdown, many went into depression. I too found it stressful,” says Shiby, a registered nurse by profession.
“Many listeners messaged me saying how they were struggling with mood swings and suicidal thoughts. That was when I thought of coming out with this programme. Roping in a friend, who is a psychological counsellor who had come down from Kerala, we started this show on Saturdays offering tips to overcome stress and other related issues during those bleak days. It was a hit, with a steady stream of listeners texting me or calling me seeking help, which we provided,” says Shiby, who spreads positivity through her programmes.
Mallu Café, which hit the airwaves in April 2019, is a unique and powerful Malayalam station in Houston or even in the entire North America. The city is home to more than 50,000 non-resident Keralites with a good chunk of them working in the health sector as nurses and paramedics. Shiby herself works during the week as a hospice case manager, a role which she is deeply passionate about. Her love affair with the condenser microphone began when a friend invited her to be a guest in a live radio programme meant for the Indian community. It fascinated her so much so that the loquacious girl within her found the perfect haven. Shiby, who has lapped up several prizes for music and dance during her student days, lost no time in teaming up with her friend to be part of the FM channel in 2017.
Later, she felt there was scope for a radio channel exclusively for the vibrant Malayali community. When she shared the idea with her husband, Roy George, who is an employee at a community hospital, he gave the thumbs up and together they launched Mallu Café which is on air from 7am to 10am local time on Saturdays. Assisting the owner and CEO of this channel is her wonderful, motley band of friends from diverse professions- nurses, models, engineers, social worker, realtor and student.
Humorous anecdotes, pep talk, expert opinion, pulsating all-time Mallu favourite numbers and witty conversation spice up the show, which Shiby says is enjoyed by the community when they commute to office or return home after the graveyard shift. In fact, more than infotainment, she aims at empowering the community and influencing people.
Singers and film personalities apart, Mallu Café features Malayalis from around the globe with unique talents or who have made a difference to their respective domains. “We once featured a celebrity Malayali chef from the UK and even had his live cookery show on our FB page. Even Guinness Book record holders have been introduced to the community here through our show,” says Shiby. On another occasion, the channel brought together all Malayali singers from all over USA and did a live phone-in ‘anthakshari’.
“We actually planned to have daily shows and there were sponsors for each slot. But then the pandemic struck, and ad flow stopped, forcing us to limit the broadcast to Saturdays,” says Shiby, who earlier worked in a medical facility in the world famous ‘Medical Centre, which is home to some of the most prominent hospitals in the country, where patients can pick and choose their preferred place of treatment.
An avid foodie, Shiby still treasures her culinary moorings with Kerala cuisine so much so that she loves to entertain guests with traditional dishes both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. “I also do fusion stuff on occasions,” she says with a smile, adding that the climate there is quite similar to that in Kerala and that she grows drumsticks, curry leaves and colocasia in the backyard of her villa. “We also get tapioca, the favourite comfort food of Malayalis, and sardines here. What more do you want?” says the women’s representative and programme coordinator of Malayalee Association of Greater Houston, one of the biggest associations of the diaspora in the country.
Despite her stressful professional life and hectic planning for the weekend shows, Shiby does not spare a chance to unwind. In fact, spending time at the studio doing shows with my colleagues is a big stress reliever. The other way to destress is a long ride, she quips. “We just hit the road for a long drive on weekends with the music turned on. We make frequent trips to my mom and brother in New York and I love those road trips,” says the loving mom of Roshni.
Shiby is equally active among the Malayali diaspora in Houston. Her vivaciousness and avid love for music and anchoring have led her to become the PRO and national executive member of the Indo-American Press Club. Earlier, when she was staying in Tennessee, Shiby played a pivotal role in bringing together Keralites and was part of the founding team of Malayalee Association of Chattanooga Tennessee. For almost a decade, she closely worked with the team, handling various capacities. Despite the pandemic, Shiby and her team are determined to keep the show going.