He had just begun a new career in a new town when it hit. Hurricane Katrina hurled itself against the city of New Orleans, where Roop Raj had started working as the morning news anchor for WDSU, the city’s NBC affiliate.
“I saw the best and worst of humanity during Katrina,” Raj said of the experience. “I was amazed by the efforts of strangers to help each other, but I was taken aback in the same breath to see people looting beer and cigarettes while children lay in the streets thirsting for water.”
Although Raj also eventually evacuated the city, he remained on air for 17 straight hours, convincing people of the importance of leaving New Orleans for safer ground. When everyone did leave, only the journalists remained, and it was during this moment that Raj became acutely aware of the true function of a journalist, as he and his colleagues went on to record the “first draft of history.”
“Whether it was a nursing home where patients were left behind, or a pumping station that the government may have failed to keep manned, we recorded everything,” he says. “(And) how important was this? WDSU was subpoenaed dozens of times for our video tapes so that a judge could decide liability in these cases.”
Being an anchor is certainly a trying job and “not for the thin-skinned,” as Raj puts it. He gets up at 3 a.m. each morning to get ahead of the day’s news and shows up at the studio by 4 a.m.
So what draws someone to subject himself to such a hectic pace of life? For Raj, it’s all about the presence of live television news, being the first to know when an event is unfolding.
“This is a rush that can’t be described in words,” he adds.
But what about being an Indian American reporter in a field where Indians are few and far between, and your parents’ friends still think you are a host for some radio music show?
“I think we set the parameters of what is acceptable and what is not,” he says. “My parents came to America to provide opportunity to their families. What a shame it would be to come all the way here, only to have those very parents restrict their children from pursuing the very opportunities they came here to get? My parents were very supportive, even after they realized this was not a hobby but my career choice.”
Making It To The Top
Even as a little “ABCD” growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, Raj wasn’t the shy type. He loved the weekend dinner parties and pujas that gave him a chance to mix and mingle with aunties and uncles. By the time he was a pre-teen, Roop was recording talk shows on cassette tape, creating spontaneous humorous skits and commercials with friends, and doing imitations of anyone and everyone, from family friends to current political figures. Combining satire and cultural commentary, young Raj quickly turned to video taping his talk shows, concocting a makeshift television studio in his bedroom from bed sheets and a desk lamp.
Not surprisingly, Raj decided to gain some real television experience and pursued his own cable access show at the age of 14, a move that got him discovered by Phil Donahue. Raj appeared on national television as a guest for the show’s segment on talented youth of the nation. Being in the spotlight only further inspired Raj, but it also did something else; it allowed his family, friends, and his parents’ friends to see how serious this kid was about broadcasting. No longer could anyone consider it a mere hobby to eventually be dropped for medical school or computer science.
Raj followed up his cable access show by volunteering at the public broadcasting station for two summers during high school; he answered phones and logged video tapes. When it was time to finally head to college, his direction was clear, and he applied to schools that were in the “backyard of a small television market.” Deciding on Michigan State University in Lansing, which was the 106th rated television market at the time, the hopeful journalist applied for an internship with a Lansing news station, continued to host his cable access show, and also worked at MSU’s college radio and television stations. After his internship ended, Raj continued working at the station, going on air for the weekend shows with feature reporting. “I was covering parades and festivals,” he admits, “but I knew it was a start.”
Raj believes that more Asians should enter the field of television journalism “in order to have different demographics reflected accurately on the news. I think we can redefine what it means to be Indian American by pursuing roles that give us more exposure as a group. By simply pursuing quiet office jobs, how can we put a stamp of our identity on this great nation?”
Raj also thinks that more credit should be given to news directors and studio managers, since, in his own experience, he has not yet encountered racism of any sort when interviewing; “After all, I was hired as a morning anchor in southeast Louisiana just six months after 9/11.”
Yet, if being a rare breed in the television industry makes him a unique asset in high demand, why did Roop Shrivastava change his name to the more pronounceable Roop “Raj”? The news anchor defends himself, arguing that anchors are very much like brand names, which means that “catchy names sell.” “And it’s still my name—my middle name is Raj. I decided when I was 15 to change it after Phil Donahue had a hard time pronouncing it when I appeared on his show. When people fill out their Neilson Diaries, I want them to remember who they liked to watch.”
But this brand-name Indian has, in the past, been mistaken for another well-known Indian in the area, namely Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal. At a Halloween party several years ago, Raj jokingly asked Jindal what he was going to be for Halloween, and the governor answered, “Roop Raj.” Raj readily replied that he would go as Jindal.
Raj says he will never forget the cold January morning when he covered Jindal’s inauguration in Baton Rouge amidst a flurry of international media. As he prepared for his live report, another journalist commented, “An Indian reporter … covering an Indian governor? This is a great country.”
Raj agreed: “The fact that in the deep South, voters have embraced an Indian American governor and an Indian American anchorman—that says something about the people here.”
Raj as Role Model
Although he never intended to become a role model, Raj’s “nontraditional” career inevitably puts him in that position.
“I hear some Indian parents say that the reason they don’t allow their kids (to pursue) non-traditional fields is because they are not “safe” or “stable.” Last time I checked, many traditional corporate jobs are also unstable. Bottom line, I found something I loved to do and found a way to get paid for it. That’s the key to happiness. You spend at least one-third of your life working, and I believe you should enjoy that time.”
Raj is determined to continue sharing the encouraging stories from the community he lives and works in, and to help spread inspiration to Indian American youth.
And the spotlight is ok with the Michigan native, who loves to explain the origins of his name and speak a bit of Hindi now and then: “I never understood other Indian kids of my generation who were constantly confused by their bicultural lives. What a blessing to have the best of both! I think it is sad when Indian kids act one way in front of their parents and differently in front of their peers. I never did that; I find it strange. If your friends don’t respect your racial and cultural identity, they are not your friends, simple as that. I am happy to look Indian and am proud of what that means.”
Roop Raj has since moved to a reporter-anchor job in Detroit, the 11th largest TV market in the country.
Suchi Rudra Vasquez is a writer and journalist living in Prague with her husband.