Masala Radio 98.7 FM Celebrates 30 Year Journey @ Musaafer

HOUSTON: Masala Radio 98.7 FM celebrated 30 years with 30 of their team members also known as the “Crazy Masala Crew”.   The party was held at Musaafer – one of America’s most enchanting Indian restaurants & bar.  The journey of 30 years seems extraordinary for Sunil & Sandhya Thakkar who started the radio show in 1993 for some fun and music.  They had no idea it will turn into a multi-million dollar business 30 years later leading to the purchase their own FM channel.   Sandhya said “Even more appealing than the business angle, Masala Radio has provided us with an avenue for endless excitement and positive energy…one long thrill ride.”  Sunil added “It keeps us feeling young & youthful.   Radio has allowed us to be connected with thousands in Houston, all over USA & even India.  What an amazing life it has been.  We are so thankful to God for giving us this opportunity.  Our office feels like a party every day.”

The 30th anniversary celebration at Musaafer started in their lobby downstairs, with the Masala Crew taking turns posing with the golden Doodhwala (Milkman) bicycle against black glass and Mughal-inspired golden screen.  The crew were in awe climbing up the stairs to the main restaurant foyer, lit by lavish chandeliers and decorated with portraits of Indian royalty set against Sabyasachi’s antique wallpaper.  Passing through the dazzling Blue Dining Room, styled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Crew convened at the Balcony Bar in the patio.  Here they enjoyed exotic cocktails like Adraki Sutra, Bombay Velvet and the Mango Colada served in a coconut shell reminiscing about the shared experiences while the sun cast an enchanting hue across the Galleria skyline.  Most of the crew members were not even born in 1993.   Two OG radio Jockeys, Rajoo & Preanka, have been best friends with the Thakkars.  Sandhya added, “We still hang out every weekend….Rajoo cracks jokes on Sunil and we all laugh insatiably and Preanka has been by our side almost at every event, party, concert, cruise…capturing every memory!”

Masala Radio 98.7 FM started as the brainchild of five college friends after a casual dinner one evening at the then newlyweds Thakkars’ apartment.  The Thakkars kicked around the idea with Ashish Malhotra, Tejas Choksi, Shivi Pawa and Yogesh Patel, about starting a fun radio show filled with latest Bollywood hits and comedy.  Sunil had just moved back to Houston after taking a voluntary separation package from British Petroleum in Cleveland, and had a break of eight months before starting his MBA at Rice University.  He set off on a mission to get a few sponsors from Hillcroft (now Mahatma Gandhi District).  Their first supporters were Hememdra Pabari of HOS, Yogi Gahunia of Raja Sweets, and Nisha Mirani of Bharat Grocers.   They had not even started the radio show and Hemendra Pabari gave Sunil a check of $501 on the spot and said “Take this and go rock Houston.”   There were no cell phones in 1993 so Sunil rushed home as fast as he could and showed Sandhya the first check.  She smiled and said “Ok… looks like radio is ON!”

But they didn’t have a deal with any station yet.  Commercial ethnic radio was not a thing back then.  After a month of calling, the All Christian 1180 AM gave us 2 hours 10AM -12PM.”    The first show aired May 22, 1993, and MUSIC MASALA was born. Sunil his Mjumbai tapori personality while Tejas was the side kick and Shivi played the music.  Ashish was the scriptwriter. and Sandhya managed the finances, produced the ads, and screened calls during the live show.  Music Masala flourished, and later Sunil, Preanka and Rajoo’ Weekend Dhamaal show laced the airwaves with spice every Saturday for over twenty years!  Music Masala expanded from an all-day format on Saturdays, to all weekend-long, and then finally seven days a week, but still on AM channels, until 2019.

The most challenging part of the anniversary celebration at Musaafer was narrowing down the selections from the fabulous menu.  Delectable starters featured incredibly soft Paneer Tikkas, Chatpate table-side chaat, and the most popular, flash-fried Cauliflower and Broccoli covered with boondi paired with a tantalizing garlic yoghurt sauce.  The Thakkars thanked the Crew for their many, many years of dedicated teamwork & loyalty, highlighting the 29-year friendship with Preanka and Rajoo, and the 13 years of outstanding sales management by Rinku Ghosh.   Each Crew member was asked to share one magic Masala moment.  Comedic, Inspirational and emotional stories followed – learning how to enjoy life and always be positive from Sunil, or learning how to set goals, organize, execute, and be self-confident from Sandhya. Two Masala Cruise dancers, Ashka and Mehran, retold how they met on a Masala Cruise, fell in love & got married.  Their families call it “Masala Ne Bana Di Jodi.”

Masala Radio was always intertwined with hosting exciting events.  The Thakkars, experienced from their college stints as Vice-President and Treasurer of the University of Houston’s India Students Association, held a 1993 New Year’s Eve Party at Stafford Center… the same venue they were married at just a year earlier.  Tickets for the party were placed at various local Indian stores;  however, when Sunil checked with them two days before the party, the stores reported that they hadn’t sold many tickets.   Feeling dejected, The Thakkars went the day of the party to collect the unsold tickets only to find out that every single ticket had been sold!  They quickly posted a SOLD OUT sign on the front door of the venue. The ensuing positively wild and crazy New Year’s Party launched a lifetime of crazy events – six years of Masala New Year’s Eve parties with over 3,500 guests at the Funplex Entertainment Complex; six Masala Dandias with 2,500 to 3,500 attendees at the Astro Arena;  two Bhangra Manias – featuring popular artists like B21 and The Dhol Foundation.   Keeping party scene alive, The Thakkars organized over 100 Masala Parties at various clubs from the inauguration of Betty B’s in 1994, the iconic Crystal Nightclub on in 1996, Shock on Richmond Drive, Spy, Boka Bar, Toc Lounge and Oz in Downtown Houston, to Blu and Rooftop in Sugar Land.   In 1999, The Thakkars expanded their horizons to launch Masala Cruises. With the first Millennium Masala Cruise, which embarked from New Orleans and circled the Gulf of Mexico, Masala Cruises set afloat on a cruise journey that included 47 sailings to destinations around the world including Mexico, Canada, Central America, Caribbean, Alaska and the Mediterranean cruise from Venice to Greece, and Turkey and Croatia.

The culinary journey continued at Musaafer with a grand family-style dinner of their famous 72-hour-slow-cooked Dal Makhani with black lentils, tomato and smoked chili, Paneer Rizala embellished with rose petals, browned onion and peppers, Jackfruit Kofta Curry – a jackfruit, apricot and pistachio dumpling served in their signature Makhani sauce with lotus stem crisps, foxnuts and yoghurt, and the consummate Jackfruit Biryani with refreshing Burhani Raita. The playfully boisterous Crew was struck in silent awe as each item was presented and tasted, a testament to Musaafer’s culinary excellence. The main course was followed by a variety of desserts, from delectably decorated cakes to Musaafer sweet creations of Misthi Doi made of faux yoghurt shrooms, raspberries and pomegranate seeds, and Tales of Kheer with cashew clusters and caramelized foxnuts paired with a sugarcane-lime sorbet. This was an event that no one wanted to leave! Each of the Masala Crew members were presented with a goody bag with funky, retro vinyl-record-shaped personalized business cards and exclusive gift of chocolates.

With an “EVOLVE or DISSOLVE” mindset, Music Masala’s next big undertaking was Houston Holi Festival of Colors, which launched in 2008 at the Oyster Creek Park in Sugar Land. In a matter of just six years, the free event grew to a whopping 17,000 attendees. Beginning in 2014, the event was changed to a ticketed event and was held at locations around Houston such as the Houston Farm and Ranch, the Crown Festival Park in Sugar Land, and this year, 2023, at BR Ranch, which saw increased attendance despite a two-year pandemic-induced sabbatical. In 2012, Houston Diwali – The Festival of Lights debuted at Skeeter’s Stadium and featured a Bollywood star, Bhoomi Trivedi.  The new creative concept of a Festival with a Bazaar, Kids Rides, Giveaways and a Bollywood-styled Concert Finale, was sold out two weeks in advance of the event and tickets were even being sold “in black” on craigslist!   Both, the Holi Festival and the Diwali Festival, featured prominent, well-known artists such as Bappi Lahiri, Raghav, Jay Sean, Aditya Narayan, Manj Musik, Neeraj Shridhar of Bombay Vikings, Zack Knight, Shaan, and, this year in 2023, Kanika Kapoor.

The Thakkars and Masala have had many pivotal moments – challenges which they simply turned into opportunities. One of the first occurred in 1999, when they opened Planet M, a CD/DVD/Coffee and Cake shop in Sugar Land. It was their first and last venture in retail space, and a financial disaster opening in August and closing in November… They realized that it was impractical to run a retail store with Sandhya managing the radio show and a newborn, and with Sunil working full-time at Shell, no matter how much of a dream project it may be.

The financial misadventure cloud had a silver lining… Planet M caught the attention of successful businessman, Farid Virani.  Virani was impressed with the store’s design and agreed to finance another one of Sunil’s dream projects – making a movie.  The subject of the movie was essentially about his own life story, a FOB (Fresh-Off-The-Boat) transforming to Party Promoter. It was titled “Where’s the Party Yaar?” However, Virani’s one stipulation was that Sunil work full-time on the project.  After a well-publicized theatrical release in US and India, the movie was bought out by Lions Gate.   While it made just enough profit to buy a used Toyota Camry, It received acclaim locally and internationally, and is still popular on Youtube today.

The Thakkars will forever be grateful for Farid Virani’s support of the film and influencing the paradigm shift to focusing full-time on adding Masala to people’s lives in Houston.  Gaining national media attention, CNN interviewed Sunil in 2003 on the film release and in 2008 he appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.  Sunil was also featured in Houston Chronicle’s 41 Most Interesting People.  Sunil was approached by Star TV’s The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and was featured in 16 episodes as a stand up comedian to a world wide Indo American audience.  During these episodes, Sunil had the privilege to interact with celebrity judges such as Shatrughan Sinha, Navjot Sidhu, Vidya Ballan Mahima Chaudhry and Manoj Bajpaye.

The latest defining moment in Masala’s entertaining journey came in 2019 when their 22-year relationship with 1110 AM ended with the Station’s sale to a Hispanic-only format.  With no other radio station offering them prime airtime, The Thakkars were faced with the heart-breaking possibility of shutting down Masala Radio.  But then, as if by Divine Intervention, an opportunity to buy an FM radio station came up.  They poured all their personal lifetime savings into the cash only purchase of 98.7 FM closing the deal on March 30, 2020.   However, as luck would have it, merely 15 days before closing, the COVID pandemic hit the entire US.  The Houston Holi Festival of Colors, which was scheduled on March 28, 2020, was cancelled and all tickets and sponsorships had to be refunded.   Sandhya says, “It was a huge financial crisis for us – we had just poured $1.5 million of our savings into buying this radio station and now the future of radio seemed uncertain.”    Despite 60% of their advertisers cancelling due to the lockdown, somehow, Masala survived.  It is now proudly thriving as the number one Indian Bollywood Station with over 100,000 listeners, and with tens of thousands of listeners worldwide via the free iPhone and Android apps. Moreover, with the help of their social media team, the have several tens of thousands followers on both FB & INSTA.  Follow them @ Masala Radio 98.7 FM.

Masala Radio would like to deeply thank Musaafer and their extremely hospitable team: owners – Mithoo and Shammi, Manager – Ishrat Randhawa, Event Coordinators – Humberto and the smiling Khadijah, Chef Mayank, and the wonderful bartenders and servers.  Their service and special attention to detail with each and every item from the crafted main courses to the most delicious chutneys and sauces, was simply impeccable.  The décor was unmatchable!

Musaafer’s philosophy is simple – “Food is a journey, travel it as well as you can,” serving the best dishes from all corners of India. The Thakkars felt this paralleled their own philosophy. Quoting Sandhya, “Music is a journey, travel it well… we have teamed with the best talent from all over Houston and India, collected the best music, and put in our best efforts.  At Masala Radio, there is  always something new and exciting around the corner!”  Sunil added, “I love my life and my work. I have a special bond with my team, my sponsors and the listeners. They are like an extension of my friends and family. I am, indeed, fortunate to be living in Vasudeva Kutumbakam  – The World Is One Family”.   He added “Being the artist, I sometimes get all the glory.  But I want everyone to know that all this was possible because of Sandhya’s business acumen, leadership & organizational skills.  In 1993 when we wanted to start the radio show and could not come up with the name, it was Sandhya who suggested Music Masala.   She is our CEO, CFO & COO.   I also want to thank our sponsors & supporters without whom all this fun would not be possible and the South Asian community of Houston for taking part in the Masala fun over the last 30 years.   And above all thank you God for writing our beautiful story.”

Masala Radio 98.7 FM can be reached at 281-277-MUSIC, 866-3-MASALA, or   FB & IG masalaradio98.7fm.    The Thakkars express special thanks to their current amazing crew: Office: Rinku Ghosh (Sales), Jigisha Desai (Accounts), Bhavisha Thakkar (Events), Chaitali Adhikari (Producer), Aahil Virani (Video & Social Media), Nikheel Asodia (Marketing). Radio Jockeys: Preanka Desai, Rajoo Waddy, Dilip Kanabar, Priya Chokshi, Ina Patel, Swati Chowdhury, Pankti Fadia, Anees Lakhva, Amit Godbole, Shilpi Sharma and Rishi Ramcharan.  Events: Ruchir Patel, Ninad Gupte, Dinesh Adhikari, Suji Baskaran, Mrugesh Wani, Shivangi Shrivastav, Alisha Makani, Sangeeta Gupte, and countless others who have come and gone, but will always remain in their hearts and will always be part of the Crazy Masala Crew.