The Whispered Wisdom of Podcasts

I am slow to adopt most things new. And so it was with podcasts. I was pretty skeptical of the audio medium as a means of learning. Being fully old school, for me, the ‘read word’ was the major source of both learning and recreation.

My conversion to podcasts is fairly recent. The audio system that I was using during my walks to listen to music on broke down, and that was when I decided to explore podcasts. And what a world it has opened up to me! Not just walks, but also car-rides and flights have become much more enriching. But I have to admit, while my default state is to sit around the house with a book in my hands, I am not as yet able to sit around with a podcast plugged into my ears. I feel kind of guilty and unemployed. But I am sure the day will come…

While the raw beginnings of podcasting are traced back to the ‘90s, the medium really came into its own in the mid-2000s. The first steps were laid in 2004, by Adam Curry  a former MTV video jockey, along with a software developer Dave Winer, when they coded a program known as iPodder. This made it possible to download internet radio broadcasts to iPods. Within a year, commercial companies realized the potential and with Apple as the first mover with iTunes 4.9, started to offer support for podcasts. Politicians were not far behind—George Bush became the first President to have a weekly podcast as early as 2005. The speed with which the innovation caught on can be gauged by the fact that   “Podcast” was declared “Word of the Year” by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Today tech-savvy India has the third-largest podcast listenership in the world. At  57.6 million listeners, it is behind only China and the US, and growing at a rapid 30+%.

I listen of course to the usual suspects, from Stuff You Should Know, to Ted Talks Daily, to BIC Talks, to The History of India Podcasts, to No Stupid Questions, and 99% Invisible.

Aryabhatta, India’s first Satellite

But the podcast that moved me most, which inspired and fired me was MISSION ISRO. This series traces the history of India’s space programme, essentially through the work of Dr.Homi Bhabha and Dr.Vikram Sarabhai. These two men had not only the vision, but the scientific stature, the international standing and the conviction to overcome all barriers to make this dream a reality. How they convinced the decision-makers in the country that a newly-independent country like India, which was struggling to even feed its people, needed to invest in space, and how they convinced the world that India had the capacity to make this work, is a fascinating tale.  And the vision of the then-PM, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed in the use of science and technology for national development is what made this possible. The clarity of the philosophy of the Indian space programme set by the founding fathers—that it was not for warfare and aggression, but rather, to bring development to the remotest corners of India and to the poorest—is what sets our space programme apart even today.

The refusal of Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Bhabha and their teams to be deterred by any obstacles– whether lack of equipment, permissions, know-how—is awe-inspiring. The innovative ways they found to get around challenges, to make do with the resources they had, to find supporters and partners, in order to accomplish Mission Impossible brings home the lesson that a clarity of purpose and the belief that it can be achieved will move mountains.

Researched and scripted by Archana Nathan, produced by Gaurav Vaz, Harsha Bogle’s voice brings the podcast to life. The enormous effort in getting interviews with key people who were involved in the space programme and hearing them relate the stories of those times is amazing. And hearing Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s voice sent goose bumps down my spine!

Don’t miss it. It gives us an understanding of our history and achievements from times which today are dismissed so easily. It gives us an understanding of what visionary nation-building is and the mettle that visionary nation-builders are made of.


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