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.


The Moon Is Not Going Anywhere

full-moon-moon-bright-sky-47367If there were no failures associated with space forays, what would Hollywood do, considering that so many of its blockbusters are centered around this theme!

We lost contact with Vikram Lander. But we will still be getting information from Chandrayaan, which will be useful to the world’s scientific community. And if not this time, next time around, we are going to make it to the moon and other frontiers.

Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, father of India’s space program and the person for whom the Lander was named, would laud the spirit of ISRO which has dusted itself after the setback and is all gung-ho to carry on. This was the spirit he tried to imbue his institutions with, as testified by a quote from a paper on him:

“He has come. Tell him.”

“I didn’t do it. You tell him.”

“No, you tell. I feel scared.”

“What is it ?’

“The meter is burnt, sir. We passed too much current.”

“Oh, I see. Well, don’t worry. How else would one learn? Next time you will be more careful.”

That, in a nutshell, was Professor Vikram Sarabhai. Meters were scarce those days. In fact, we did not get a new one for almost two months and the work was held up. But the human qualities of this great man were evident even before he took courage in both hands and shaped the destiny of the scientific institution that was to be PRL, and brought it national and international repute. Visionaries there are many and finally nothing succeeds like success; but in the case of Vikrambhai one could see straightaway that he had to succeed; there was just no other alternative!”

The world’s scientific community is with ISRO. India is with ISRO.

It is a universal human quest—to explore the frontiers and expand our knowledge. This is, in the ultimate analysis, beyond boundaries. It is about the human spirit.


Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

header_leftA remarkable man was born a hundred years ago in our country. He dared to dream impossible things and proceeded to make them possible. I would have thought the country would have been abuzz this year, with multitudes of events to remind the younger generation of his achievements in myriad fields from space science, to management, to atomic energy, to textile research, to education. That the institutions he had set up would not just celebrate the moment but also introspect and re-dedicate themselves to his principles.

ISRO is the only one which seems to be doing it at any scale. Chandrayaan went up, and all those associated with ISRO did remember and thank him. The mission’s lander is appropriately called Vikram. They are also launching a year-long calendar of programs for schools; awards for journalists in space science, technology and research; releasing a commemorative coin, a coffee table book, a space education van, etc.

But what is really disappointing for me is that his contribution to management and institution building is not being celebrated. Everyone acknowledges that his greatest achievements were probably in institution building. ISRO, IIM, PRL are just some of the prominent institutions which stand testimony to this in the public eye, but ‘Sarabhai was a prolific institution builder. He set up an institution every year beginning from 1947 till his death in 1971. He left his imprint in fields as diverse as space technology and performing arts.’

That makes it about 2 dozen institutions!!

There are a few old papers on his approach to institution-building. But I would have thought it should be seriously taught in management schools; there should be training programs for all levels of managers based on his thinking; that academics would delve into it and write papers by the dozens; that seminars and workshops would be held. In this year at least! But I haven’t heard of any such.

Indian organizations wither and die (if not physically, in spirit and achievements), within decades of their birth. Is it not important for managers in both the public and private sectors to understand how institutions that Dr.Sarabhai built have been able to retain the spirit and reaching the heights—literally the moon—close to five decades after his passing away? Dr.Sarabhai straddled the worlds of industry, government, academia and research, and used the same approach to all. So his approach to institution building should have messages for every manager.

Well, I owe a lot to his approach to institution building. So I thought to put together something as my tiny tribute. (The following are quotes majorly from two sources, one whose authorship it has not been possible to find. Since this is not an academic paper, I have taken liberty to quote from it.).

On Institutional Culture:

‘Trust was an important element of both personal and organizational relationship’.

‘The operating culture of (his) institutions were such that administration played a supportive role and helped the institutional growth through implementation of research programmes. This is unlike many organizations, especially educational, research, governmental, and public sector organizations, where the tail wags the dog.

He believed that an institution based on caring for people gave assurance to individuals to innovate and to respond to situations creatively.

Sarabhai was opposed to rigid controls and often wrote and spoke against controls which, he believed, “damaged innovative behaviour and consequently the growth of new institutions.”

On Building People to Build Institutions:

‘Sarabhai’s institution building philosophy was centered around development of individuals. For him people were more important than buildings. He created and nurtured various institutions through developing and nurturing young individuals. He gave trust, freedom of work and autonomy and showed care and concern to them in return he received creativity and commitment, which ultimately strengthened the institutional goals’.

On Institutional Leadership:

‘Vikram Sarabhai was very particular in selecting the head of an institution. The chief executive can make or mar the institutional fabric.’

In selecting a head of institution, it was very important to Dr. Sarabhai to see ‘how suitable he is as a human being’.

‘According to Sarabhai, a basic requirement of an institutional leader is the ability to provide the appropriate operating culture which would be created by the attitudes and assumptions of its people rather than by the formal organizational structure’.

On Staffing A New Institution:

‘In selecting researchers for ATIRA, Sarabhai insisted on recruiting fresh candidates with knowledge of scientific methodology and preferred those without previous experience. This was a deliberate move, for he believed that taking away experienced and trained people from universities and research institutions would create a vacuum which would weaken them.’

Respect for Individuals:

He showed tremendous respect to each individual he, met. Parikh (1972, p44) described this “Many times I have seen Dr, Sarabhai patiently listening to people who would go on with long incoherent monologues which seemed to convey nothing. Yet, In the end, Dr. Sarabhai would summarise the monologue, giving it a very constructive interpretation and meaning. I am told that when asked why he suffered fools so lightly, Dr. Sarabhai had replied that in a vast country like India where people come from diverse backgrounds not everyone has had a privileged upbringing. One should, therefore, allow for this in listening to people and try to see behind the words what they are trying to say.”

Summing up the Spirit:

And finally, in his own words: ‘There is no leader and there is no led. A leader, if one chooses to identify one, has to be a cultivator rather than a manufacturer. He has to provide the soil and the overall climate and the environment in which the seed can grow. One wants permissive individuals who do not have a compelling need to reassure themselves that they are leaders through issuing instructions to others; rather they set an example through their own creativity, Love of nature and dedication to what one may call the ‘scientific method.’ These are the leaders we need in the field of education and research’.


Institution building: Ganesh S.R., Joshi P. (1985) Lessons from Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s leadership. Vikalpa. Vol. 10, No 4.

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