Volume 8 - Issue 01
JANUARY 2010
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How RADIO SAI IS STILL ALIVE

In this special New Year Musing Prof. G. Venkataraman shares how the
invisible hand of Sai is the true force behind Radio Sai

PROF. G. VENKATARAMAN

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Loving Sai Ram and greetings from Prashanti Nilayam. Before I do anything else, let me wish you all a very happy new year, particularly as this year is a very special one, being the year when, coming November, there would be a grand celebration of the 85th anniversary of the Advent of the Sri Sathya Sai Avatar, the one whom we lovingly refer to as Baba or Swami.

Normally, I do not offer a new year greetings and message, since new years come and go, but this year I make a special exception because of the way it began, with a dramatic indication of how much Swami cares for us, and would be with us all the way, if only we bother to pay even a little attention to what He has been saying to us for about seventy years. Listeners to our broadcast service via the Asiastar Satellite of Worldspace, would know what I am talking about. However, since those listening on other services might not, I feel I should narrate that story, especially since it HAS to go into the history of this Avatar.

It all started during the last week of December 2009, when WorldSpace India sent out via its customer service, a rather disturbing e-mail to all its subscribers. Here I should point out that WorldSpace is a company registered in the U.S. with operations all over the globe, for which purpose it has what might be called regional units which operate as subsidiary companies; WorldSpace India is one of those.

The main resource of WorldSpace U.S. consists of two satellites, the AsiaStar which caters largely to the Asian continent, and the AfriStar, which services Africa and a good part of Europe. There was to be a third satellite called the AmeriStar, but that never got launched. The company was established over a decade back, before we got into the business of broadcasting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Noah Samara, CEO of WorldSpace U.S
 

Our entry into the world of radio broadcasting began almost unnoticed sometime in September 2001, when the CEO of WorldSpace U.S, Dr. Noah Samara, paid a visit to Prasanthi Nilayam along with a few of his colleagues, including officers of the newly formed subsidiary WorldSpace [India]. That day I saw four chairs had been placed on the lower veranda, which was somewhat unusual because in those days almost everyone sat on the ground – chairs were most exceptional.

When the visitors arrived they were duly seated in the chairs placed for them. Shortly thereafter, Swami came out, gave Darshan, and then called these VIPs for an interview; the interview over, they all left. Later, Swami called me and maybe one more person, and while conversing generally mentioned the visit of the special group.

Bhagavan then sent a student to His residence in Poorna Chandra Hall, to bring a brochure given to Him by the visitors who had come earlier. Those days, the Poorna Chandra Hall was where Swami used to stay. When the brochure was brought, Swami handed it to me and began making many remarks which I simply failed to grasp.

He then asked me what the brochure was about, and I explained it was all about satellite radio broadcasting service that a company called WorldSpace was about to launch. As I glanced through the brochure, I found that the service providers were going to use satellite-based digital radio broadcasting, which was virtually unknown those days.

As a student, radio physics was my special subject and I knew a thing or two about radio of that time. I am talking of the early fifties, and back then it was all analog radio, done entirely with vacuum tubes [which, by the way, are now extinct]. In analog radio, the audio signal was carried piggy back by radio frequency electromagnetic waves via what was called AM or FM, these being abbreviations for amplitude modulation or frequency modulation.

The final transmission was done using big towers which pumped out a lot of energy as broadcast waves, sometimes as much as 100 KW. In fact, I personally built a radio receiver after graduation, and used it for two years to listen to all sorts of stations from various parts of the world, as many amateurs did in those days, and that was where my knowledge of radio technology ended.

In simple terms, this is how we listen to Radio Sai - the programs are produced and packaged in the Radio Sai studio in Prasanthi Nilayam and then sent via internet to a broadcast centre in Australia (earlier there was a centre in Johannesburg too) from which it is uplinked to the Worldspace satellites; people listen when the digital radio sets in their homes pick up the signals from these satellites.

Having subsequently become busy with nuclear research and organising R & D programs, I lost touch with progress in broadcast technology and knew nothing about the new digital cum satellite technology that suddenly erupted around 1980. So, when Swami gave me the brochure and made what appeared to be some general remarks, I did not listen as carefully as I ought to have; in any event, I failed to read between the lines and grasp what Swami was really hinting at.

But honestly, anyone else in my position would not have done it either, for Swami often does things in a mysterious manner.

The mystery in this case became revealed a few days later when I was told that a group of people from WorldSpace India would be visiting Prasanthi Nilayam and that I was to meet them. I did not have the faintest clue as to what these people were in Prasanthi for and why I was supposed to meet them; but then, that is often the way the Master Plan unfolds. Orders being orders, I received the visitors in Shanti Bhavan, offered coffee, and started talking.

That was when I learnt that the visitors representing WorldSpace India were offering us a free broadcast channel to broadcast radio programs; not stated explicitly but implicitly was that they had been told that I,  poor me, who did not know a thing about digital radio, was to take care of the broadcasting from this side! Imagine my shock! I certainly knew a few things about digital technology, having taught digital imaging and all that, but digital radio? Zero. And here were these persons telling me that they would like us to go on the air by Birthday 2001, barely 80 days away.

 
 
A digital radio set, this one is manufactured by Panasonic

Can you blame me if my head was spinning? Clutching the chair I said feebly, “Gentlemen, forgive me but I have not even seen a digital radio. How do you think I can get ready for satellite broadcasting with zero knowledge and zero resources within less than 80 days?” They replied gushing confidence, “That is no problem at all. You have not seen a digital radio? We have brought one with us and would show it to you right now.” One of them went back to the car they had come by, and brought a cardboard box. He opened the box, pulled out a gadget black in colour, and set it up on table around which we were sitting. He then connected a cord to what looked like a small tiltable mirror black in colour, set this mirror-like object on the windowsill, adjusted it a bit and switched on the gadget.

Suddenly I began hearing a program; the gentleman smiled broadly and said to me, “That’s it; very simple! This radio can run on batteries and you can take it anywhere.  All you have to do is to point the antenna to the satellite, and presto, you get digital sound, absolutely clear, and such good quality too! And you know what? You can take this radio from here to Bangalore, Delhi, Singapore, Tokyo, Manila, etc., and in five minutes you can be listening. Tell me, have you ever heard this quality in terrestrial, analog radio? Great, is it not? Just imagine people in Indonesia listening to Bhagavan’s Discourses; how thrilled they would feel?!”

I was well aware how thrilling such an experience would be for a listener, but right then my prime worry was: “How on earth am I going to arrange the broadcast service with just about 80 days to go, and that too from a scratch?” Once it became clear that broadcast service was what Swami wanted, I decided to simply submit to His will and let Him take over. That exactly is what happened, and despite many difficulties, we went on air as scheduled on 23rd November, 2001. Since then, we have, by Swami’s Grace, considerably strengthened as well as expanded our services in various ways. This is not the occasion to go into all those historical details, especially since some of that has been done earlier.

Let me now, without much further ado, get to the point I briefly hinted at in my opening remarks. As I told you earlier, towards the end of December 2009, WorldSpace India sent to all its subscribers a message that was quite disturbing. The email said that its parent company WorldSpace U.S has been in bankruptcy since 2008, and that the prospective buyer was going to close down the Indian operations. As a result, WorldSpace India would cease broadcasting from 31st December.

Now Radio Sai is a free channel on WorldSpace but other than that, as far as I know, all the other channels aired by WorldSpace India are pay channels. Wanting to hear some of the news channels offered by WorldSpace, like BBC, for example, I became a subscriber many years ago, and it is in my capacity as a subscriber that I received the personal notice about the impending shutdown. Interestingly, Radio Sai office did not receive any official notification of the shutdown of the broadcast service.

 
 
Two satellites have served hundreds of thousands
of listeners worldover for almost a decade now

The moment this news was out, the newspapers in India picked it up because in recent years, WorldSpace service had achieved a certain amount of popularity in the country. In fact, among the subscribers, India out numbered all other countries. And yet, it appeared that the prospective buyer wanted to shutdown the Indian service first, even as he focussed on Europe to start with.

Anyway, we were all rattled, and understandably we received any number of phone calls from listeners. While I was struggling to reply to all these, I was at the same time pressing all kinds of panic buttons to put in place some emergency action. Word also reached Swami, and He asked me a few questions about what was happening.

Let me now cut to the 30th of December, 2009. That morning, I recorded a special message for being aired on 31st December, throughout the day, starting 6.30 AM when our morning schedule begins. Here I should mention that everyone was under the impression that the service would go off the air at midnight of 31st December. So I felt at least on the last day of the year, all the affected listeners could pray intensely to Swami to do something and save our service. Of course, AsiaStar listeners know everything about this great drama, but since the other listeners might not, I am, for the sake of completeness, playing for you here that clip I recorded. 

So that was what I wanted to be broadcasted on 31st December, and sure enough, when I tuned in to Radio Sai on the morning of 31st December at about 8 AM, I heard this announcement. I then said to myself: “Well, many would hear and pray, and hopefully Swami who also occasionally listens to Radio Sai would also personally hear my appeal. Hopefully, the prayers would be answered.”

 

And then something totally unexpected happened. After making sure that my appeal was on the air, I phoned some of the Studio boys to do some checking about transmission-related issues, when I got a call from Bishu Prusty of H2H. Bishu too is a WorldSpace listener, has his own WorldSpace Radio, and is a subscriber to WorldSpace India.

In a rather excited voice he told me, that even though it was still the morning of 31st December, all the channels of WorldSpace India were already off the air, and that Radio Sai alone was being heard. He added, “Check for yourself!” I did and found to my amazement that only Radio Sai could be heard on my WorldSpace receiver and none of the other channels, like BBC, NPR, and so on.

Now, can you understand what exactly that meant? It meant the following:

  1. The shutdown had actually occurred 24 hours ahead of what we had imagined to be shutdown time.

  2. Radio Sai had already survived the closure, because the closure came at midnight of 30th December, six and half hours before our prayers were to be broadcast.

  3. In other words, even before we started praying, Swami had already saved Radio Sai for all His devotees!

When I realised what had happened, I was absolutely stunned. I rushed to the Studio and recorded another message which we shall play now for you; and that second message speaks for itself!

Did you hear that? Any wonder why I was absolutely stunned? Later in the evening, when I got a chance, I fell on my knees and thanked Swami profusely. Swami heard my expression of gratitude and was quite moved I must say, which was most comforting.

I must now let you in on the secret of how this happened. Speaking once to students in Trayee Brindavan about Lord Rama and something that He did, Swami said, “When the Master comes, He comes with a complete Master Plan.” In the case of Radio Sai, here is Swami’s Master Plan.

Let us fast backward and go to that first meeting I had with WorldSpace officials, way back in 2001. Once it became known that we had to broadcast, I said I would first like to do a dummy run, which is what they also wanted. It is at this point that the Master Plan began to operate, unknown to me, I must say.

This is what happened. Remember, I am talking about 2001 when cell phone was barely known in India, and internet was still a curiosity in many parts of the world. Dr. Venugopal who had come to WorldSpace India via the Indian Space Research Organisation, where he had earlier worked for decades, said to me: “Listen, we have an uplink station in Singapore and the programs for all our channels are sent to the AsiaStar satellite for broadcast, from our Singapore station. However, yours would be uplinked from Melbourne.”

I was not happy about this since Singapore being closer had many natural advantages. I therefore asked Dr. Venugopal why this extra burden on us; was there any capacity problem, I asked. He said in reply, “No, it is not that. You see the laws in Singapore are rather strict and they do not want any religious programs.” I protested and said, “Listen, you know Swami; His teachings are above religion.”

Dr. Michael Nobel on November 23, 2001
 

Dr. Venugopal of course knew what I was saying and replied, “I fully understand what you are saying, but you know, at the working level we have to deal with bureaucrats. And in Singapore, they are very rigid about certain things. It is therefore best for you to have your programs uplinked from Melbourne. In fact, if you cannot agree to that, then we have no other option!”

That settled it. For us, Melbourne was most inconvenient in more ways than one, but we simply had no choice. Biting the bullet, we went through the test run and did the launch on 23rd November 2001. The inaugural broadcast lasted not more than ten minutes but it was a landmark event. I think it is useful, especially on this occasion, to revisit that historic moment.  

Listen first to the remarks I made introducing Dr. Michael Nobel, great grand nephew of Alfred Nobel who founded the Nobel Prize. Dr. Nobel was a Member of the Board of Directors of the parent WorldSpace company, and he was here in Prasanthi representing his Corporation.

Listen to Prof. Venkataraman introducing Dr. Michael Nobel

Well, that was me introducing Dr. Nobel. Listen now to the speech of Dr. Nobel.


 
 
Sai joyously infuses life into Radio Sai

So that was Dr. Nobel speaking. After that, I requested Bhagavan to press a button, and Radio Sai went on air for the first time.

Now you might wonder how a signal went from the button pressed by Swami to Melbourne; it went by a rather roundabout route.

First, some people watching Swami sent a signal by waving hands to the inside of the Mandir where we had set up a temporary control room.

Inside the Mandir, two people with cell phones were already in communication with Melbourne; we had two channels opened to ensure redundancy; and they both shouted, “Button pressed. Start program!”

It took about five seconds for the program to come on air and be heard in Sai Kulwant Hall. I had of course warned the crowd about the delay, saying something about signals having to be bounced from earth to a satellite and travel back, etc.

 
Radio Sai proclaims its birth in the
Sai Kulwant Hall on Baba's Birthday in 2001

To me, those were five long seconds, almost like five years. Finally, to our immense relief, the program was on the air. And this is what people heard.

What a tremendous relief I felt! We have come a long way from that historic moment. On day one, I wonder if there were even five listeners; but currently, there are so many and from so many lands.

Through e-mails and people dropping in, I am well aware that we are now being heard in many places. Even so, I was particularly astonished to learn how much of a following there is in South Africa – this is something I never expected.

Many a time, people from that country drop in to see me and thank us for the service. Honestly, this was a particularly moving experience for me.

The tiny Radio Sai set which is the sole support of the hole..

About a week or so ago, I was about to enter my building after taking a walk after dinner. A young white girl came to me and said, “Dr. Venkataraman, why have you stopped doing interviews? I like them so much.” I was totally taken aback and asked, “Young lady, may I know your name and which country you come from?

She said that she was thirteen, her name was Hanna, and that she was from South Africa. And you know what? Even as I was preparing to come to the Studio for recording this talk, yet another couple from South Africa dropped in to say hello and thank Radio Sai!

Here is another example and it is even more humbling to all of us, especially me. Very recently, we received an e-mail from a gentleman named Uday Sane, who is a Chief Officer on a ship named M.T. Kohzan Maru. I guess it must be a Japanese carrier. This is what Mr. Sane writes:

Mr.Uday Sane, Chief Officer of the ship named M.T. Kohzan Maru

Isn’t that amazing and absolutely stunning? I am mentioning all this to briefly indicate that this silent spread of Radio Sai across the globe was all a part of the Master Plan. Having given that build up, let me come back to the dramatic events of 31st December when every channel on WorldSpace India shut down but Radio Sai alone survived. If you remember, I told you that, unlike all the other WorldSpace channels originating from India, we were uplinked from Melbourne. I also mentioned that this particular choice was made by Dr. Venugopal on account of the fact that the service providers did not want us to be discriminated in Singapore, using the argument that Radio Sai was a religious channel.

Now Melbourne really is not an uplink station; rather, it is a satellite control station, meant for controlling the AsiaStar satellite. However, it is also a test station that checks out new channels for transmission problems before they formally go on air. Technically, the Melbourne operation is under a different company associated with the Asia-Pacific region but since it was all a part of WorldSpace, Dr. Venugopal had no problem in fitting us into the Melbourne facility, since the approval for Radio Sai being aired on WorldSpace came from the top man himself, namely, Dr. Noah Samara.

Currently, Radio Sai is still alive for people in Asia because it is uplinked to the
satellite from Australia unlike all the other channels which were uplinked from Singapore

At that time, Melbourne appeared to be merely a convenient operational strategy to accommodate us. In retrospect, it has turned to be a part of a delicately crafted Master Plan about which only the Divine Master knew. What I mean is that when WorldSpace India shut down, it meant closure of the Singapore uplink station. At the same time, since AsiaStar satellite which now became the property of the buyer, could not be abandoned; it had to be kept in orbit, which automatically meant Melbourne had to be kept alive; in turn it meant Radio Sai also remained alive!

In other words, right from day one, Swami ensured we enjoyed a sort of dual status, the significance of which none of us ever appreciated. On the other hand, I must say that in the early days we did grumble a lot because it meant a lot of headaches for us. But you know what? As Krishna says in the Gita, what seems bitter in the beginning turns nectarine in the end! That certainly is the way it has worked out.

 
The Radio Sai studio from the day of its inception is busy generating a variety of content for its listeners

I must add that till shutdown seemed imminent, we hardly knew how many people listened to our AsiaStar service. But at that critical moment, we got hundreds of panic calls and e-mails, and in the end they all prayed like crazy. However, out of His Infinite Compassion, Swami saved us even before we called out to Him! Can there be any greater demo of His Love for us?

Let us all rejoice, let us all express non-stop gratitude both individually and collectively, and let us all join together to spread His Message in as many different ways as we can. Geographically we may be far apart; but in this age of global connectivity, we are, as they say, just one mouse click away. Maybe that gadget called the mouse is none other than Lord Ganesha, helping us to connect with His Father!

Dear listeners, let us all take a moment off to appreciate how much Swami wants us to hear His message. We here in the Prashanti Digital Studio have only that single objective, and as an expression of deep gratitude for giving us a second lease of life as it were, we are determined to intensify our efforts to spread His Message in many more ways, hopefully more compelling, and also  imaginative. Naturally, apart from Swami’s Grace, we would also need your active cooperation as well, as opposed to just listening. Spreading His Message is the task of all of Lord’s devotees, and where that is concerned, we here are not separate from you.

However, I shall come back to this topic again, and tell you where exactly all of us could go from here. There is plenty we want to do in this historic year 2010, but all that comes later. Meanwhile, I request each and every one of you to do the following. Every time you switch on your listening device to hear Radio Sai, be it your WorldSpace radio set or the computer, please express a word of gratitude to Bhagavan for blessing us with this lifeline, which is truly His greatest and most precious prasaadam. By the way, you can now hear our programs in the iphone too!

Through the Apple application "RadioSAI" one can listen to
any of the five Radio Sai audio streams effortlessly

For now, let us all rejoice, let us all express non-stop gratitude both individually and collectively, and let us all join together to spread His Message in as many different ways as we can. Geographically we may be far apart; but in this age of global connectivity, we are, as they say, just one mouse click away. Maybe that gadget called the mouse is none other than Lord Ganesha, helping us to connect with His Father!

The Lord's Voice as well as the stories of His Glory these days is just a mouse click away (visit radiosai.org/www.h2hsai.org); that little vehicle of Lord Ganesha today is the most powerful carrier of his Father's Message!

On that note, let me end here, and come back again with all the plans we have for the year that has just dawned, marking a glorious milestone in His Story. 

Thank you. Jai Sai Ram.

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