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Lend Me Your Ears

Heading one of American public radio’s most respected shows, Madhulika Sikka has a job cut out for her.

As dawn breaks over Washington, D.C., Madhulika Sikka begins her daily ritual of multitasking—reading the papers, shooting off work-related e-mails, listening to the first feed of “Morning Edition,” the American radio program she heads, and packing off her daughters Priya, 13, and Maya, 11, to school.

Arriving at work a little after 7 a.m., Sikka typically sifts through mounds of information and breaking news that feed the show’s 13 million listeners. “Morning Edition” runs on National Public Radio (NPR), a privately supported, nonprofit broadcaster, and draws on reporting from correspondents in 17 countries and 17 locations across the United States. The show airs weekdays on more than 650 stations across America.

As executive producer, Sikka, 47, plans and helps develop the broad themes for the show. “We provide an excellent range of hard news, features and arts coverage that we hope will set you up for the day and allow you to partake in the daily conversation whatever the topic,” she says.

That philosophy and a loyal fan base have made the two-hour, 30-year-old program one of American public radio’s most venerable and listened-to news magazines.

“It’s a challenge to get the right balance of hard news, features and things that are slightly ‘off’ the news, but that’s what makes it fun,” Sikka says, while acknowledging the support of the show’s “amazing staff and two superb hosts.”

Sikka joined NPR in 2006 as supervising senior producer and quickly made her way to the top. A recipient of four Emmy Awards and three South Asian Journalists Association awards, Sikka’s career included stints on three major American TV networks—ABC, CBS and NBC.
“I think you’ll agree that ‘Morning Edition’ has never sounded better,” Ellen McDonnell, director of NPR’s morning programming, said in an article on the South Asian Journalists Association Web site after Sikka’s promotion in 2009.

“She has elevated both the journalism and production of ‘Morning Edition’…. She has proved herself a skilled manager and generous mentor within the News Division,” McDonnell said in an internal office memo.

Speaking about the impact and relevance of radio today, Sikka says radio has many advantages over television. “Radio is a much more intimate medium than television and thus I find it more revealing in some ways. People seem a little more comfortable without lights and cameras around them,” she says.

Sikka credits her Indian and British upbringing for her different perspectives. Born in New Delhi, Sikka moved to London, where her father, K.L. Sikka, was posted as a diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service, when she was three months old. Though he left the Foreign Service in 1967, he still lives in London with the rest of her family, including one brother and two sisters. Her mother has passed away.

With a bachelor of arts degree in economics and politics from the University of London in 1985, Sikka went on to pursue a master’s in development economics and politics from Cambridge University and graduated in 1987.

That year, she moved to the United States after she married James Millward, an American professor of history specializing in China at Georgetown University. During one of their visits to India, Millward, who is also a musician, was intrigued by the sitar. “He got himself a sitar and then found himself a teacher here in D.C.,” Sikka says proudly of her husband.

Sikka says Indian food is a tradition she grew up with. Today, her daughters are very conscious of their Indian heritage, which manifests itself most often through food and clothing. The family also celebrates Indian and American festivals together though they tend to do a scaled down version of Diwali in America, while in England “there is a broader celebration of Indian cultural rituals since my family is still there.”

Sikka adds that while she doesn’t get to visit India much, she lives vicariously through her father who travels regularly. Her father, she says, was particularly proud when she received the Special Award for Excellence from India Abroad newspaper in March.

Reactions from listeners are mostly predictable when “Morning Edition” invites Indian celebrities on the show, Sikka says. “I think South Asians are always thrilled if there is something that speaks to us—whether it’s Shah Rukh Khan or a story about cricket or profiles of Indian politicians,” she says. “Listeners have a lot of opportunity to engage with NPR, particularly with the tools that digital media provide, be it comments on the Web, tweets, Facebook or something I haven’t thought of yet.”

Sikka often writes about issues that reflect her Indian heritage besides other interests such as reading. In an opinion piece on NPR, she recounts a childhood incident that details her love for Indian mangos. “For me, an Indian who grew up in London, my memories of mangos are sweet. My grandmother and aunt would ship us a box at the beginning of the mango season (probably violating all sorts of rules about food shipments) and its arrival was greeted with joy and anticipation,” she writes.

Branding herself an old-fashioned book lover with a pile of books stacked on her bedside table, she has fun walking “down the aisle of a plane or a train and seeing what everyone’s reading.” Sikka likes to read in what little spare time she gets and Jhumpa Lahiri is her favorite Indian American author.

“I’m also a knitter and find it very satisfying to pursue a hands-on project that results in a tangible product at the end,” she says.
The secret behind “Morning Edition’s” continued success, she says, is that it tries “to enlighten and entertain the listeners without insulting them…. As an audio medium we are at a competitive advantage in a world where more and more people are walking around with ear buds in their ears. I’m bullish on our future in the world of new media.”