Radio Ceylon moving to Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation


I had a seemingly authentic email directed to me from a friend in Australia announcing that Radio Ceylon/SLBC was a hundred years old this year. Being used to Trump’s labelled fake news and misinterpretations in our own land, I phoned a desk at SLBC and was told the centenary was a couple of years in the future. Notwithstanding, I decided to write this article here and now because of two motivating factors.

Much admired and appreciated

My son’s friends - Sandeep d’Souza - had recently said: "One of my fondest memories of childhood growing up in Poona is waking up to the smell of breakfast that my mother cooked and to the sound of Radio Ceylon which we picked up via shortwave radio.  Like every Goan family we listened to the hits of the 70’s—ABBA, The Carpenters, The Bee Gees, as well as local talent that was also showcased on Radio Ceylon. We also loved tuning in to the Binaca Geetmala that Amin Sayani did which was our introduction to Bollywood music. Radio Ceylon was such an important part of my growing up and I have very fond memories of that period."

That genuine compliment was so heartwarming. Then came a telephone call from a friend mentioning that Radio Ceylon of the late 1940s and ‘50s had nurtured his lifelong love for Western classical music. I requested notes and received a handwritten letter from him living happy in a city far removed from Colombo, with the corollary that he was writing from memory and may have failed to mention significant persons in radio broadcasting. Another condition: no mentioning his name. He listens much to the radio. I give you much of his letter as it is relevant and also is history at first hand.

"I recall Radio Ceylon was housed in a colonial type bungalow on Cotta Road which was the South East Asia Command (SEAC) Radio Headquarters during WW II. News was listened to as war reportage from BBC was included, the war still being on."


Reading through articles on Internet I found that Radio Ceylon first named Colombo Radio with its calling signal ‘Colombo Calling’ is truly ancient and such a feather in our collective national cap. It is the oldest radio station in Asia. Broadcasting was started on an experimental basis by Edward Harper, Chief Engineer of the Telegraph Office in 1921 by broadcasting gramophone recorded music using a small transmitter built off one taken from a German submarine. The broadcasting was developed further and in 1923 it was functional from the Telegraph Department, just three years after the inauguration of broadcasting in Europe.

The history of Radio Ceylon dates back to 16 December 1925. During World War II the station was taken over by the allied forces of the South East Asia Command (SEAC) which relayed BBC war news. "It climbed broadcasting heights leading the way in world entertainment and news."

"This new medium of mass communication not only became increasingly popular in the years that followed, but also quickly evolved into a medium of national character, which led to the Radio Service being organized as a separate department of the government of Ceylon by the ‘call sign’ ‘Radio Ceylon’ in 1949. Subsequently, in 1967, the Department of Broadcasting was transformed into its present statutory form of a state corporation by the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation Act. No 37 of 1966, with increased autonomy and flexibility in the operation of the new organization. It acquired its present name, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, with the country declaring itself a Republic on 22 May 1972. SLBC has since continued in the same legal status as a state corporation, listed under the scope of the Ministry of Information and Media of the Government of Sri Lanka."

Succeeding two British Directors-General, M J Perera was appointed to the post in 1952 with Vernon Abeysekera as Director of Programmes.

"SLBC relied on medium wave as the primary mode of domestic broadcasting until the dawn of ‘90s. Some sporadic FM broadcasts had nevertheless been already introduced. However, by late ‘80s SLBC recognized the strategic importance of switching from MW to FM as the primary mode of domestic broadcasting. Accordingly, in 1993, ‘the FM Stereo Broadcasting Facility at Colombo’ was commissioned with the technical assistance of the government of Japan. The objectives of the project were to develop an Island-wide multi-channel FM stereo broadcast transmission network. By 1999, more than 95% of the country’s total population was being covered by SLBC’s FM transmissions with nearly 90% of them receiving all six nationwide channels"

Personal information

I revert to quoting from my friend’s letter:

"Peterites used to go there for Schools Service programs, Fr Noel Crusz, OMI, being responsible. Mano Chanmugam and Leonard Wettasinghe were piano dualists and Patrick Nelson piano soloist. Later Mr Foster Stave of the staff of the middle school came to be in charge of the Schools Service.

"Mr Richard Weerasuriya was the Director of the English National Services. His sister Hilda Naidoo was a piano recitalist. Later Mr Livy Wijemanne took over from Mr RW. In the Cotta Road days, Misses Merle Swan and Iris Coburn were program assistants and announcers.

"Radio Ceylon was housed in Torrington Square in the early fifties. The Commercial Service was established in addition to the National Service. Mr Lawrence Perera was a popular program assistant and announcer over the English service. Unfortunately he met with a fatal motor accident in the vicinity of SLBC. His widow Mahes took over his mantle; she used to present quarterly Jazz programs and perhaps she still promotes this genre. ‘Amateur hour’ over the Commercial Service featuring local talent was looked forward to widely.

"In days prior to electronic media and in a home environment where there was no gramophone, I was nurtured in Western Classical music via Radio Ceylon/SLBC. Request programs could be tuned into almost daily. BBC programs including news features were transmitted regularly.

On the National Service ‘Your Radio Doctor’ and school’s Do-you-know-contests were popular. The Western Classical music programs were eagerly listened too. Mrs R A Spenser Shepherd, Mr Douglas Ferdinands, Douglas and Estelle de Niese, Mrs Esme Joseph and the choirs from the Schools of the Blind were popular. School choirs too presented programs. Punters had horse racing relayed from the Colombo Turf Club; literary aficionados were catered to and many Christian broadcasts were presented. When the Sinhala and Tamil services were started, the other religions were given time.

"With the passage of time, the emphasis of SLBC programmes became commercialized. The Golden Age of radio broadcasting in the island was eclipsed by TV in the early 1970s and electronic media. Radio Ceylon and SLBC certainly did nourish the mind and aesthetic appreciation of listeners and complemented school teaching."

My memories

Prime positions in nostalgic reverie are the Sunday evening Hit Parades featuring the ten best pop songs of the week, with them climbing up or being pushed down by voting listeners. Sunday afternoon Request Programs of pop music again were eagerly looked forward to and precluded any other business on that day and time, even naps after a heavy meal. Teenagers and young adults at the time, we were rocketed to heaven if a request was heard in one’s name. We had a good laugh at Mark Antony Fernando when gossip travelled along the grapevine to whisper that he sent his own choice requests to his latest, pseudonymously!! Remembered too is Greg Roskovski, a fine European early announcer.

In a hostel as young adults we had a large, temperamental radio in the common room. It needed a strong kick or thump to get started. We took turns doing the needful, adding venomous irritation to the delivered jolt.

Remembered also is hearing the somber deep boom of Big Ben striking the hour before we became a republic. A most memorable radio broadcast was Neil Armstrong’s The Eagle has landed. That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind relayed by NAASA. It was July 20, 1969 and we heard the almost ghostly voice around 6.30 p m.

And then with JRJ’s open economy TV sets were freely available and the radio was relegated to second place. But SLBC goes on strong with many channels and fine programs, almost a century after its beginning as a unique innovation in Asia.

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