97 years of Radio Ceylon: Asia’s First Broadcasting Channel

In the 1950s, millions of Indians tuned in to Radio Ceylon, now known as the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, to hear bubble-gum rock and roll music or scholarly political commentary. For India’s idiolect markets, SLBC diverged the day’s programming into Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu.

As my car drew into SLBC’s front parking, goosebumps raced down my spine. Nostalgia surged through my senses as I strode through its entrance lobby decked with a dramatic frescoed ceiling, framed portraits on the left wall, wooden furnishings, and a hexagonal piece of flooring supporting a hexagonal table. Radio Ceylon, now the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, will turn 97 on December 16th this year.

Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation

The orange-slanted terracotta tiled roof of the building indicates its age, and yet it was the long passageways stacked with framed portraits of the legends who once made SLBC a renowned broadcasting channel that gave me chills. The significant milestones in the station’s history are illustrated in the many pictures that decorate its walls.

The Wall of Fame

Each portrait on the wall recalls the SLBC’s magnificent past, beginning with Edward Harper, the Chief Engineer Telegraph who came to Ceylon on June 27, 1924, to inaugurate the oldest radio station in South Asia. Another picture is that of Ananda Samarakoon, who studied music at Shanti Niketan in 1936 and created the ‘Radio Artistes’ association upon his return to the island. Village life inspired Samarakoon’s musical works. There is also a picture of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake launching Radio Ceylon’s evening service. Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra is another local theatre pioneer who has made it to this wall of fame and whose extensive study considerably helped to uphold the theatre industry. His masterpieces were ‘Maname’ and ‘Sinhabahu.’ 

Queen Elizabeth Radio Ceylon

The portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who visited Sri Lanka in 1954, addressing the audience from a studio at Radio Ceylon, is the most intriguing. Despite being in line with other monochromatic frames, something about her aura makes this shot stand out and make you want to linger at it for a few minutes. One of the reasons I wanted to gaze over this image was also the queen’s recent demise; while she is no longer alive, her legacy will carry on forever. More portraits appeared as I moved from one corridor to the next.

Wall of fame Radio Ceylon

For instance, there is a picture of Vijaya Corea, who began his career as an announcer for Radio Ceylon in 1964 and rose through the ranks to become Director General of the SLBC. Then there’s Pandith Amaradewa, who took over as Orchestra Leader of Radio Ceylon in October 1959, succeeding Edwin Samaradiwakara. A photograph of Mahagama Sekera carts you back to 1960, when the renowned poet, lyricist, and author joined W.D. Amaradewa’s Maduwanthi radio programme. Following that comes a photograph of the Radio Ceylon building from the 1960s. More portraits appeared before I could reach one of the studios.

Veidehi Gite and Hudson Samarasinghe

These were of; P. Welikala, who trained at the BBC and produced over 2500 radio dramas. Neville D. Jayaweera, who joined Radio Ceylon as Director General in 1966 and became the first chairman in January 1967. Rukmani Devi – one of the early-day gramophone artists. Kokila Devi Weerathunga, one of the most versatile singers. Karunarathne Abeysekera, who appeared in Lama Pitiya and later became a permanent announcer for Radio Ceylon. John N. Lampson, the first director of Radio Ceylon. Sugathapala De Silva, who joined Radio Ceylon in 1969 to revolutionise radio drama.

SLBC Tower

Sunil Santha, a renowned musician, singer, lyricist, and author, and Dr Ariyadasa Peiris, a pioneer in Sinhala commercial broadcasting who produced 21 programmes, including the most popular “Pibidena Gayaka Parapura,” “Geethayen Geethaya,” and “One Minute Only.” There are also photographs of the legendary Professor Gunapala Malalasekara, who coined the term “Guwan Viduliya” for the radio in Sinhala. Guglielmo Marconi – known as the “Father of Radio.” Vernon Corea, known as the “Golden Voice” of Radio Ceylon. Palitha Perera, Mr A.W. Dharmapala, and Mohammed Rafi, one of the most renowned singers of the Hindi film industry.

On Air – With love from India

SLBC Studio

The experience of immersing myself in the nostalgia of Radio Ceylon reached a whole new level when I was invited to go live and play a Hindi movie song for the Indian and South East Asian audiences who were tuning in at the time. I never envisaged myself going on air from one of the studios where icons like Mohammed Rafi and Sunil Dutt once spoke or from where the Queen’s voice was relayed all across Asia. I was in tears as I accepted the opportunity and the graciousness of the now-SLBC staff.

97 Years of Broadcasting

In 2022, I am wandering through the world’s second-oldest radio station and the first in Asia. Some of the many old radios and transmitters that illume the Verandah include an Oscilloscope Model 1049 MK Cossor, an HVC valve characteristic metre, an older Demodulator, a Technics quartz record player from 1960, a Denon Transmitter, a Dtari Reel to Reel, and a Barco EMT. However, many of them are stifled behind a thick layer of dust. The clocks on the wall have been wound back to the times when the legendary shows aired.

Radio Ceylon Oldest Transmitter

These antiques make you brood over how old Radio Ceylon may be and how it must have been founded on December 16, 1925, just three years after the BBC, when its first predecessor was broadcast from Welikada, Colombo, using a medium wave radio transmitter with one-kilowatt output power. As a result of the rapid nationalisation of this new mass communication medium, the Ceylon government established the Radio Service as a separate agency in 1949. The organisation gained its current name, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, in 1967, after the state changed its status to become the Republic of Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972.

Ninety-seven years later, this South East Asian wisdom powerhouse continues to respire legacy and be the oldest broadcasting channel in the continent. During my visit, I spoke with Hudson Samarasinghe, chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), who informed me, “We still have Marconi transmitters and Marconi microphones. But today we’re broadcasting FM (as he counts on his fingers) – frequency regulation, short wave, and medium wave, as well as other frequencies. And we’re already extending our transmitters to broadcast DRI. We broadcast Sinhala and Hindi songs every day at 10 a.m.”

“SLBC is more than just a radio station; it is also a cultural manifestation of the country. It promotes Sri Lankan culture, education, information, and wisdom throughout South East Asia. I still remember, in the 1970s, many Indian visitors came to see the popular presenters who worked at Radio Ceylon. Even today, people take soil from our grounds because they consider our station to be a revered site as we broadcast early morning devotional songs,” concludes Hudson Samarasinghe.

Air India Radio (AIR) vs Radio Ceylon

The radio programmes were launched on December 16, 1925, when the British Empire was still in power. During the Second World War, Radio Ceylon served as a news source for the Allied forces. By the time the Ceylon government assumed control of Radio Ceylon, this broadcaster from the island nation had a significant influence in the area and outside of its borders. Apart from the legendary radio announcers’ electrifying performances, it was Radio Ceylon’s extensive song library, which featured a wide variety of Hindi music that won over music enthusiasts in Nepal and Pakistan, notably in India.

“In Tamil Nadu, we the boys will gather at a friend’s home to listen to the latest Tamil movie songs being aired on Radio Ceylon. There were announcers who were very popular and their pronunciation of Tamil words will be awfully funny since they talk Chaste Tamizh – exactly as we write them,” says Ramaswamy Sundaram, one of the listeners from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Radio Ceylon fiercely competed with All India Radio by giving Indian listeners the best experience they genuinely desired. Because BV Keskar, the then-Minister for Information and Broadcasting, believed film songs had become westernised thus, AIR discontinued playing film music for many years beginning in 1952.

Denon Transmitter

The ban might have been the driving force behind Radio Ceylon’s extraordinary growth. Radio listeners felt at ease when tuning in because many countries had just recently gained independence from the British. The radio station posed a profound challenge to All India Radio in terms of popularity because it was a mainstay of everyday entertainment in many South Asian countries. However, the political unrest in the late 1960s and the emergence of Dravidian parties and Sri Lankan Tamil separatism caused broadcasting to pithily cease in TN, which was then affected by language disputes later, resulting in the protracted Sri Lankan Civil War.

The Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation announced that it would gradually cut back on and eventually discontinue airing South Indian cinema music on August 14, 1970.

Hindi Record Collection

At the time, Sri Lankan radio had an enormous record collection and some brilliant broadcasters who brought the shows to life, and millions were reached by radio music, news, and well-known speakers. Subhashini De Silva, a Record Librarian, welcomed me to the Hindi language library during my visit to Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and served as an excellent tour guide as she detailed the history of the radio station. She spoke Hindi with ease. “Within the SLBC, there are five libraries, including one for the archives. Sinhalese, Hindi, English, and Tamil all have their own libraries. Music in other Indian languages, including Bengali and Sindhi, are also available in the Hindi language library.

Subhashini De Silva

The Hindi Service operates more effectively thanks to our collection of Hindi broadcasts,” said Subhashini De Silva. “Bahut sare Indian announcers log yahan thai,” she says in Hindi, recounting the names of Gopal Sharma, Daber Singh Parmar, Manohar Mahajan, Vijay Kishore Dubey, Shiela Tiwari, Indira Hirnand, and Ameet Sayani. Radio Ceylon is still broadcasting today, 97 years after it was aired, thanks to shared memories. My visit at SLBC ended with me receiving two CDs of old recordings from Hudson Samarasinghe, who smiled as he waved me farewell. Tourists visiting Sri Lanka must visit a number of heritage sites, one of which is the SLBC.

Radio Ceylon Library

The SLBC now intends to charge a fee of $10 to each guest. Their main goal is to demonstrate that the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation is a heritage landmark and one of the most visited attractions on the island. Apart from their head office in Colombo, they would like to extend the visit to regional service stations in the north, east, and south. When visiting Radio Ceylon, be sure to go down the long verandah and take in all of the images displayed on the walls depicting momentous events involving a station that not only made history but also led to the birth of a golden age of broadcasting.

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