Radio Ceylon: King of the Airwaves in the Mid-Twentieth Century
Gaston de Rosayro, in Daily News, 13 February 2017 where the title reads “When Radio Ceylon was King of the airwaves!”
World Radio Day was first celebrated in 2012, following its declaration by the UNESCO General Conference. It was subsequently adopted as an International Day by the organisation. The theme for the 2017 edition of the event is ‘Radio is You!’, a call for greater participation of audiences and communities in the policy and planning of radio broadcasting.
In reality, Sri Lanka should be at the forefront of the festivities and has every right to hold such an exalted position. Few may be aware that this nation was a pioneer among broadcasting nations and was the first among South East Asia. In actual fact, the history of Radio Ceylon dates back to year 1925, when its first precursor, Colombo Radio, was launched on December 16, 1925. Certain historians claim that radio transmissions commenced just three years after the launch of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), making it the first ever radio station in Asia and the second oldest in the world.
Broadcasting on an experimental basis was started in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, by the Telegraph Department in 1923. Gramophone music was broadcast from a tiny room in the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) with the aid of a small transmitter built by the CTO, with the radio equipment of a captured German submarine.
Long before TV became ubiquitous, most Sri Lankans had to get their breaking news from the radio or the daily newspaper. Anxious listeners tuned in regularly to their wireless sets – that’s what radios, modern marvels of the time were called then – for the latest breaking news being aired across Asia from Colombo. During this time the Allied Forces had taken over radio operations in the capital and Radio SEAC was born. SEAC was the well-known abbreviation for the South East Asia Command , the body set up to be in overall charge of Allied operations in the Asian Theatre during World War II.
Colombo based British announcers David Jacobs and Desmond Carrington – they joined the BBC after the war – were among those who presented the news and radio programmes for the Allied Forces across South East Asia in their crisp plummy voices. At the end of the war Radio SEAC was handed back to the Government of Ceylon which changed the name to Radio Ceylon. Charismatic and innovative Clifford R. Dodd was an administrator and radio expert, with twenty years experience in broadcasting in Australia before he arrived in Sri Lanka. He was seconded by the Australian Government under the Colombo Plan to work in Radio Ceylon. He was appointed Director of the newly formed Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon. Dodd was charismatic and innovative and there was a real ‘buzz’ in Radio Ceylon after his arrival.
Dodd brought in tough new measures, some of which were far from making him win any popularity poll. He maintained that some Radio Ceylon staff, including the announcers who were on the payroll, were not entitled to permanency, or to retire on a pension. Radio Ceylon announcer, Mervyn Jayasuriya, observed in his memoirs: ‘His credo was hire and fire.’
Yet, under Dodd’s tenure Radio Ceylon grew in immense popularity and stature. The training at Radio Ceylon was rigorous as Dodd demanded the highest professional standards in broadcasting. He had the rare distinction of being immortalised in a cartoon by the celebrated Sri Lankan cartoonist Aubrey Collette who published a cartoon titled, ‘Odd Man Dodd.’
The ‘Playback and Fast Forward Magazine’ in India noted: “For millions in this country, Radio Ceylon was not just a broadcasting station. It had a form and a personality. Radio was King in South Asia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and Radio Ceylon really did rule the airwaves – the station was like no other – it led the field in South Asia.”
Soon after conquering Mount Everest On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay turned on their transistor radio – and the first thing they heard was the All Asia Service (English) of Radio Ceylon, more than 3,000 kilometres away. They joined millions of people across the Indian subcontinent who regularly turned in to these broadcasts.
Indian radio enthusiasts of decades gone by, it was Radio Ceylon that set the standards. For those were days before commercial broadcasts commenced in India and taking a break from the monotonous, though informative, broadcasts of All India Radio (AIR) meant twirling the knobs of those vintage radios to trap Radio Ceylon’s programmes. Once tuned in, the listener was treated not just to music of the highest quality.
The magnetic voices of broadcasters such as Livy Wijemanne,Thevis Guruge, Jimmy Barucha, Mervyn Jayasuriya, Percy Bartholomeusz, Greg Roszkowski, Mil Sansoni. Hector Jayasinghe, Eardley Peiris, Iris Cockburn, Mark Anthony Fernando, Tim Horshington, Vernon Corea, Lourdes de Kretser, Bob Harvie, Chris Greet, Pearl Ondaatje, Prosper Fernando, Norton Pereira and Shirley Perera, to name but a few thrilled the listeners.
One of those legends, the late Mervyn Jayasuriya paints a vivid canvas around those past whimsical days of Radio Ceylon, the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation and finally the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation through nearly three decades of transition, dexterously bringing to life images of those exalted fellow broadcasters and other inhabitants of the station in his memoirs.
Mervyn adroitly tickles the reader’s fancy with some hilarious anecdotes about the outrageous pranks of Greg Roszkowski, who would at the drop of a pin, or rather drop of his pants, do literally anything to raise a laugh. With a seeming flourish of his pen he generously spangles lucid skits of other such frolicsome escapades, shocking faux pas, and a cluster of indiscretions among the fraternity that makes boisterously entertaining reading.
The book unravels several delectable vignettes of some of the elite broadcasters of the day who were obviously more neurotic than modest celebrities at the time. But then they were almost living legends and one must make concessions for a type of narcissism and rakish nonchalance in a business that demanded total concentration compounded with the challenges of ad-libbing and creating a sort of classical refinement. On World Radio Day today we fittingly raise a toast to them all. We will never see their likes nor hear their deified voices again.