For that old magic

Print edition : January 27, 2006

Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, a shadow of its former self, is due for an overhaul.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

Recording in progress at SLBC, which turned 80 last December.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

RADIO CEYLON, once the favourite of listeners across the Indian subcontinent, turned 80 on December 16, 2005. Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), as it is now called, is but a shadow of its former self.

A few days into 2006, an old Tamil film song wafts through the skies courtesy of SLBC's Tamil service. The friendly announcer interacts with the listener before playing yet another song. The magic of the golden oldies continues well into the night. The choice of songs is unique, but still something is amiss. Having plummeted from its once glorious status as king of the airwaves, it is now scrambling for attention alongside an increasing number of new private broadcasters and television channels. Severe competition from other forms of media, the inability to keep up with the changing pace of the times and the slow but consistent doses of political pressure have pushed it to its present corner.

During the past decades that are now slowly blurring from memory, Radio Ceylon was indeed the owner's pride and neighbour's envy. The combination of technology and human resource made it the most sought-after radio station in the region. Unlike the present-day lag between new technology in the West and its flow into the developing and less-developed world, radio broadcasting arrived in Sri Lanka barely three years after it captured Europe.

This technological advantage would have meant nothing if not for the glorious voices of the past - Jimmy Bharucha (English), S.P. Mayilvaganam and `Radio Mama' Saravanamuttu (Tamil), Sunil Dutt and Ameen Sayani (Hindi) - to name just a few. The outreach of Radio Ceylon, the mesmerising effect of its broadcasters and the tasteful selection of classy entertainment elevated its broadcasts from the mundane to the magical. Its impact was so telling that many present-day programmes can trace their origin to Radio Ceylon. The best tribute to Radio Ceylon is the recognition that many a successful programme owes its seeds to the pioneer broadcaster.

The story of Radio Ceylon - its rise and fall - is in its own way an integral part of the history of broadcasting in the Indian subcontinent. In 1925, according to broadcast historians, transmitters recovered from a German submarine served as the basis for the advent of SLBC. Engineers from the Central Telegraph Department in Colombo assembled together an apparatus from the captured submarine and started experimental broadcasts. Radio Colombo, as it was called then, was aired a mere three years after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had commenced operations in Europe.

Radio Ceylon's big push came decades later and was linked directly to the Second World War. The decision to shift Radio SEAC (South-East Asia Command) to Ceylon was to set the stage for a handful of revolutions in broadcasting. These included a great leap in geographical coverage; practically the entire length and breadth of the South Asian region was served by one station.

In the quiet Colombo suburb of Ekala the atmosphere is more vintage than it is revolutionary. Classic Marconi transmitters and original BBC microphones stand as a grand testimony to the glory that the broadcasting corporation once was. In a nearby sprawling premises, new transmitters broadcast world programmes from international radio stations. It is re-transmission and relay deals with media giants such as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and Deutsche Welle (DW) of Germany that give SLBC's revenues respectability.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, no Indian listener's day was complete without tuning into Radio Ceylon. Aficionados recall the good old days with delight. "I grew up listening to Radio Ceylon. It was my introduction to Ceylon," an effusive Nirupama Rao, India's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, recalls. The envoy's view sums up what Radio Ceylon meant to generations of Indians. "Sri Lanka was fortunate that Radio SEAC (South-East Asia Command) was established to entertain and inform the troops," former Director-General Eric Fernando said. "Geographically Sri Lanka was the ideal location because the [transmission] reach could be all over the region shaping out like a gigantic V. At the end of the War, we inherited it."

It was with the powerful backing of Radio SEAC - a war-time radio servicing British troops - that Radio Ceylon was catapulted to glory. Without human input, however, technology means nothing. Radio Ceylon's climb to fame, veterans recall, was with the introduction of commercial broadcasts.

The basics of broadcasting involve the listener, who is also a consumer. Captive audiences brought traders opportunities to reach out to their clientele. Moreover, the other major broadcaster in the region, All India Radio (AIR), was yet to plunge into commercial broadcasts. For the Indian listener, Radio Ceylon was an escape from monotonous, though informative, AIR broadcasts. It was not only the Indian listener who gained from Radio Ceylon. The success of the Indian film industry owes considerably to the pioneering efforts of Radio Ceylon and its staff.

Director of Tamil Services T. Urutharapathy is proud of SLBC's past. "We set the ground rules for commercial broadcasting," he emphasises. Remembering the times of S.P. Mayilvaganam, he reveals an old secret. "Mayilvaganam used to leave by flight for Chennai at 8 a.m, collect new songs, lunch in Chennai, arrive in Colombo at 4 p.m. and air the new numbers on the 6 p.m. radio show," he said. So this is how Radio Ceylon kept its listeners enraptured before the days of instant communication.

NOW this is history. A walk along the corridors of the SLBC building in Colombo - once a mental hospital - takes one along the bylanes of broadcasting history. Old studios retain the charm and romance of an era fast fading from memory. Challenges from television, cassette-recorders and private radio stations have periodically sliced away chunks of its audience and revenue. The abolition of licences for radio sets in the late 1990s had also punctured its revenues. SLBC officials are emphatic that "radio is still popular", and point to the increasing "car-radio segment". The way out, Fernando said, was for SLBC to re-position itself to its rightful place as the premier public service broadcaster, coupled with innovative programmes to regain a young audience.


SLBC is also planning to inject improved English content into its programmes. It has collaborated with the BBC to share its programmes for six hours every day. Now a new English channel is being planned. "A national radio must have a national English channel," Perera emphasised.

However, for SLBC to regain its lost slot as the premier broadcaster, the most critical element is fresh thinking, coupled with leveraging its inherent strengths of the past.

THE problems surrounding SLBC's Tamil programmes, which had a huge audience in Tamil Nadu, can be traced to a mix of technological and human factors. Urutharapathy is confident that services in India can be resumed with an investment of about (Sri Lankan) Rs.4 million to upgrade a medium wave transmitter at Iratperiyakulam in the northern Vavuniya district.

Yet in this case again, technology is not all. In the 1950s and the 1960s the question of discrimination on the basis of language was not present in Sri Lanka. Unease, originating in the mid-1960s, came to a head in the late 1970s after the change in the name of Ceylon to Sri Lanka, the new Constitution, the change in government, and the changed Tamil politics.

Sri Lankan Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby, also an artist attached to Radio Ceylon in the past, identifies a range of factors that have resulted in the steep decline in Tamil services. These include the political changes in the Sri Lankan state, the diminishing fresh flow of talent into SLBC and the predominance of film-based programming. "The dividing line would be the fear that Tamil service could be used to promote Tamil political views," Sivathamby told Frontline. Since the 1970s, he points out, SLBC started losing its hold on the Tamil people because of the news it was giving. This incursion into news dissemination has dimmed the organisation's credibility, he said. Eroding credibility of news dissemination, Sivathamby points out, is not just a problem in Tamil services or the radio, but it cuts across the media. "The Sinhala and Tamil people are not being told the truth, by all forms of media. This is very true of radio as well," he said. Urutharapathy, however, is emphatic that SLBC maintains balanced newscasts.

Another major drawback in SLBC's current Tamil service, according to Sivathamby, is the "virtual absence of educational programmes". Pointing out that Sinhala educational broadcasts continue and have been of immense help to teachers and school leavers, he urged that Tamil educational broadcasts be re-introduced. "It [broadcasting] is very uneven, and very unfair on Tamil medium students."

The Tamil services of SLBC continue to have a major advantage - its collection of originals. Sivathamby is proud of the radio station's collection: "The music division's collection is even better than that in Chennai." A collection of the best recordings of Thyagaraja Baghavathar is one. "The best humorous skit" by N.S. Krishnan, which was recorded for Radio Ceylon, is another. "We have the recordings of almost all famous men," he said.

However, with little time for quality, programme content has slid. Recalling the excellent coverage in the past of literary and cultural programmes, Sivathamby said: "Now it has slipped, slipped very badly, making it virtually irrelevant to the people" and the "evening content is very poor".

S. Saravanamuttu, popularly known as `Radio Mama', who created a generation of radio lovers through his children's programmes.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

There is, though, another, larger, issue in respect of Tamil programming - a factor that is common with Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil programming. Unlike English or Sinhala services, Sivathamby points out, Tamil popular culture is entirely dependent on film-based programming. "In English and Sinhala programmes, popular does not mean film-based," he said. For instance, the rise of The Beatles and the plethora of Western music bands catering to popular culture. "Tamil popular culture means film... we cannot have a balance as film is the core of Tamil popular culture." Film songs, he emphasises, are "situation, character and story-based". Sadly, he says, the rise of cinema has been at the cost of other popular forms of culture and to be accepted or noted, these unique cultures would have to piggyback on films. "This is ruining our popular culture," he laments.

This he says, is not so in the case of Sinhala programmes, which are "enjoyable and you can listen to them with your sister, daughter-in-law and granddaughter".

Sivathamby is of the view that despite commercialisation, a free fall could be avoided by exercising some restraint and introducing light music. In AIR's commercial services, Akash Vani for example, "there is a certain amount of restraint." Similarly in India, "earlier there was M.B. Srinivasan", but of late "we have not made any sincere attempt at serious light music," he said.

Pointing out that FM broadcasts, by their very nature, are "not suitable for serious broadcasts," Sivathamby says that there is scope for a healthy revival of SLBC. The question really is whether it will be possible to improve cultural and literary programmes without being trapped into politics. "It is very difficult, but doable." It is, at the end of the day, a question of politics. "The politics of the country has gone very deep. It may not be possible to redeem it unless there is a very deep sense of nationhood with consciousness and respect for the other culture," he says.

The task, however, is yet to be attempted. Above all, Sivathamby says: "The Sri Lankan government has a duty towards the Tamil people in terms of Tamil broadcasts."

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor