“Muwan Palessa”, or “Lama Pitiya Songs”; no one can forget these programmes because Sri Lankans knew them intimately. Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) commemorates its 90th anniversary today. To include a tribute and information for the day, Daily Mirror has spoke to one of its most dynamic people -- announcer, veteran broadcaster, former chairman of ITN and Lakhanda Radio -- Newton Gunaratna.
History of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC)
The day when SLBC began broadcasting is a historical day to Sri Lanka. Explaining about the history of SLBC, Mr. Gunaratna said that SLBC was formerly known as Radio Ceylon and is the oldest radio station in South Asia. Radio Ceylon was founded as Colombo Radio in 1925.The official opening of broadcasting in Sri Lanka thus happened in 1925. John Lampson was the first Director General of Radio Ceylon. The initial broadcasting was completed by the British Governor, Sir Hugh Clifford, and he addressed the nation for the first time on Dec. 16, 1925, on Colombo Radio.
Before it became Radio Ceylon the station was taken over by the British Military during World War II and renamed Radio SEAC (South East Asian Command), which broadcast across South Asia till 1994. After the war, the station was handed back to the government renamed as Radio Ceylon on Oct. 1, 1949.
“We are the pioneers of South Asian radio broadcasting,” Mr. Gunaratna said. Edward Harper, the “father of Broadcasting in Ceylon” set up the Ceylon Wireless Club jointly with British and Sri Lankan radio followers. Sri Lanka began a broadcasting service just three years after broadcasting services began in Europe.
Radio Ceylon enjoyed a privileged status as “King of the airwaves” in South Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. Millions of listeners across South Asia listened to the radio broadcasts. The station had a huge following in India. This was the golden age of Radio Ceylon. On Sept. 30, 1950, Australian Administrator brought in under the Colombo Plan called Clifford Dodd established the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon. He was its first director and the Commercial Service became very successful.
M. J. Perera was the first Sri Lankan Director General of the Radio Ceylon, appointed on April 1, 1962. He drafted the ethics of broadcasting and created broadcasting history. During his time Radio Ceylon was the market leader and the number one radio station in South Asia.
Referring to the programmes of the Radio Ceylon, an important programme in Sinhala was a sermon (dharma Deshanaya) done by Palane Sri Vajiragnana Thero. Radio Ceylon and SLBC produced some of the finest announcers and presenters in the world. Among them are Livy Wijemanne, Vernon Corea, Pearl Ondaatje, Greg Roskowski, Tim Horshington, Claude Selveratnam, Jimmy Bharucha, Thevis Guruge, Chitrananda Abesekara, A.W.Dharmapala, Karunartne Abesekera, H.M. Gunasekara, S.P.Mylvaganam, Gnanam Rathnam, Nihal Bharati, Leon Belleth and Vijaya Corea etc.
Gunatunga K. Liyanage and Prosper Fernando were the first permanent commercial announcers in the SLBC. In the 1980s Ravi John and Richard De Zoysa became popular names in English broadcasting. H.M. Gunasekara, Cyril Rajapaksa, Nanda Jayamanne, Wimal Abesundara are among the Sinhala announcers of SLBC. Karunaratne Abesekara was the first Sri Lankan Cricket Commentator and along with him Premasiri Epasinghe and Palitha Perera became notable cricket commentators. S. Serasinghe, Thilak Gunaratne, Nevil Jayaweera are among the few broadcasting developers in the country. In January 5, 1967, Ceylon Radio and the Department of Broadcasting were transformed into its present form as a state corporation and acquired its current status as the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Cooperation. During this time, Nevil Jayaweera was its Director General.
Political Era of SLBC and the Current Situation
Until 1967 Ceylon Radio was under the Department of Broadcasting but it was turned into a corporation by the government. Before this happened, the enrollment and selecting of announcers was done in a very transparent manner. There were rules and regulations and no political influences or favoritism. The two eminent administrators who rendered a yeoman service to Sri Lanka ‘s broadcasting were K.H.J. Wijedasa and Vincent Panditha.
The first political appointee was Susil Munasinghe as Director General of the SLBC in 1970, during President Sirimavo Bandaranaike government period. He was removed by the president herself in 1972.
After this, the government continuously interfered and all the appointments were made by them. During 1973 to 1977 even with this politicised background, the SLBC had another golden era of broadcasting with R. Thilakeratne as Director General. He was a significant person who changed the face of our broadcasting. He started novel programmes and this was golden era for a new generation of musicians, composers and singers. “Subavitha Geethaya” and “Lama Pitiya” programmes commenced during this period. Many famous lyric writers, composers, singers and musicians emerged into the limelight by performing in these programmes.
Among them are Pandith Amaradewa, Nanda Malani, Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Shanatha, Narada Disasekara, Sunil Edirisinghe, Malani Bulathsinhala, Premasiri Kemadasa, Lionel Algama, Rohana Weerasinghe, Sunil Sarath Perera, Sunil Ariyaratne and many other veteran singers, composers and lyric writers.
During this period K.D.K. Dharmawardena, Palitha Perera, Mohan Samaranayake, Punya Lokuliyana, Bertie Galahitiyawa, Amarabandu Rupasinghe, Dalton de Alwis, Ranjith Dharmakeerthi were among the best known announcers. In 1974, SLBC commenced the first copy of Sinhala news bulletin. Up to that time, announcers has to translate their own copy. He remembered the unforgettable live broadcast that was aired on December 4, 1974 at Seven Virgin Mountains in Lakshapana due to an air crash. Various programmes including health, science, entertainment, youth programs and educational programmes were transmitted by the station.
Importance of radio broadcasting and the new radio stations
Radio remains one of the best communications tools, especially for rural people. It is a reliable information server to people everywhere. It is ideal for low income populations and sparely-populated areas since radios are affordable and broadcasts can reach a wide audience. Radio stations play a major role in sharing news and educational information. It is inseparable from the people. So the new FM radio stations should think about the ethics of broadcasting.
The government should not underestimate the state media and they should immediately implement a commission to check private media stations. It is the 90th anniversary of the SLBC, but unfortunately the leaders have still misusing the state media. Setting up private media stations was good, but they should follow proper code of ethics that was introduced by Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and SLBC sometime back. Those ethics are related to our country, and people are used to following these broadcasting ethics.
Radio was the primary source of entertainment before television and social media, and we would provide good entertainment for people. That private media stations in the country are not following the appropriate ethics is now a serious issue. The government should take immediate action to change this situation.