Radio Ceylon, King of the Airwaves in South Asia

Radio Ceylon was King of the Airwaves in South Asia

Radio Ceylon Card

The logo of Radio Ceylon, king of the airwaves in South Asia


Radio Ceylon is the oldest radio station in Asia. Broadcasting was started on an experimental basis in Ceylon by the Telegraph Department in 1923, just three years after the inauguration of broadcasting in Europe.


Edward Harper

Edward Harper who came to Ceylon as Chief Engineer of the Telegraph Office in 1921, was the first person to actively promote broadcasting in Ceylon.

In the first ever radio experiments in Colombo, gramophone music was broadcast from a tiny room in the Central Telegraph Office with the aid of a small transmitter built by the Telegraph Department engineers from the radio equipment of a captured German submarine.[1]

The experiment was a real success and three years later, on December 16, 1925, a regular broadcasting service came to be instituted in Ceylon – the station was called Colombo Radio with the call sign ‘Colombo Calling.’

Harper also founded the Ceylon Wireless Club together with British and Ceylonese radio enthusiasts in the city of Colombo. These were exciting times where radio in South Asia was concerned. Many regard Edward Harper as the Father of Broadcasting in Ceylon. Ceylonese engineers joined the Ceylon Wireless Club and carried out radio experiments with Edward Harper.

During World War II the radio station operations were taken over by the allied forces who operated Radio SEAC from Colombo.[2] The station was handed over to the Government of Ceylon after World War II. Radio Ceylon came into force after the war and climbed broadcasting heights in South Asia, leading the way in the world of entertainment and news. The very first senior management officers of the station came from the BBC. John Lampson was appointed Director General of broadcasting and Pascoe Thornton also from the BBC was appointed Director of Programmes of the National Service at the station.[3] Distinguished civil servant M.J Perera was the first Ceylonese Director-General of the then Radio Ceylon and another civil servant, Vernon Abeysekera, was appointed Director of Programmes.

The legendary Announcers

Radio Ceylon has produced some of the finest announcers of South Asia among them: Livy Wijemanne, Vernon Corea, {Tony de Costa, whose Saturday afternoon commentaries on the Horse Races were very popular]Pearl Ondaatje, Tim Horshington, Greg Roskowski, Jimmy Bharucha, Mil Sansoni, Eardley Peiris, Shirley Perera, Bob Harvie, B.H.Abdul Hameed, Claude Selveratnam, Christopher Greet, Prosper Fernando, Ameen Sayani (of Binaca Geetmala fame), S.P.Mylvaganam (the first Tamil Announcer on the Commercial Service),[4] Thevis Guruge, H.M.Gunasekera, A.W.Dharmapala, Karunaratne Abeysekera, Chitrananda Abeysekera, Kailayar Sellanainar Sivakumaran, Mervyn Jayasuriya, Vijaya Corea, Elmo Fernando, Eric Fernando, Nihal Bhareti and Leon Belleth.

Pioneering broadcaster, Vernon Corea (left) with fellow announcers in a studio at Radio Ceylon, Colombo in 1958.

Other Sri Lankan personalities such as Owen de Abrew, the most senior Ballroom Dance professional on the island[5] and top film director Lester James Peiris[6] ( who reviewed books for ‘ Radio Bookshelf ‘ ) were involved in radio programmes on the airwaves.

This was in the heyday of Radio Ceylon, the announcers and presenters, particularly those who presented radio programmes on the All Asia beam, enjoyed iconic status. Radio Ceylon ruled the airwaves in South Asia as millions in the Indian sub-continent tuned into the radio station.[7] People picked up Radio Ceylon broadcasts as far away as the United States of America.[8] The Hindu newspaper placed Ameen Sayani and Vernon Corea[9] of Radio Ceylon in the top five great broadcasters of the world.[10]

Radio Ceylon turned young Ceylonese talent into household names – among them the Ceylonese musicians of the 1950s and 1960s – Nimal Mendis,[11] Bill Forbes,[12] Cliff Foenander, Des Kelly, Adrian Ferdinands, Tissa Seneviratne, Harold Seneviratne, Douglas Meerwald and the Manhattans,[13] to name a few.

Some of Radio Ceylon’s programs enjoyed by millions of listeners – the ‘Maliban Show’ presented by Vernon Corea,[14] ‘Ponds Hit Parade’ presented by Tim Horshington,’Lama Pitiya’ with Karunaratne Abeysekera[15] and Binaca Geetmala presented by Ameen Sayani[16] on the Overseas Service among them.

There was also a religious and cultural dimension to radio programming and Radio Ceylon broadcast Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian programmes. The station had ‘ three broadcasting arms ‘ – the Commercial Service, the National Service and the All Asia Service. Radio programmes were broadcast in English, Sinhala and Tamil – the All Asia beam had many programmes broadcast in Hindi. Pandit W. D. Amaradeva and other distinguished Sri Lankan musicians have all given concert recitals in the studios of the station.

The Hindi Service

Radio Ceylon had a very lucrative arm – the Hindi Service of the station launched in the early 1950s. Millions of rupees in terms of advertising revenue came from India. The station employed some of the most popular Indian announcers who played a vital role in establishing Radio Ceylon as the ‘King of the Airwaves’ in South Asia, among them, Gopal Sharma, Vijay Kishore Dubey, Shiv Kumar Saroj, and Manohar Mahajan. Sunil Dutt (who went on to become a film star in Bollywood), Ameen Sayani and elder brother Hamid Sayani though not hired by Radio Ceylon became popular by using Radio Ceylon for broadcasting programs like “Binaca Geetmala” (first broadcast in 1952) and “Lipton Ke Sitaare.”

What captured the Indian listener were the film songs, the golden age of Hindi film music was in the 1950s and 1960s – Radio Ceylon was at the right place at the right time to reach out to the target market of millions of listeners – the station popularised the movie songs, including the talents of playback singers Asha Bhosle,[17] Lata Mangeshkar, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi, S Janaki and others. This was a brilliant move by Radio Ceylon as Bollywood filmi music was banned by All India Radio and other Indian radio stations at the time.[18] This led to increased listenership for radio programmes such as Binaca Geetmala. Radio Ceylon had a captive audience. The Binaca Hit Parade was presented by ‘happy go lucky’ Greg Roskowski, it was a countdown of English pop music beamed on the Commercial Service and the All Asia Service. Having heard the programme, Indian listeners flooded the station with letters requesting a count down of Hindi filmi songs and the idea of Binaca Geetmala was born.[19]

Radio Ceylon also popularised the English songs of Indian popular musicians – they went on to score huge hits, among them Uma Pocha( Bombay Meri Hai ), Usha Uthup who has the rare distinction of singing Sri Lankan baila songs with ease and the Anglo-Indian star, Ernest Ignatius ( who went on to be a success in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s ‘Bombay Dreams‘ in London ) had a massive hit, I Married a Female Wrestler, on Radio Ceylon.[20]

The station was an advertiser’s dream – thousands of jingles were recorded and beamed on the All Asia Service – from Lux soap to Coca Cola. Major brands queued up for their jingles to be broadcast over the airwaves of Radio Ceylon, such was the station’s advertising power.[21] Masterminding the revenue from India was Radio Ceylon’s advertising agent, Hari Haran, from Radio Advertising Services.

Clifford R. Dodd

Clifford R.Dodd, Director of the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon,who came to the island under the Colombo Plan pictured here in 1958

Australian Clifford Dodd was sent to Radio Ceylon under the Colombo Plan. Dodd turned the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon into a huge success. Dodd was a charismatic figure and he used his powers of persuasion to rise above politics to make Radio Ceylon into a successful brand name in South Asia. The radio station had no real competition in the region. Clifford Dodd and Livy Wijemanne hand picked some of the brightest talents in Sri Lanka, turning them into popular professional broadcasters.

Clifford R. Dodd’s leadership, enthusiasm and drive helped motivate the young Ceylonese broadcasters – they were the brightest and the best in terms of creative talent. Dodd helped shape the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon. The station spiralled upwards in terms of popularity and revenue for the country.

Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation

Radio Ceylon became a public corporation on 30 September 1967 and the station’s name was changed to the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake appointed a distinguished Ceylonese civil servant, Neville Jayaweera to head the CBC.

Chairman and Director General Neville Jayaweera in the boardroom of Radio Ceylon.

When Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972 the station underwent yet another name change as the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC).

In December 2005 Sri Lanka celebrated eighty years in broadcasting, a historic landmark in the world of broadcasting.[22] On January 5, 2007 the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation celebrated forty years as a public broadcasting corporation.

Quotes on Radio Ceylon

  • ‘ I have to express my deep gratitude to what was then called Radio Ceylon. (Sri Lanka now). It had a slightly more open attitude and did play Western music, so that’s where I became familiar with all kinds of things that I could slightly regret, like the complete works of Ricky Nelson. ‘ (Salman Rushdie)
  • ‘ For millions in this country, Radio Ceylon was not just a broadcasting station. It had a form and a personality. It was a companion who added a meaning to their lives, filled their vacant hours and has now left them with a host of memories of the melodious times which is hard to forget……’ (Playback & Fast Forward Magazine – India)
  • ‘ Soon after conquering Mount Everest half a century ago, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay turned on their transistor radio – and the first thing they heard was an overseas broadcast of Radio Ceylon, from more than 3,000 kilometres away. They joined millions of people across the Indian subcontinent who regularly tuned in to these broadcasts. A pioneer in broadcasting in Asia, Radio Ceylon for decades informed and entertained an overseas audience many times the population of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka….’ (Panos)

Radio Ceylon, the oldest radio station in South Asia


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