The Sunday Island newspaper published in Colombo, Sri Lanka has featured the legendary Radio Ceylon and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Broadcaster, Vernon Corea, in an article titled: ‘The Man Behind The Mike.’ The feature article was published in Colombo, on Sunday 2nd September 2012.
The 10th death anniversary of the Legendary Radio Ceylon/Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation broadcaster falls on the 23rd of September 2012. He had a glittering career of 45 years in public service broadcasting in Sri Lanka and in the United Kingdom.
In a tribute to the ‘Golden Voice of Radio Ceylon’, Neville Jayaweera, the distinguished Sri Lankan civil servant and former Director-General of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation said:
‘I first heard of Vernon Corea, as many others too did, before I had ever met him face to face. In the early nineteen sixties Vernon was probably the most popular male voice heard over Radio Ceylon’s English Commercial Service.’
Vernon was born in Kurana, Katunayake on the 11th of September 1927. His parents were the Reverend Canon Ivan and Ouida Corea who served the parish of St. Luke’s Church, Borella for over 25 years. Vernon’s brother is the distinguished diplomat, Ernest Corea who was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States, Cuba, Mexico and High Commissioner to Canada. He was the Chairperson of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development and currently President of the Global Co-operation Council Media Task Force in the United States of America.
Vernon taught at Uva College in Badulla where he met his wife Monica. They married in 1954. Tragedy struck when their first born Harischandra died in 1955 as a result of a stomach problem.
Radio Ceylon was ‘King of the Airwaves’ at the time. Clifford R.Dodd a first class Australian administrator, was sent to Ceylon in the 1950s under the Colombo Plan. He set up the Commercial Service and started recruiting some of the finest Sri Lankan talents and mentored them. Vernon joined Radio Ceylon during this time as a Relief Announcer in 1956.
Dodd wrote to Vernon on 17th September 1957 to inform him that he had been ‘placed on the panel of Relief Announcers in English on the Commercial Service with effect from September 1st, 1957’ on the princely sum of Rs 1/75 per hour, subject to a maximum of Rs. 12 per day. He started his career in radio at the bottom of the ladder but he soon climbed up – Vernon was appointed Announcer from 1958-1959, Programme Assistant from 1959-1968, Business Manager from 1968-1974 and he was appointed Director News of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation in 1974. Vernon spent six months in England from 29th April 1970 following a course of training in Broadcasting Management under the Imperial Relations Trust at the British Broadcasting Corporation.
He was instrumental in introducing Sinhala music into the English Service. Together with his cousins, Sangabo Corea and Vijaya Corea he made Clarence Wijewardene, Annesley Malawana and other talented Sri Lankan musicians, household names. He had an influential EMCEE column in the Daily News in the 1960s and 1970s and many musicians went to see Vernon. Vernon has also mentored some of the great radio names of today, including his cousin Vijaya Corea, Leon Belleth (still broadcasting in Australia), and Nihal Bhareti.
Vernon took to broadcasting and soon enjoyed massive popularity across the Indian sub-continent. Hundreds of listeners wrote to him from all over South Asia. During his broadcasting career with Radio Ceylon and subsequently the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Vernon Corea presented some of the most popular radio programmes in Sri Lanka including: Saturday Stars,Two for the Money, Kiddies Corner, Old Folks at Home, To Each His Own, Ponds Hit Parade, Saturday Stars, Take it or Leave It, Radio Journal, Holiday Choice, Housewives Choice, Maliban Bandwagon (Maliban Show), Dial-a-disc and many more.
Vernon was a pioneering broadcaster, an ‘ideas man’ who came up with innovative radio programmes.He worked very closely with Sri Lankan broadcasting icons Karunaratne Abeysekera and S.P. Mylvaganam. Radio Ceylon was very much a ‘hit factory’ a creative powerhouse in South Asia.
He had joined the ‘greats’ in broadcasting in Sri Lanka in the 1960s, broadcasters of the calibre of Livy Wijemanne, 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, Hameed Sayani, S.P. Mylvaganam, Karunaratne Abeysekera, Thevis Guruge, H.M. Gunasekera, A.W. Dharmapala, Chitrananda Abeysekera, Mervyn Jayasuriya to name a few.
Like so many other announcers, Vernon could easily spot talent and promoted young musicians who went on to become huge stars in Sri Lanka and even overseas – people like Nimal Mendis, Cliff Foenander, Des Kelly, Bill Forbes, The Jetliners, Clarence Wijewardena, Annesley Malewana – he became close friends with young Indian musicians Usha Uthup and Ernest Ignatius of ‘I Married A Female Wrestler’ fame.
In the 1970s the family moved to the United Kingdom where Vernon worked briefly with Radio Worldwide, the radio project with WEC and then joined BBC Radio London. The BBC wanted to change their idea of Asian programming, so they gave Vernon a pioneering opportunity of presenting the FIRST EVER Asian programme in English – the programme went over the airwaves of BBC Radio London 206 in Marylebone High Street.
Produced by the legendary BBC man Keith Yeomans ‘London Sounds Eastern’ was attracting massive audiences across the capital. It was so popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Vernon moved up the ladder in the BBC – he was appointed Asian Programmes Officer of 22 BBC local radio stations and then came the appointment as the Ethnic Minorities Adviser to the BBC – Vernon created history once again by being the first Asian to be appointed to senior management of the BBC. His appointment to the BBC was heralded by the ‘Thunderer’ the London Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times in the United Kingdom.
The Director-General of the BBC Greg Dyke said this of Vernon Corea: ‘Vernon was a pioneering influence in the BBC and helped to lay the foundation for the work we are continuing to do to make sure our staff and our programmes are truly representative of our nation’s diverse population.’
The London Times said: ‘The BBC at this time was striving to be more inclusive, and Corea found himself at the forefront of an increasing thrust for diversity. His importance both as a figurehead and a consultant was recognized by his appointment as the first ethnic minorities’ adviser in 1978.’
Here again he mentored so many broadcasters, when top BBC television presenter George Aligiah wanted to join the BBC – one of the first people he went to meet after doing his university degree was Vernon Corea.
He died in his sleep on 23rd September 2002 aged 75 years of age, leaving his wife Monica and children – Ivan, Vernon jr and Ouida.
Vernon Corea has left behind a legacy in broadcasting – in Sri Lanka and in the United Kingdom. At a recent broadcasting and television awards ceremony in Colombo – people were still paying tributes to the legendary broadcaster who came into so many living rooms in Sri Lanka – through the medium of radio. He was truly the ‘Golden Voice of Radio Ceylon.’