Radio Ceylon

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In the history of the dissemination of popular music in South Asia, be it Bollywood hits or western rock ‘n roll, there is one radio station that holds pride of place: Radio Ceylon.

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 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.

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. 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. 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), 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. V Sundharalingam was a news reader in the National Service and later in the BBC’s Oversea’s Tamil Service.

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. People picked up Radio Ceylon broadcasts as far away as the United States of America. The Hindu newspaper placed Ameen Sayani and Vernon Corea of Radio Ceylon in the top five great broadcasters of the world.

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

Some of Radio Ceylon’s programs enjoyed by millions of listeners – the ‘Maliban Show’ presented by Vernon Corea, ‘Ponds Hit Parade’ presented by Tim Horshington,’Lama Pitiya’ with Karunaratne Abeysekera and Binaca Geetmala presented by Ameen Sayani 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, Vijay Kishore Dubey, Gopal Sharma, Shiv Kumar Saroj, Vijaylaxmi 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, 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.

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.

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.

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. Masterminding the revenue from India was Radio Ceylon’s advertising agent, Hari Haran, from Radio Advertising Services.

Binaca Geetmala

Binaca Geetmala was a weekly radio countdown show of top filmi songs from Indian cinema listened to by millions of Hindi music lovers, that was broadcast on Radio Ceylon from 1952 to 1988 and then shifted to Vividh Bharati network in 1989 where it ran till 1994. It was the first radio countdown show of Indian film songs, and has been quoted as being the most popular radio program in India during its run. It was sposored by Binaca, from where it got its name.

During the 1950s and 1960s All India Radio had a ban on the broadcasting of Indian film music which it considered ‘low culture’ and not worthy of the national broadcaster.

The show was hosted during its entire run by Ameen Sayani, and was very popular in India, with an estimated audience of between 900,000 to 20,00,000. It greatly increased the popularity of Radio Ceylon, making it the primary source of popular film music on radio for the Indian subcontinent.

Popularity ratings methodology

At its onset in 1952, the program did not rank songs, but rather played seven contemporary songs in no particular order. Later, the program started ranking the most popular Hindi film songs. The list was compiled initially on the basis of a combination of sales of records in India and listener votes to Radio Ceylon. The popularity was gauged on the basis of record sales, record store owners verdicts and that “shrota-sanghs”(Hindi for listeners clubs). These “shrota-sanghs” would send in the popular songs every week. The clubs were formed because it was possible that a record could sell out of stores quickly and the store would be out of that records, so it wouldn’t show up on record sales, despite the record being very popular.

The year-end lists were compiled based on points earned by songs through the year (sometimes between 1966 and 70, there would be no points on the weekly shows broadcast, but the year-end shows would be based on point system.



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