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A century of service in Radio Broadcasting | Dr Amal Punchihewa | Palmerston North

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ශ්‍රී LankaNZ is a free distributed Sri Lankan Community Newspaper that aims to reach a Sri Lankan population of over 18,000 all over New Zealand. The demand for entertainment in literacy media itself gave birth to ශ්‍රී LankaNZ

SLBC (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) is the public service radio broadcaster in Sri Lanka known as Radio Ceylon decades ago. This short article outlines the legacy of SLBC and its evolution as the first Asian radio station and second in the world, as per available records. SLBC heritage has a wealth of radio content. SLBC and many other radio stations face many challenges as global radio systems and technologies evolve. 

As Wikipedia reports, the history of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) dates back to 1925, when its first precursor, Colombo Radio, was launched on 16 December 1925 using a medium wave radio transmitter of one kilowatt of output power from Welikada, Colombo. Commenced just three years after the launch of BBC, ‘Colombo Radio’ was the first radio station in Asia and the second oldest radio station in the world. Broadcasting was introduced in Europe around 1920. From that point, broadcasting was started on an exploratory premise by the pioneer Telegraphy Department in 1923; soon after three years, it began in Europe.

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. 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. Sri Lanka occupies an important place in the history of broadcasting, with broadcasting services inaugurated just three years after the launch of the BBC in the United Kingdom. Edward Harper launched the first experimental broadcast and founded the Ceylon Wireless Club, together with British and Ceylonese radio enthusiasts on the island. Edward Harper has been dubbed ‘the Father of Broadcasting in Ceylon,’ because of his pioneering efforts, skill, and determination to succeed. Edward Harper and his fellow Ceylonese radio enthusiasts made it happen.

This new mode of mass communication not just turned out to be progressively famous in the years that followed. But later, it advanced into a way of a public character, prompting the “Radio Service” to be available as a different branch of the public authority of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1949. In this way, in 1967, the Department of Broadcasting was changed into its present legal type of state enterprise by the Ceylon Broadcasting Partnership Act. No 37 of 1966 of the parliament of Ceylon, consequently guaranteeing expanded self-sufficiency and adaptability in the tasks of the new association.

The organisation was named ‘Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, with the country’s progress into a Republic on 22 May 1972. SLBC continues as a state-owned ‘Information and Media’ body of the Government of Sri Lanka.

The transition from AM broadcasting to FM Broadcasting 

SLBC’s main delivery form was medium wave (MW) until the 1990s as its the availability of a nationwide MW network. Colombo and a few other stations made some FM broadcasting services available. Later FM transmission network was grown with repeater stations to be nationwide by the last part of the 1980s.

The ‘Island FM Development Project’ was launched in 1995. The project’s targets were to build up an Island wide multi-channel FM sound system. It was expensive to operate AM broadcasting services due to their poor power efficiency. By 1999, over 95% of the nation’s population could access SLBC’s FM transmissions, with almost 90% accepting each of the seven national channels covering the island-wide. Recently, SLBC started an education channel, “VISION FM “. 

Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, was ruled by the British as one of the colonies. Even after its independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has been enjoying a strategic location to broadcast to the Asia-Pacific region using short-wave broadcasts. Several world radio services, viz. BBC of the UK, Deutsche Welle (DW) of Germany, NHK of Japan and many other AM broadcasters operated their short-wave broadcasting (SW) world services from Sri Lanka. SLBC still operates AWR – Adventist World Radio from Trincomalee and TWR Trans World Radio from Puttalam; both are US-based Charity Radio Services. For nearly a century, radio has been operating on AM. However, with the adoption of FM as a superior radio broadcasting method, countries started deploying FM as a robust and high-quality sound broadcasting method for radio complemented by online delivery. Later FM was improved to carry stereo sound in a compatible manner.

In the 1970s and 80s, increasing numbers of FM deployments were noticed in Asia-Pacific, including Sri Lanka. While making technological transitions from AM to FM, SLBC played a crucial role in Sri Lanka to introduce FM. As most of the broadcast stakeholders know, the introduction of a new technological platform is hard work. SLBC did all the hard work by carrying out test transmissions and introducing new stereo FM broadcast services. However, SLBC could not enjoy the fruits as they were taken mainly by new FM radio operators who commenced their services in the new ecosystem developed by SLBC. As an incumbent AM broadcaster, SLBC managed its assets and human resources to grow and develop with AM. At those times, most countries lacked knowledge of conducive policy frameworks to introduce new media technologies while protecting existing and incumbent operators and services. If Sri Lanka had a policy like one that was implemented by Australia while introducing DAB+, that would have given some time for SLBC to combine FM with its legacy AM broadcast services more effectively. The example policy from recent time from Australia is a good lesson while introducing new media technologies if the country wants to allow a reasonable time for incumbent operators to adapt. No new DAB+ licenses were issued for five years until incumbent Australian radio operators established their digital market.  

By Dr Amal Punchihewa – Palmerston North

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