An icon hardly like any other | Daily News

An icon hardly like any other

Vernon Corea
Vernon Corea

Ivan Corea recollects life with his father Vernon Corea, sharing 7 important life lessons his father taught him. The legendary Radio Ceylon and BBC Broadcaster passed away 15 years ago on the 23rd of September. His birthday falls on the 11th of September. Vernon Corea was the older brother of Ernest Corea, former Editor-in-Chief of the Daily News.

Recently I came across information about an iconic BBC radio programme called ‘Listening with Mother,’ a children’s programme which ran from 1951 to 1982. The programme started with the words: ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ It jogged my memory when I was sitting comfortably in the 1960s and 1970s, on the floor of our house at 5 Maha Nuge Gardens - my father was seated nearby. We used to listen to the Radio Ceylon programmes he had recorded with the SLBC or listening to fascinating programmes on the BBC, Deutche Welle, or the Australian Broadcasting Company – it was a real experience listening with Father – he showed me where to find these radio stations, using the dial on the old Blaupunkt radio.

I so enjoyed these moments with my father and these memories of childhood are firmly etched in my mind. Dad was a fountain of knowledge about these international radio stations, he used to tell me all about the radio programmes and we sat together, sometimes late into the night, listening to the radio. It was a special moment between Father and Son and he used to answer all the questions I asked him.

My father Vernon Corea passed away peacefully on the morning of the 23rd of September 2002 – 12 days earlier, my wife Charika, my son Charin and I visited him on his 75th Birthday. It was a very emotional moment. For some reason, my father was in tears. That was the last birthday I celebrated with him. He used to come on the train and the tube to Essex in the United Kingdom to see his Grandson Charin who called him ‘Gaga.’ In fact, all the grandchildren called him ‘Gaga.’ It was a short form for Grandad. We used to tease him when in 1984 Freddie Mercury and the rock group Queen released a song called ‘Radio Ga Ga,’ we thought that was rather apt and sang the chorus to Dad: ‘All we hear is Radio Ga Ga, radio, someone still loves you.’ He used to give us his famous half smile whenever he heard the song on the radio. They say that the Freddie Mercury’s lyrics were all about how television overtook radio in popularity.

Radio Society of Sri Lanka

Dad had a hand in that too. Reel it back to 1972 and I clearly remember my father showing me a few pages of a script he had personally typed on the old typewriter at home. It was a historic moment for Ceylon when the Radio Society of Sri Lanka carried out the first ever television experiment in Colombo. If I remember correctly, both John Amaratunga and Shan Wickramasinghe were involved in the dawn of the television age in Sri Lanka, via the crucial work of the Radio Society of Sri Lanka, a national non-profit organisation on the island founded by amateur radio enthusiasts in 1950.

Dad’s picture appeared on the grainy black and white television set, presenting the first ever television programme on this experimental broadcast in Colombo. Yohann de Silva accompanied by the Sparkling Shadows group and Jennifer Labrooy, reading from the 'Light of Asia,’ were among the highlights of the first ever television programme experiment. Dad created history where television in Sri Lanka was concerned. I remember reading an article about Dad published in a magazine in the 1960s stating ‘When television comes to Sri Lanka, ask Vernon.’ Here he was heralding history on a locally made transmitter by the Radio Society of Sri Lanka on the 15th of June 1972.

My father was a pioneer of Radio Ceylon. He joined Radio Ceylon as a relief announcer in 1956. He joined the panel of Announcers on a full-time basis in 1957. He was appointed by the charismatic Australian radio expert Clifford Dodd who was sent to Ceylon under the Colombo Plan to oversee the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon. Dodd’s appointment was one of the real successes of Radio Ceylon he masterminded the transformation of the radio station into a lucrative money spinner for the country. Radio Ceylon was ‘King of the Airwaves’ in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s Sri Lanka with millions of people tuning into the radio station from across the Indian sub-continent. Sometimes even radio enthusiasts in the United States found Radio Ceylon on their equipment, according to the QSL cards issued by the station.

This was the heyday of Radio Ceylon. When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest, they tried to tune into some news over their transistor radio. They tried several radio stations around the world – the BBC, Voice of America, All India Radio – none of them worked. However, there was one radio station that came out loud and clear on top of the world, on Mount Everest and that was good old Radio Ceylon, the oldest radio station in Asia. Broadcasting was started on an experimental basis in Ceylon now Sri Lanka by the Telegraph Department in 1923, just three years after the inauguration of broadcasting in Europe. Radio Ceylon came into being three years after the BBC so this station plays a pivotal role in the history of broadcasting.

Historic radio station

A young engineer called Edward Harper was despatched to the Telegraph Office in downtown Colombo taking up his post as Chief Engineer. He was the first person to promote broadcasting on the island. Edward Harper, together with Ceylonese radio enthusiasts, founded the Ceylon Wireless Club. They broadcast gramophone music from a tiny room in the Central Telegraph Office, aided by a small transmitter built by Telegraph department engineers from the radio equipment of a captured German submarine. These experiments were hugely successful just like the TV experiments undertaken by the Radio Society of Sri Lanka. Edward Harper was the ‘Father of Broadcasting in Ceylon.’

A few years ago, prior to the visit to Sri Lanka of Prince Charles the Prince of Wales I, wrote to the Foreign Office – I felt this man was a Great Briton he brought radio to South Asia and hardly anyone in the United Kingdom. He doesn’t feature in the list of Great Britons who were pioneers.

Because of these experiments, a regular broadcasting service was instituted in Ceylon, on 16th December 1925 - with the name ‘Colombo Radio,’ and the call sign ‘Colombo calling.’ People still hark back to those ‘glory days’ of Radio Ceylon. A decade ago I founded the Radio Ceylon Facebook Group using social media to inform the younger generation about this historic radio station. I have now handed over the reins to my sister Ouida who has visited the SLBC, Viran Corea (son of the media personality Vijaya Corea), Jude Gunawardene and Chrismarlon Perera who is studying in Canada. They are now popularising Radio Ceylon to a new generation. The membership Radio Ceylon Facebook Group is well over 7,000 followers.

My father took to broadcasting like a duck taking to founder, he presented some of the most popular radio programmes in South Asia. Years after he died I came across fiction books mentioning my father and the radio programs he presented - he was referred to in ‘Monkey Man,’ a book by Usha K.R. published by Penguin Books in India.

Glen Peters the Indian born author now living in Wales in the United Kingdom refers to Dad in his novel “Mrs D’Silva’s Detective Instincts and the Shaitan of Calcutta.” The novel was published in India.

From Great Britain came a book titled: ‘Asian Aunty-Ji life with the BBC Asian Network’, BBC Editor Mike Curtis paid a tribute to my father writing about the impact he had with Radio Ceylon, culminating with his program ‘London Sounds Eastern,’ on BBC Radio London 206.

The influential Hindu Newspaper placed my father Vernon in the Top 5 broadcasters of the world, citing he him as one of the greats in broadcasting. The Hindu also stated that he was the first to introduce Sinhala music onto the English Services of Radio Ceylon. This is certainly true, he promoted the talents of young unknown musicians who achieved stardom on the island and it was a first when he introduced Sinhala music on English radio programmes over the airwaves of the station. 


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