Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Story of Radio Broadcasting in Ceylon

Colombo Radio

In our program today, we present the second episode in the radio broadcasting scene on the island of Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is known these days. Our story covers the era from the mid 1920s up until the year 1939, an era in which the radio broadcasting station in Colombo was identified on air as Colombo Radio & Colombo Calling.
During the year 1925, plans were laid for the construction of a regular radio broadcasting station, complete with its own transmitter. As the first stage in the development of these plans, a new
studio was installed in the Central Telegraph Office building in Colombo.
In addition, the longwave transmitter at the Coastal Radio Station VPB, inland a short distance from Mt Lavinia, was modified so that it could be used also for radio program broadcasting. Three channels, all in the longwave band, were in use at this stage, all rated at 1½ kW, and these were: 130 kHz & 500 kHz for ship to shore communication, and 375 kHz for the new radio broadcasting service.
On December 16 of the same year, 1925, the new Colombo Radio was officially inaugurated by the British governor, Sir Hugh Clifford. At this stage, the total number of radio listener licenses in the Colombo area stood at just 176.
During the following year, an additional large studio was established in the University College Building, also in Colombo; and during the next year again, the entire studio function of Radio Colombo was transferred to the now very familiar Torrington Square. Actually, at that time, the large building at Torrington Square in the district known as Colombo 7, was located in an area known as Kumi Kele, Ant Forest. This building was constructed in the mid 1850s for use as an insane asylum, housing some 700 patients.
However, during this same time period, work commenced on establishing a radio transmission station at Welikada, out a little from what we might call Colombo proper. The first mediumwave transmitter for radio broadcasting in Ceylon was installed here, a unit rated at 1¾ kW. The original mediumwave channel was 600 kHz though this was changed to 700 kHz a few years later.
Then, in 1936, plans were announced for the construction of a much larger mediumwave transmitter, rated at 5 kW, together with upgraded studios in the building at Torrington Square. This new transmitter was designed and installed at the new facility at Welikada by the Divisional Radio Engineer, Mr. A. Navarasa.
The new double facility, studios and transmitter, were officially opened by the Minister for Communication, Major J. L. Kotelawala on June 6, 1937. The registered listener license figure now stood in excess of 5,000.
A large Receiver Station was installed in 1933 out from Colombo on Buller Road with what was described as directional antennas (diamond shaped rhombics, we would guess) and a powerful receiver. This facility was for the reception of incoming programming from the BBC Daventry, and also from All India Radio.
Around the same time, that is in 1934, experimental broadcasting on shortwave also took place, and initially several different shortwave channels were tested, before the frequency 6160 kHz was finally chosen. The transmitter was rated at just 500 watts, and the original intent was that listeners in the shadow areas of the mediumwave transmitter might be able to hear Colombo Radio on shortwave. However, there were occasions when Colombo Radio on shortwave, under the same callsign VPB, was heard further afield, in India, Australia and even in the distant United States.
It would seem obvious to us that the shortwave transmitter was co-sited with the mediumwave transmitter at Welikada, and the antenna system was a simple form of wire radiator. The “Transmitter Document Project” by Ludo Maes in Belgium confirms that the shortwave transmitter was indeed installed at Welikada, co-sited with the mediumwave facility.
Programming on shortwave was usually in parallel with mediumwave, though there were experimental occasions when the shortwave transmitter took over from mediumwave and was on the air on its own during daylight hours in an attempt to widen the coverage area. The identification signal for Colombo Radio on shortwave was described as bell music.
The last day for radio broadcasting on shortwave from VPB Colombo with ½ kW on 6160 kHz was May 31, 1939. The reason for the closure was that the reliable coverage area on shortwave was little more than on mediumwave. However, when the closure became known among international radio monitors in Australia, it was lamented in a radio a magazine of the time that this little station was one of the most reliable stations in the low frequency shortwave bands.
It was stated back then that the shortwave transmitter would be modified for use on mediumwave; however this intent was never implemented.
However, this little shortwave transmitter did not remain silent. In October 1939, Radio News in the United States reported that VPB was again heard on air. After these brief test broadcasts ended, the transmitter again went silent. But that is not the end of the story about this little shortwave transmitter, either.
At the end of the year 1939, there was thus only one radio broadcasting station on the air in Sri Lanka. It was the 5 kW mediumwave station on 700 kHz at Welikada, with the program feed from the Torrington Square studios in Colombo 7.
We plan to follow up on all of these matters in three week’s time.
(Wavescan/AWR/NWS162 via Adrian Peterson)