115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Transnational Modernity: The Case of Radio Ceylon

Bish Sen, University of Oregon

This paper examines the phenomenal transnational popularity of Radio Ceylon during the course of the 1950s and 1960s, to argue that the media ecology of South Asia enabled this pioneer station to devise a programming mix that addressed the concerns of the early postcolonial period in this entire region.


Modernity can emerge from the most unexpected of places. During the course of the 1950s and 1960s, the early years of South Asia’s postcolonial era, one small broadcasting entity – Radio Ceylon – had a gigantic transnational presence, beaming popular music to large audiences in India, Pakistan, Nepal as well as countries in South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As radio lore has it, when Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay climbed the peak of Mount Everest, the station they tuned in to at the top of the world was Radio Ceylon!


This paper will argue that Radio Ceylon’s phenomenal popularity can be best understood by means of a comparative analysis of  “early postcoloniality” in South Asia. Each nation-state in the region, I suggest, adopted a specific set of media policies in the post-independence period that would come to determine the role that popular art forms could play within the culture at large. Pakistan’s self-definition as Islamic Republic meant that the state sought to severely restrict the influence of “foreign” cultural production – especially that associated with the secular West. The Indian government’s commitment to an austere socialist aesthetic meant that broadcasting was limited to classical music and dance. Nepal and Bhutan simply lacked the economic resources to develop an indigenous broadcasting repertoire. Radio Ceylon, I argue, stepped into this cultural vacuum to provide a highly desirable product for populations whose tastes were at variance with official dogma. Creating a potent programming mix consisting of Bollywood songs and rock n’ roll, Radio Ceylon provided the aural pleasures that modernizing societies were eager to receive. While the station’s appeal would die in subsequent decades as other nations developed formats similar to its own, the glory days of Radio Ceylon illustrate how postcolonial nationalisms were susceptible to the sounds of a transnational modernity.