Wednesday, June 23

The day a radio station changed its name


The cover of the September 1963 ‘Radio Times’. Note Singapore was still part of Malaysia then. — Photos from the RTM Sarawak Archive

AMONG the first people to experience a change in their daily lives brought about by the birth of Malaysia were radio listeners in Sarawak, when they turned on their sets on Sept 17 and were greeted by a new station identification (ID) announcement, “This is Radio Malaysia broadcasting from Sarawak.”

Since the radio station was set up by the British colonial government and declared open by the then governor Sir Anthony Abell in 1954, the station ID had always been, “This is Radio Sarawak.”

Anthony then and now.

Anthony Ramanair, who joined the station in January 1963 as an announcer (the more glamorous title for that job – disc jockey or DJ – came much later) in the English Service, still remembers the first day he had to adjust to the new station ID announcement.

“There was some discussion on the station ID before it was decided to use, ‘This is Radio Malaysia broadcasting from Sarawak’. Initially we had to remind ourselves not to use the old announcement but we soon got used to it,” he said during a recent interview.

He added that apparently it was a hurried decision and not the best choice as a couple of months later the station ID changed to ‘This is Radio Malaysia Sarawak’ and the station was referred to by the acronym RMS.

It was to stay that way until the advent of television in the early 1970s, entailing the station to be identified as Radio Television Malaysia and the acronym RTM.

In the 1950s and 1960s, radio programmes from the only station in Sarawak were the centre of the people’s lives from 6am, when the station started its broadcasts till midnight. The radio was the main source of news and entertainment.

Indeed, for many, since RMS was the only source of entertainment and news, whatever was broadcast from the station was usually accepted without much question.

Back then, in many communities, owning a radio was a luxury only the better off among could afford. Usually these families would do their neighbours a favour by turning on the radio at full blast for the whole village to listen to.

A recording of a Chinese radio drama with actors reading their lines from a script.

And so for those who grew up in that era, their day would start with the station ID announcement “This is Radio Sarawak” for the English network at 7.30am, while for the Malay network it was “Inilah Radio Sarawak”.

The Chinese and English services shared the same network, and the Chinese broadcast started earlier at 6am before handing over to the English service at 7.30am.

Reminiscing on the good old days when radio was king, Anthony said it was the centre of people’s lives.

“The most popular programmes back then were the requests through which listeners wrote to the announcers to request for songs to be dedicated to their friends and relatives.”

Among the most popular programmes was, ‘From Me to You’ hosted by Anne Tan and later Sophia Lim every Saturday afternoon.

Anthony said he hosted a night request programme, ‘Wednesday Night Mail’, which was very popular among the more mature listeners, who could stay up late.

He added that the requests programmes were not only confined to listeners dedicating songs to each other, there was also a special request programme for patients in the Sarawak General Hospital, especially those from outside Kuching, to get in touch with their family members.

“We had a programme, ‘Calling All Hospitals’, where patients could write to their families and send songs to them. We had to go to the hospital to get their messages and the songs they chose. We read the messages to their families and friends and played their songs on the programme. It was very touching.”

An advertisement of one of the popular brands of radio sets published in the ‘Radio Times’.

On a more sombre note, the radio station was the only means to inform relatives living outside Kuching of the demise of their family members and friends as back then only government offices, police stations, and some commercial firms had telephones.

To get a sense of how big an influence radio broadcasts had in the life of the people back then, almost everything besides news, notices of deaths, and urgent notices were broadcast over the radio.

Because of its ability to reach the remote areas of Sarawak instantly, RMS played a vital role during the Confrontation and communist insurgency in the early years of Malaysia.

Radio broadcasts were the only means to inform the people of the curfew hours in areas where military operations were carried out.

There were vacancies in the government service, daily prices of vegetables and fish in Kuching, results of the Sarawak Junior and Senior Cambridge exams, and even winning numbers of lottery draws!

The radio station when it was known as RMS.

An interesting feature of radio broadcasts back then were the radio plays and storytelling, which were followed by listeners the way television viewers follow TV dramas.

It required a large dose of imagination for the producers and actors to bring across the drama to the listeners.

For the English service, most of the plays and talk shows were produced and recorded by the BBC and sent to Kuching in discs, and later open reel tapes. Plays and narration of stories in Chinese and Malay were produced locally and were especially popular among the older listeners.

During major festivals like Christmas and New Year, special broadcasts were arranged for students pursuing courses overseas through the radio stations of the countries where they were studying.

There were also live broadcasts of major occasions such as the Governor’s Birthday parade, religious festivals, as well as arrivals of royalty and foreign dignitaries at Kuching Airport.

The announcers also did live commentaries on major sports events such as the Borneo Games athletics meet, Borneo Cup football matches, and major basketball games, which were usually carried by the Chinese network.

The local news bulletin was read by local news readers but the world news bulletins were relayed from the BBC and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

The station used to receive tons of mail from request fans and other listeners as radio basked in its glory being the centre of the people’s lives.

There was even a magazine, ‘Radio Times’, featuring the personalities and programmes of the radio station.

RMS was an important avenue for intellectual discourse through live debate programmes such as ‘ Pros and Cons’. One of the regular adjudicators was a young lawyer ‘Inche Taib Mahmud’!

Those heady days have long gone as radio stations were gradually pushed to the back seat by television and social media. Radio has had to reinvent itself to keep up with the latest broadcast technology.

But today, let us pause a while to pay tribute to the early broadcasters who paved the way for the instant news and entertainment that we take for granted today.

For the senior citizens who grew up listening to songs blaring from radios and transistors, try to remember the good old days when life was simple and oh so mellow.

By the way do you remember the top hit in September 1963? It was ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ by the group The Angels!