Nimal Lakshapathiarachchi, who suddenly died on July 19 aged 57, is being described in tributes as a ‘veteran broadcaster’ and a pioneering figure in private radio and TV broadcasting.

He certainly was – but that covers only part of his legacy. He was also an indefatigable champion of popular culture, a rebel who undermined, in a very short time, an artistic ‘feudal system’ that had been entrenched in our airwaves for well over half a century.

In that sense, Nimal did to radio broadcasting what singer H R Jothipala (1936 – 1987) did to Lankan music: made it an integral part of popular culture, indigenised content and form while keeping it accessible and enjoyable to everyone from all walks of life.

Nimal gave ordinary Lankan youth the ambition and freedom to dream and aim high. Until then, their dreams had been scripted by an unimaginative (nanny) state and orchestrated by a snooty band of cultural elites and bureaucrats.

By the time he had finished, most of the babus and pundits were scrambling to outdo him in his own game. There is no better measure of impact…

Nimal was astute and perceptive – he had an innate sense of what ordinary Lankans (at least in the majority demographic) wanted. When that differed from what the intelligentsia and cultural elite thought was ‘good for the masses’, he opted to follow his own instincts. Most of the time he was right.

Mercifully, he was never a conformist (read: dull, pompous) broadcaster in the BBC mould. Instead, like Steve Jobs, Nimal ‘stayed hungry and foolish’. That earned him as many admirers as detractors in his time.

Thank goodness for mavericks!

Sun Power Revolution

Having known him for two decades, I will remember Nimal for his abundant enthusiasm, determination, creativity and charisma.

Our first encounter, in the late 1980s, had nothing to do with broadcasting. At the time he was working for Power & Sun, a pioneering solar power company. Their small marketing team traversed rural Sri Lanka, promoting simple, affordable home solar photovoltaic units branded as SUNTEC.

“Nimal has to be credited for making the SUNTEC brand name a household word in rural Sri Lanka,” says Lalith Gunaratne, co-founder of Power & Sun who recruited Nimal. “We were amazed by his ingenuity, creative talent coupled with his critical thinking skills and his connections in the arts and the media.  He had an amazing ability to coordinate, organize and inspire people to come together for a common purpose.” From Lalith Gunaratne’s tribute: Sad Passing of a Creative Genius

Their marketing efforts ushered in a quiet revolution in renewable energy at community level. For Nimal, that was a precursor to making much bigger ripples on the airwaves. That started a few years later when Nimal joined the Capital Maharaja Group as the conglomerate ventured into commercial broadcasting in the early 1990s in partnership with Singaporean investors.

Nimal deployed his formidable talents and grassroots experiences — backed by the group’s deep pockets and political connections — to liberate Lankan audiences from the tiresome state monopoly of the airwaves that had lasted for decades. It was a revolution of a different kind that covered the whole country, and cut across all layers in society.

For sure, Sri Lanka’s broadcast liberalisation was hugely flawed with broadcast licenses and frequencies being given to chosen private operators on political considerations. All governments in office since 1992 must share the responsibility for not introducing a transparent process for managing the electromagnetic spectrum.

But then, revolutions are rarely carried out in ideal conditions. To better appreciate the historical significance of those events, we must recall how

radio broadcasting in Sri Lanka was on the verge of death in the early 1990s, bankrupt for creativity, bleeding money, and losing listeners.

Lifeless on Air?

In less than a decade, television – which arrived in Sri Lanka only in 1979 — had drained radio of talent, revenue and listeners. But it wasn’t TV that strangled radio: the rot had set from within, progressively atrophying the once proud establishment and its traditions.

Coming in at the time they did, Nimal (and Sirasa) liberated us from the crushing grip of state radio (and later, TV). Within imperfect liberalisation, individual broadcasters like Nimal found ways to harness commercial broadcasting to serve the public interest. They demolished a myth that only state-owned (and taxpayer-funded) broadcast stations can (or should) aspire for the greater good.

Sirasa FM, launched in March 1994, wasn’t Lanka’s first privately owned radio channel. But it was the first to engage a mass audience – and within a year, became the market leader where it still stays.

Nimal led a team of trail-blazers who took Sirasa FM to the hearts and minds of people through imagination and innovation. They transformed radio from the all-knowing (and often matronly) ‘old auntie’ in the living room to be more like a same-age buddy and confidante.

Without realizing it, they also revived the whole industry from its comatose state. Death was averted.

“Nimal’s impact on the broadcasting industry was huge,” says Asoka Dias, now Station Director at Maharaja Broadcasting who worked with Nimal as news director in the late 1990s. “In terms of creativity, he was a koati-pathi, not a laksha-pathi.” (Loosely translated, it means he was a multi-millionaire in terms of imagination)

Some of Sirasa radio’s innovations were simple. For over 60 years, the news had always been presented in the written form of Sinhala. That comes across as stiff and stern. Spoken Sinhala, in contrast, is far friendlier. But conventional wisdom held that news was too ‘serious’ to be presented colloquially.

When Sirasa radio and Sirasa TV (which started in 1998) crossed this imaginary barrier, Asoka recalls, it horrified a few language purists but delighted everyone else. Sirasa FM and TV also pioneered other practices – such as covering news every hour on the hour – which rival channels soon emulated.

More importantly, Sirasa provided a platform for many new performing artistes who, till then, were at the mercy of state radio’s “guardians of culture” for national level authentication. The audio cassette industry had challenged but not toppled their domination, until Sirasa democratised the process. Bathiya & Santhush (BNS) would probably have made it on their own, but many others owe their success to Sirasa and other private channels.

New formats for new times

Nimal knew broadcasting needed new programming formats to keep up with the audiences’ changing tastes and expectations. He was fond of quoting senior broadcaster Palitha Perera: producers and presenters must always try out new ‘achchus’ or moulds.

Both at Sirasa FM, and later in Sirasa TV, Nimal experimented with a variety of formats: some adapted from the West or India, and a few entirely home-grown.

Sirasa was the local pathfinder in Reality TV. For Nimal, it wasn’t about pandering to the lowest common denominator but providing light entertainment and information in engaging new ways. I almost worked with him in one such project.

Circa 2001, Nimal was keen to localise the internationally successful reality quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Knowing my long-standing involvement in this field, he wanted me to be question compiler. He was going to be its host – he had all the personality traits to make a good one. He even coined a clever name anchored in his own: ඔබ ද ලක්ෂපති – මම ද ලක්ෂපති (transliteration: Obada Lakshapathi Mamada Lakshapathi)

It took nearly a decade for the franchised show to start airing in September 2010. By that time, Nimal had moved on, but the name he coined is being used for the show, now in its third Season. (Disclosure: I served as chief consultant to get the show launched, but left shortly afterwards.)

I appeared on many live TV or radio talk shows that Nimal either executive produced or presented. On air, he was always an amiable and thoughtful host with his mind focused tightly on his listeners or viewers. He knew that today’s audiences have plenty of choice…

Most broadcast professionals fail to rise above their original training but Nimal had a systemic view covering aspects such as current affairs, entertainment, signal transmission and marketing. He also questioned and challenged the industry’s limits.

“Our notion of Prime Time needs to change,” he once told me. “When different segments of our society watch multiple TV channels at their own convenience, there is no longer one mass audience and one prime time.”

Accordingly, he tried out niche time belts such as ‘Lunchtime TV’ and ‘Late Night TV’ that attracted their own loyal audiences.

Not all his broadcast ventures were equally successful. Efforts to distribute Sirasa TV in Europe via satellite, catering to Lankan diaspora’s cultural needs, flopped because subscriptions were not forthcoming. And it took the Maharaja Group many years to find a clear niche on the web (they are not alone).

Worlds in Collision

A decade ago, the rebel of Lankan broadcasting was invited to head the citadel he’d once stormed. Shortly after the change of government in 2002, Nimal was appointed Director General (chief executive) of Rupavahini, the national TV broadcaster. Although his term lasted only for a couple of years, he started many reforms and innovations.

Backed by his chairman, mass media academic Dr Dhammika Ganganath Dissanayake (another proponent of popular culture), Nimal also continued his aunty-bashing — this time literally! He ‘retired’ the ageing aunties (and uncles) who had been reading the news for too long, and ushered in young talent.

The duo also modernised the attire and demeanour of news readers and other presenters, getting them to ease up, and jazzed up studio sets stuck in the 1980s. In short, they made the then 20-year-old Rupavahini finally act her age…

The state channel’s makeover was welcomed by many viewers, but deeply resented by the old guard. By the time Nimal left the hot seat, they couldn’t reverse reforms. Market competition, if nothing else, ruled out going back to the dull old days.

Nimal’s short but colourful life epitomises how different worlds are ‘colliding’ in Lankan society, which is being pulled in various directions. Some would like to take us to the feudal times of the glorified past. Others want unbridled fast-tracking to an uncertain future. The Children of ’56 are now firmly in charge — but being increasingly challenged by the Children of ’77…

Nimal was part of Lanka’s 1956 Generation – the first to be Swabasha educated, and had their baptism of adult life during the socialist misadventures of the 1970s. Unlike many others, Nimal was mature – or at least pragmatic – to move on with the times: he embraced economic liberalisation when state policy firmly switched in that direction. Without hankering after all-or-nothing kind of choices, he worked within a free market economy to serve his paymasters and audiences. And also left his mark in an entire industry.

As we move into digital broadcasting, there is a danger of high tech gadgets edging out creative minds. As the state and private companies invest massively in the new infrastructure, we will do well to remember that the broadcast industry has often advanced on the brain power and idiosyncrasy of mavericks like Nimal Lakshapathiarachchi.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is a long standing media watcher who occasionally dabbles as a TV pundit. The views expressed in this essay are entirely his own.