Broadcasting propelled British Guiana into the 20th Century – By Hubert Williams


By  Hubert  Williams

Hugh Cholmondelry and Hubert Williams

Hugh Cholmondeley and Hubert Williams

It was like magic transformed in Georgetown (the then rustic seaside colonial capital of overwhelmingly white-painted wooden buildings on stilts) that citizens could be in their homes or walking on the streets and hearing their own people talking to them, telling familiar stories and presenting general information along with the British music they adored.

Broadcasting had at last come to British Guiana, the lone English colony on the northeast coast of the South American continent, presenting citizens with an open window to the world and widespread relief from the trauma of the recently ended First World War (1914-1918) which took an estimated 17 million lives (20 million wounded), including some of their own countrymen.    

Yes, “blackouts” had ended, the lighting restored throughout the city and along the Atlantic Coast after what had seemed unending darkness; but nothing prior could match the people’s excitement when four years later local technicians and Guianese voices presented the first attempts at local radio programming.       Broadcasting, though limping badly, had finally “landed” and would in time cause a revolution in social habits in the overwhelmingly agricultural crown colony, where most people’s whole existence was lived in their villages, hearing almost nothing of elsewhere and having very little contact with the small capital city Georgetown.

One negative consequence might well have been diminution of traditional cultural practices in near and far-flung coastal villages and rural and hinterland communities.

Retired Caribbean Development Bank Vice-President (Finance) and Bank Secretary Neville Lyttleton Grainger, a Guyanese, makes the observation that broadcasting might have brought about significant cultural changes, for he asks: “ Did the advent of radio and other forms of electronic broadcasting serve to dilute our cultural heritage? Was there value to us as a society in children sitting in the moonlight listening to the tales of yore from our grandparents? These experiences might have, to some extent, served to shape family values.”

Guyana’s pioneers in broadcasting were a few enthusiastic amateurs who in 1926 established a small wired service relaying shortwave broadcasts over the local telephone system.

I was fortunate to be part of a team at the Guiana Graphic Co. Ltd. in 1963 that produced the 1964 Guyana Yearbook (some years prior to Independence in 1966, the spelling GUYANA was used in the Yearbook’s title).

It records that the initiative in 1926 was followed a year later “by experimental low-power short-wave transmissions which were carried out on a basis of two hours a week until 1931”.

Serious economic difficulties aborted that initiative, until in 1935 “another group of enthusiasts decided to broadcast commentaries on that year’s MCC cricket matches… Encouraged by the success of the cricket broadcasts, two separate stations, VP3BG and VP3MR, began operating commercially until 1938 when they amalgamated on the formation of the British Guiana United Broadcasting Company Ltd.”

In 1949 – four years after end of the Second World War (which took an estimated 60 million lives) and more interminable blackouts across coastal BG – “a medium-wave transmitter was brought into action in addition to the short-wave transmitter.”

The effect was a remarkable change in local broadcasting !  Until then, just a few homes, mostly of well-to-do families, could produce at-home music through pianos, other instruments, and their RCA Victor gramophones, mechanically operated and using heavy vinyl records (His Master’s Voice): After each record was “played”, the spring had to be re-wound with a metal device that looked a smaller version of the old starter crank for motor vehicles.

Such families around Georgetown and in a few rural coastal locations had shortwave radios and, nightly, crowds (mostly men) would assemble at vantage points on the streets to listen to the 7:15 BBC News & Commentary, with the families facilitating this social sharing by “turning up” the volume, though often reception would fade out.

The well-to-do in rural communities did likewise, and oldsters from Hague Village on the West Coast of Demerara could likely tell of similar occurrences where listening-in was facilitated by business persons like the Barcellos family (relatives of Dave Martins of “Tradewinds” fame) who were the village shopkeepers.

On the nights of world title boxing matches, these various points of neighbourly accommodation would overflow with listeners. Near bedlam erupted when the Black American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (Joseph Louis Barrow) knocked out Germany’s Max Schmeling (Maximillian Adolph Otto Seigfried Schmeling) in the first round to avenge an earlier defeat.

The Yearbook records that “In July 1950, Overseas Rediffusion Limited purchased a controlling interest in the broadcasting company and it was from this time that broadcasting in British Guiana was placed on a sound professional basis.

“Changes in broadcasting policies and programmes were denoted in a further change in the name of the station, and from 1951, ZFY became Radio Demerara.”

BBC transmission programmes were also very popular as citizens in this, at the time, very English colony, feasted on the musical treats of singers like Richard Tauber (later knighted) and Vera Lynn. In time, they were also to be enthralled by hearing the Guianese voice of Joe Sanders coming through on the BBC’s daily programme “Calling the Caribbean”.

Later developments led to the construction and commissioning of the first privately-owned modern broadcasting station at High Street, Georgetown, and later another broadcasting station was built at Hadfield Street, Lodge Village.

Mr. Grainger underlines the positive impact of broadcasting on private sector development and general commercial activity: “Broadcasting as an enabler in the area of commerce would also be another important change agent of our early commercial landscape, with businesses being able to advertise their products and hence put them more readily within the reach of consumers,

And of its social impact, he recalls: “Some programmes, such as the nightly “Death announcements, have withstood the test of time and have become part of the national culture. For example, in times past, at its commencement time of 9:10 p.m. the musical introduction to this programme was regarded as a signal for young men visiting their girlfriends to say goodnight and leave.”

The now distinguished scholar and international diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders was a main player from the late 1960s in the development of broadcasting.  He was the second general manager (succeeding Hugh Cholmondeley) of the new post-independence station GBS, having earlier returned from England where he had attended university and trained at the BBC in radio and television broadcasting.

He reminisces: “The advent of GBS in 1968 improved broadcasting in Guyana considerably. Rediffusion no longer had a monopoly in Radio Demerara and the old BGBS.  The new GBS expanded the range of programming through documentaries on the social and economic issues of the day, in-depth interviews with leading political and private sector decision-makers, and immediate and live coverage of major events through an Outside Broadcast Unit.  Indeed, GBS’s coverage of fires that destroyed buildings in Georgetown led to the popular saying that “if yuh scratch a match, GBS is there”.

The GBS production team pushed the envelope of what could be covered by and discussed on radio. It was not a space in which Radio Demerara sought to compete for two reasons: those programmes cost more to produce, and GBS had trained persons capable of delivering such information, news and educational programmes in an entertaining way.

Remarkably, GBS was able to sell its high-cost programmes to advertisers who quickly realised that they had a wide audience.         Further, through its outside broadcasts, GBS filled the void of visual images with the images created by the voice.  In this way, the story-telling tradition of Guyana was continued through GBS outside broadcasts, none more impressive than coverage of events at the inaugural Caribbean Festival of the Creative Arts (CARIFESTA) in 1972 when even dance became a visual image conveyed through the voice.

The very popular programme “No Big Ting” created, scripted, and produced by Sanders  and Keith Barnwell, with appearances by Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews and Joseph “Reds” Perreira, was the first and only locally-produced satirical programme that poked fun at politicians and events in Guyana.  It was revolutionary – hated by politicians and loved by the public.  Barnwell and Sanders started it in 1969 and it was a Christmas-time staple after that.

Ron Robinson from Radio Demerara subsequently took the name and the format of the programme into stage production at the Theatre Guild’s “Playhouse”.

The broadcast segment of the information/communications sector has expanded considerably over the decades. With onset of economic stringencies, dilution of the government’s socialist policies, and relaxation of state control of the media, there has been the establishment of numerous privately-owned radio and television stations – of varying capabilities and differing levels of professionalism.

In my view, the 20th Century heights attained by broadcasting in Guyana were less due to technological advances and overwhelmingly so to the outstanding quality of the personnel it attracted. In time, many took their skills to the Caribbean, North America and Europe – heading major regional organizations and becoming global functionaries within the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

I was privileged to know most of them… who set the bar so high it is a constant struggle for today’s generation of broadcasters to seek to emulate… of course, different folks, different times.

Many of those who strove against the odds to develop what has become an important sector in Guyana’s economy were outstanding in both broadcasting and administrative skills… and capably nurtured their successors.

There are many great names in Guyana’s broadcasting, functioning within the radio stations as well as through the Government Information Service (Lloyd Searwar, Victor Forsythe, Percy Haynes, author Peter Halder, the now celebrated British poet Grace Nicholls, Cecily Smith and other outstanding staffers, including, for a short time, Ron Sanders, Keith Barnwell and Wordsworth McAndrew) with its many public affairs productions and special programmes targeted at schools (particularly so by the sisters Lynette and Celeste Dolphin),  agriculture and other main sectors of the economy. (A listing by me of a hierarchy must necessarily exclude personnel whose entry was subsequent to my departure from Guyana in 1977).

There were these main categories within Guyana’s broadcasting corps: (a) Capable administration personnel who were also superb announcers; (b) Brilliant announcers who were promoted into administration positions; and (c) outstanding announcers who extended the in-studio activities and took their talents into expansive community and charitable programmes.

Prominent among the early greats at the microphone were Ulric Gouveia, Lillian Fraser, B. L. Crombie (whose sterling work inspired “Reds” Perreira into sports broadcasting), Pat Cameron, Pauline Thomas (Aunty Cumsee), Olga Lopes-Seale, celebrated for her singing with Jack Casimir, her social work and annual lavish Christmas Party for the underprivileged (she transitioned to Barbados, maintained a high profile in broadcasting and social work and earned the island’s highest honour, equivalent to a knighthood).

Rafiq Khan, the suave golden-voiced gentleman, not only fascinated listeners with his voice, style and professionalism, he went to the country’s leading boys colleges and personally recruited the next generation of Guyanese leaders in broadcasting and public communication, including Hugh Cholmondeley, Clairmonte Taitt, Vic Insanally and Terrence Holder, a major player in his several roles as Programme Director, Sales Manager, General Manager, guiding light behind the Guyana Folk Festival, and, later, Director General of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union.

The Khan corps of bright, enterprising young men helped to raise the standard in local broadcasting, discussion programmes and on-air entertainment. Most progressed into prominent positions in  other countries and international agencies.

Senior announcer Ayube Hamid, Mrs. Lopes-Seale and pianist Mike McKenzie were leading lights in the highly popular weekly hour-long Ovaltine-sponsored singing programme for children.

One of the history-making developments was the first local soap opera “The Tides of Susanburg” written and produced by cultural icon Francis Quamina Farrier, the huge popularity of which encouraged him into an equally successful sequel. His work commanded some local space in airtime long dominated by such favourites as “Dr. Paul”, “Second Spring”, “Air Adventures of Jimmy Allen” and other foreign “soaps”.

The introduction on radio of Indian musical programmes was an immediate hit, and I had favourite singers such as the female “CooCoo” and brothers Dilip and Ashook Kumar… with songs such as (phonetically) WatanKeewah, ChallyannaDumakay and SohaneeRat gaining wide popularity, to the extent that SohaneeRat became a rage and the signature tune of the country’s then leading string band “The Rhythmaires” whose leaders were my neighbours at 79 Lamaha Street, Alberttown, Georgetown.

The leading presenters I still associate with those programmes were Rajkumarie Singh  and  Ishri Singh – I never knew whether they were related. I seem to recall that Ayube Hamid was also involved. In time, Indian religious programmes were also broadcast, following a long while after Christian broadcast had become the norm.

Widely acclaimed public participation (via the telephone) programmes included one called “Action Line”, with numerous adherents, one of whom – Cecil “Rugged Mack” McIntosh, a delivery van driver for the then British-owned Bookers Stores Ltd., was so proud of his participation, he got into the habit of introducing himself to people on the street as “I am Cecil McIntosh, the man who appears on Action Line”.

Of equal radio fame was a contributor who called himself Abrahms. He phoned in nightly and announced himself with one word, “Abrahms” and always began by saying “in my last broadcast…”   If interrupted by the presenter, he would listen in silence and then take up precisely where he had left off in a carefully scripted statement.

Another great favourite was a friend of mine Sidney Gonsalves, a near idiot-savant but who remembered everything he had ever heard or read, and in the programme he impressed by correctly responding to general knowledge questions from the public. One night someone called in to ask: “what year was my father born?” and Sydney promptly replied: “You stupid or what ? … I don’t know you or your father, how would I know what year he was born?

Memorable also was a personality like Bertie Chancellor (at the time widely regarded as the world’s oldest teenager, for the great ease with which he interacted with youths).

Former Guyana Graphic Ltd. General Manager Ricardo Smith recalls: “Without a high school education and coming out of very modest circumstances, Bertie was dogged and indefatigable in his determination to make a contribution to radio programming and national development.”

Bertie Chancellor worked in the days of ZFY and Radio Demerara with Vivian Lee who bought time on the station for programmes that he produced and presented.  Bertie later became the Librarian at Radio Demerara, but he was popular mostly for “Teenagers’ Choice” on Saturdays.  It attracted hordes of teenage girls who turned up at Radio Demerara to select records and to explain their choice live.

Broadcasting inspired cultural excellence, with “Theatre Guild” in the forefront through its many outstanding stage presentations.     Its early stalwarts included Billy and Frank Pilgrim, their sister Cecily, Frank Thomasson and wife Carlotta (nee Croal), Beverley Ann Roberts (nee Rodrigues), Ricardo and Jean Smith, Wilbert Holder, Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews, Henry Muttoo, Wordsworth McAndrew, Robert Narain, Cecily Robinson, Elizabeth Cholmondeley/Wells (nee Coltress), Canadians Keith and Glenna Tisshaw; and that remarkable cadre of new-breed White expatriates like Graham Jones and Peter Drury who with fellow Briton Thomasson built the first Theatre Guild “Playhouse” virtually nail by nail, and with their own hands.

Broadcasting and the “Playhouse” helped to produce what one Guyanese who both participated in and observed the scene referred to as “that interesting social phenomenon of upper-class, mostly light-skinned young ladies, and a few rather more brown-skinned ones too, being recruited as announcers”…  which is to say that broadcasting in those days was considered a not insignificant element of the social hierarchy.

In the mid-1960s, the government selected some stalwarts within the broadcasting network and sent them to England for training in television broadcasting, but the hoped-for launching of TV in Guyana with the team’s return did not then occur.

Today in Guyana, as so often is the case elsewhere in the former British Caribbean, technology/mass production/new age standards is trumping quality in broadcasting. The infusion of freely accessible material from sources abroad and the amazing all-round capability and storage capacity of cell phones appear to pose the greatest challenge to the survival of broadcast systems in the country as I knew them.  Today’s systems will have to adapt, improve and compete, or disappear.

As Guyana celebrates its 50th Anniversary of Independence, it can well take pride in the quality of broadcasting personnel and services it has produced; and in the fact that its experience therein is fast approaching the very significant milestone – A CENTURY.

(Note::: Many names of others involved in broadcasting would have been left out because of lack of recall at the time I typed. There will have to be an update at some time – as I remember, and as readers submit).

Also view a previous Guyanese Online entry on  radio in Guyana:

History of Radio in British Guiana

HISTORY OF RADIO IN BRITISH GUIANA Also view Pictures on:  Radio in British Guiana at this link: The Ovaltine Show Winners The Ovaltine Show was a show for the little people. In this picture, the real stars are in the front row. Can you identify them? Behind them – left…  [Read more]

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  • Deen  On 05/11/2016 at 11:01 am

    What an impressive article by Hubert Williams. It’s an article of journalistic excellence. It’s detailed, informative, nostalgic and it captured the history of broadcasting in Guyana almost visually. My thanks to Hubert Williams for sharing his knowledge, recollections and insights in an article excellently well penned.
    This article I’ll keep in my archives.

  • Hon. Leslie F. Prince (AKA) Bonnie Johnson from Parika  On 05/13/2016 at 9:54 pm

    Dear Mr. Editor,

    Is Mr. Hubert Williams the same Philbert Williams from Lot 7 West Ruimveldt H/S above the Chinese Shop in the then British Guiana?

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