Mano Wikramanayake (1951 – 2011): A Voice of Reason in Turbulent Times

Mano Wikramanayake (1951 - 2011): Image courtesy Commonwealth Broadcasting Association

We could always rely on Mano Wikramanayake to provide an incisive analysis of any given situation with a boyish grin on his face.

The senior Lankan broadcast manager, who died suddenly on 3 December 2011, was well informed and articulate without any intellectual or artistic pretensions so common in his industry. The one time cricketer turned avid golfer, he knew when to strike – with just enough force – and when to safeguard his wicket.

For over a decade, Mano was Senior Group Director of the Capital Maharaja Organisation and a Founder Director of the company’s electronic media operations, comprising three TV channels, four radio stations and three TV production houses in Sri Lanka. It is the closest the island nation has to an electronic media giant that is now extending also to the web.

Trained as a management accountant, Mano helped the Maharaja group to consolidate its pioneering ventures in privately owned radio and TV broadcasting. Media researchers and activists have faulted this liberalisation, which started in the early 1990s, as being imperfect, for example lacking a due process in the licensing. But one benefit is undeniable: it liberated us audiences from the tiresome state monopoly of the airwaves that had lasted for decades.

From the beginning, it was evident that the Maharaja group had a long time vision for their broadcasting ventures. In the early stages, they brought in Singaporean and Australian professionals but within a few years the company was run entirely by Lankans. Mano, in particular, groomed many young journalists, producers, technicians and business managers who shared his belief that a private broadcaster could do well while also doing good.

I cheered him every time he spoke out at national and international gatherings to broaden the traditionally narrow definition of public service broadcasting. In his book – and mine – PSB was not confined to state owned or public funded stations. Every channel transmitting on the public airwaves could serve the public interest, albeit in different ways.

Our paths crossed more often outside of Sri Lanka, at various regional and global media gatherings in Asia and Europe. He spoke at such events with authority, clarity and honesty. He chose his words carefully, but didn’t gloss over the thorny issues. While I tend to be cheeky and provocative – for example, calling former state monopoly broadcasters ‘Old Aunties Without Eyeballs’ – he was more circumspect. Yet he never berated Sri Lanka even at the worst of times, most notably when his main station came under a daring arson attack in early 2009.

If Mano was measured, sharp and articulate in his public remarks, he could still be jovial and easy-going in private conversation. We were regular (and vocal) participants at the annual Asia Media Summits organised by the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD). Another regular Asian broadcaster once called him the ‘Lankan pragmatist’ while labelling me the ‘Lankan idealist’. To him, at least, Mano and I appeared to bat on from the opposite ends, but working to a common goal.

During Asia Media Summit 2006, Mano spoke at a plenary session on ‘Local Content for Global Audience: An uphill battle?’ that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, put together on behalf of the UN’s regional body, ESCAP. It explored the role of broadcasters in promoting the Millennium Development Goals that all countries have committed to achieving by 2015.

Mano Wikramanayake (second from left) at MDG and Local Content Plenary Session at Asia Media Summit 2006

Soon after he’d spoken, my colleague Manori Wijesekera good-naturedly challenged him to “put his money where his mouth was”. He readily agreed — and kept his word. Two years later, we co-produced with his station a TV debate series called Sri Lanka 2048 that explored pathways for creating a more sustainable island nation.

“This could be a forerunner to programmes which encourage public debate on issues that concern all of us,” he said when the series premiered in May 2008.

Mano was always ready to partner with development or charitable organisations on well-conceived projects, but he had no time for random do-gooders with vague ideas. He ensured that the Maharaja group’s considerable presence in the airwaves was put to good use in support of carefully selected educational, cultural and sporting endeavours.

Mano was equally sharp with numbers as he was with words. As a senior manager, he minded the financial bottomline of the companies under his charge. He also realised that the media business was very different from, say, marketing soft drinks or manufacturing PVC. His team bore witness to how ably he balanced the regulatory, political, journalistic and commercial interests while raising the bar for quality news, information and entertainment for his audiences.

In later years, he shared this vast experience with other developing country broadcasters, for example through training programmes and manuals for the AIBD, and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) in which he was a leading light. From Afghanistan to Fiji, and from Barbados to South Africa, the voice of practical and pragmatic Mano Wikramanayake will be missed.

But he has energised a generation of broadcasters, and not just in Sri Lanka. In the evolutionary perspective, all of us are transmitters — we constantly pass on ideas, experience and values to our children, students, colleagues and others in our spheres of influence. Such transmission happens 24/7, in all directions and across generations. Some among us are better transmitters than others: they amplify and value-add before passing on.

Mano was one of the finest ‘transmitters’ in the broadcast business, and that is how I shall remember him. His “transmissions” will continue in the teams and establishments he leaves behind.

Sri Lanka 2048: Business As Unusual

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka Gunawardene moderating

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka Gunawardene moderating

When our Sri Lanka 2048 TV debate series started a few weeks ago, I had no idea that I’d be hosting some programmes. But through an interesting turn of events, I’ve ended up doing just that.

The series, which TVE Asia Pacific is co-producing with IUCN and MTV Channel (Pvt) Limited — Sri Lanka’s ratings leading TV broadcaster — has been going out once every week from 22 May 2008. As I wrote at the time the series started, most programmes (8 out of 10) were hosted by Sirasa TV’s versatile and dynamic presenter Kingsly Rathnayaka.

Our plan was to do two shows in English, exploring the topics living with climate change and the nexus between business and the environment. We were still searching for a presenter for these two even as we produced and aired the Sinhala programmes.

In the end, the channel management as well as our production team all suggested for me to take it on. I’ve been hosting quiz shows on TV since 1990, and have been a regular ‘TV pundit’ on a broad range of development, science and technology issues for at least a decade. I’ve also been doing a fair amount of moderating sessions and panels at international conferences. Hosting Sri Lanka 2048 challenged me to combine all these skills — and to be informed, interested and curious about our topics under discussion.

I enjoyed being the ‘skeptical inquirer’, a role I’ve had fun playing for long years as a development journalist. Our viewers can judge how well I fared. My aim was to keep the panel and audience focused, engaged and moving ahead. My style is slower and more reflective than Kingsly’s fast-paced, chatty one. Direct comparisons would be unfair and unrealistic since we are very different personalities.

But I’m enormously grateful to the younger, more experienced Kingsly for his advice and guidance in preparing for my new role. The TV camera is ruthless in capturing and sometimes magnifying even minor idiosyncrasies in presenters. It has as much to do with style as with substance. Hope I made the grade…

Sri Lanka 2048 series branding

Sri Lanka 2048 series branding

Here’s the promotional blurb for this weekend’s show, titled Business As Unusual (yes, I borrowed the apt title from our sorely missed inspiration Anita Roddick). It was broadcast on Channel One MTV, the English language channel of Sri Lanka’s Maharaja broadcasting group.

Sri Lanka 2048 looks at Business As Unusual: How can companies do well while doing good?

The private sector is acknowledged as the engine of our economic growth. But how long can this ‘engine’ keep running without addressing its many impacts on society and the natural environment? With public concerns rising everywhere for a cleaner and safer environment, how best can businesses respond to the environmental challenges — and find new opportunities to grow and innovate?

These and related questions will be raised in this week’s Sri Lanka 2048, the series of TV debates exploring Sri Lanka’s prospects for a sustainable future in the Twenty First Century. The one-hour debate, this time in English, will be shown on Channel One MTV from 8 to 9 pm on Saturday, 19 July 2008.

Titled Business As Unusual, this week’s debate brings together concerned Sri Lankans from academic, corporate, civil society and government backgrounds to discuss what choices, decisions and tradeoffs need to be made for businesses to become environmentally responsible — and still remain profitable. Increasingly, there are examples of smart companies achieving this balance.

This week’s panel comprises (seated left to right in the photo below): Professor Sarath W Kotagama, Professor of Environment Science, University of Colombo; Renton de Alwis, Chairman, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority; Dilhan C Fernando, Marketing Director, MJF Group; and Jeevani Siriwardena, Director – Product Management, Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

Sri Lanka 2048 panel on business and environment broadcast on 19 July 2008

Sri Lanka 2048 panel on business and environment broadcast on 19 July 2008

The wide ranging discussion — looking at both domestic and international markets, and covering a range of industries — notes that many companies already address not just financial but also social and environmental bottomlines. Adopting cleaner production practices have helped increase profits through being thrifty with resources and careful with waste.

The debate also looks at the findings of a survey that IUCN and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce carried out last year of 45 companies on their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and practices. It revealed that a significant number of companies are actively applying CSR principles, with slightly over half (53%) already having environmental components in their CSR (known as CSER). The survey also found that local companies were stronger on CSR/CSER than the local operations of multinational companies.

As some panelists and audience members argue, embracing sound environmental practices goes well beyond CSR. With rising consumer awareness and greater scrutiny of how companies source materials and energy, ‘going green’ has become an integral part of responsible corporate citizens.

Sri Lanka 2048 debates are co-produced by TVE Asia Pacific, an educational media foundation, and IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in partnership with MTV Channel (Private) Limited. This editorially independent TV series is supported under the Raising Environmental Consciousness in Society (RECS) project, sponsored by the Government of the Netherlands.

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka briefing audience just before recording starts...

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka briefing audience just before recording starts...

Wherever you are, Anita, I hope you were watching our show tonight — and hopefully nodding… When you insisted that businesses must care for community and the environment, you were so ahead of the pack. We’re still struggling to catch up.

Nalaka with panelist Jeevani Siriwardena

On the set of Sri Lanka 2048: Nalaka with panelist Jeevani Siriwardena

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific