Franca Arena AM

SBS Radio: Forty years young

Image: Supplied/MarkTedeschi

Franca Arena wishes a very happy 40th birthday to SBS Radio and takes us back to where it all began, when there were no channels through which Sydney’s diverse ethnic communities could be heard.

 

This June, SBS Radio will be 40 years young.

It started from humble beginnings on a shoe string budget.

It was the beginning of January in 1975, I remember it well. Al Grassby who was at the time the Commissioner for Community Relations rang me and other community activists and said:

“I have obtained from the Government the amount of 67,000 dollars to start an experimental radio station in community languages.  We shall call it 2EA and 3EA Ethnic Australia.  The money will only be sufficient to pay the studios at a radio station and two full time employees for 3 months: Jenny Looman and Claire Dunne.  You will have to be all volunteers. It will be important for you to ask your listeners to write in to show the government that these stations are very much wanted and needed. You must make it very successful.” said Al Grassby.

I was so delighted to take part. We organised ourselves and started in June 1975.

The very first radio studio was in Five Dock; we used the studios of a religious radio station. Then the station broadcast from a studio in Clarence Street until the beautiful building in Artarmon was completed, where the studio of both SBS Radio and television were located and are still now.

I was the first Italian voice in Sydney, preparing and announcing the programmes, but I also asked good people like Tony Palumbo, Livio Benedetti and Claudio Marcello, Pietro Schirru and others to make a regular segment in areas they were experts, for instance, Livio Benedetti spoke and explained what Medicare and Medibank were all about, Palumbo of course talked about sport and so on.

Our aim was to cover a wide range of topics – for both men and women, young and old – so that all could participate and feel like we were speaking to them directly.

We had a day per language., The Greek programme with Taki Kaldis started on a Monday, we Italians followed on a Tuesday, and then there was Josephine Zammit in Maltese, Incekera in Turkish and different people for Serbo-Croatian (the two languages were alternate) followed by Lebanese and Vietnamese.

The Chinese community and the Arabic groups at the time were much smaller than what they are today.

It is with pride that one thinks from those humble beginnings, SBS Radio broadcasts now in 74 languages and has a wide and important role in helping immigrants and the wider ethnic communities to integrate in the mainstream of our society.

It all started under a Whitlam Labor Government, but Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, when elected in December 1975, supported the initiative in radio and made funds available also for the start of SBS television.

He had a very good and competent adviser in community and ethnic affairs, Petro Georgiou, a Greek-Australian who became a Federal Member of Parliament in Victoria.

One important factor about the need for a radio station broadcasting in community languages, was that the ABC at the time, did not want to be involved with the ethnic communities at all. This was despite the fact that management was approached on several occasions by various activists in the ethnic communities

The ABC never broadcast in community languages; never showed a film in languages other than English.

In addition, I want to say with a certain regret, and that is because I love the ABC, that when their management saw SBS becoming so successful both on radio and on TV, they wanted to amalgamate the two broadcasters.

We protested vehemently. I remember delegations to the Minister for Telecommunications, to various Parliamentarians, public meetings and so on.

We opposed the amalgamation and fortunately, it never happened. We knew that amalgamation meant the ABC would have swallowed us up and that the distinctive purpose of our broadcasts, their community outreach, would be lost.

As the programmes grew in popularity, hundreds and hundreds of letters were sent by listeners supporting the new station and asking the government to make it permanent. They were all sent to Canberra to Commissioner Al Grassby

The experiment was extended for another 6 months. Eventually it became permanent.

I remember well the discussions we had at the time, our deep commitment and support for a multicultural and diverse Australian society.

One important point was that without the retention of community languages there would not be a multicultural society. Assimilation would take the place of integration and a great wealth of different cultures and languages would be lost to Australia forever.

We firmly believed that Ethnic radio was helping both with the retention of languages and supplying very much needed information about all aspects of Australian society.

It was an important tool for the changes that were taking place in our country.

I firmly believe that all the work done has changed Australia, but Australia also changed us.

Ethnic affairs became quite an important area of reporting and the Sydney Morning Herald in 1976 appointed their very first Ethic Affairs reporter who was an Argentinian-Polish-Australian journalist, Isabel Lukas.

In many parts of the world, there are stations like SBS Radio, broadcasting in community languages, like in Canada and the USA for example, but nowhere in the world is there a station broadcasting in 74 languages like SBS Radio.

We are very proud of SBS Radio and congratulate them on the 40th anniversary. We wish them at least another 40 years of important broadcasting and community service.

Franca Arena AM

Franca Arena was born in Genoa - Italy. She immigrated to Australia in 1959. She worked as a journalist with the Italian newspaper La Fiamma and as a producer/broadcaster in Italian with stations 2SM, 2CH and 2KY. She became active in Ethnic Affairs and Women’s Affairs and was appointed to several Federal and State Government Advisory bodies. She was one of the founders of the Ethnic Communities Council of New South Wales and of S.B.S. (Special Broadcasting Services) In 1977 she won a Churchill Fellowship to study overseas the integration of minority groups into the host society. In 1981 she received an Order of Australia for her services to the ethnic communities. In 1990 she received l’Onorificenza di Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana (Knight Commander of the Italian Republic) from the Italian Government. In 1981 she was elected to the New South Wales Parliament, the first woman of ethnic (Italian) background ever to be elected to an Australia Parliament. In 1991 she was one of the founders of the Australian Republican Movement. She became a strong advocate for children’s rights and become involved with a strong anti-paedophilia campaign. In 1997 she resigned from the Labor Party of which she had been a member for 25 years and stood unsuccessfully for election in 1999 after forming the Franca Arena Child Safety Alliance. Since her retirement Franca has written her autobiography which was published in 2002 “Franca – My story” She is involved in various charitable organizations and is working as a volunteer telephone Counsellor at Lifeline. She is the founding President of the National Italian-Australian Women’s Association which in 2005 celebrated its 20th anniversary. In 2004 she was given the CITY OF GENOA AWARD, (LIGURE ILLUSTRE) as an illustrious former citizen who has honoured the name of Genoa around the world. Franca Arena has taken part in many broadcasts and telecasts, has written a large number of papers and articles and given many public speeches and lectures in the areas of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Women’s Affairs, education Republicanism and the Protection of children

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6 Comments

  1. Alexa said:

    No Rio, you are quite correct. In fact, Mr Bosi was well known as “the father of ethnic radio”. Mr Bosi holds both Australian and Itailan honours, and Mrs Bosi was knighted by the Italian government.

  2. Rio said:

    I remember my parents talking about a couple who were knighted for their instrumental and as yet original efforts to the Italian community in Australia in radio and journalism. The names Pino and Livia Bosi ring a bell….or am I wrong?

  3. Chris said:

    She has been ignoring these contributions for nigh on 30 years. The article in and of itself is not an issue, but as part of a broader pattern of expanding the story of her role at the expense of others, it is worth highlighting. Although for transparency’s sake I should point out my own bias, as I am the grandchild of Mr and Mrs Bosi.

  4. Damian said:

    Sorry Alexa I am not really sure what the point of your comment is? To say that not everything in a 40 year history was covered in a short article? I am sure that is a very ‘obvious’ observation. Does not take away from what was covered, and congratulations to SBS and ALL who were involved. No need for pettiness…

  5. Alexa said:

    Strange how this ‘history’ completely ignores the instrumental role played by Pino and Livia Bosi – and others – who were there not just at the very beginning but well before it – and who went on to actually build and embed the broadcaster long after the government’s money for that early ‘experiment’ dried up. It also ignores Mr Bosi’s leading role in the fight against amalgamation with the ABC. On this 40th anniversary it would be terrific to read a comprehensive history of this important social and political development.

  6. Joanna said:

    Thank you Mrs Arena for being a part of our TV history. I am enjoying SBS more than ever before especially with the 600 free movies online. Keep funding SBS.Are you Tina Arena’s mother?

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