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.