How a group of volunteers pioneered an in-language revolution for Australia’s migrants – SBS News

The first volunteer broadcasters came from all walks of life – they were schoolteachers, social workers, doctors and journalists. 

Among them was former Arabic broadcaster Majida Abboud. 

“The format of the program was very simple at the time,” she said in 2015 ahead of SBS’s 40th anniversary.

“It was just music and simple information. A lot of people were reading pamphlets from social security, Medicare and stuff like that … but even that was important because there was nothing available at the time.

“It wasn’t until about a year later that we started doing news and current affairs.”

Then minister for immigration Ian MacPhee, right, visits what was then 3EA in 1979.

(Courtesy National Archives of Austalia)

Today, SBS boasts five TV channels, radio programs in more than 60 languages, various news and writing services and one of Australia’s most popular streaming services. But it had its genesis in something on a much smaller scale.

On 9 June 1975, during the final months of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, commissioner for community relations Al Grassby launched a unique experiment called Radio Ethnic Australia.

Stations 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne would communicate the government’s new healthcare program, now known as Medicare, to migrants in 15 community languages. 

The radio scheme would operate only for three months, have a budget of $38,000 and be run by volunteers.

Ivana Bacic-Serdarevic, a newly-arrived migrant from the then-Yugoslavian state of Croatia, began volunteering as a way of connecting with others. The Yugoslav group broadcasted in four languages: Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovenian. 

Peter Krope would join the Slovenian program a few months after the scheme was established.

Migrant Ivana Bacic-Serdarevic, left, began volunteering as a way of connecting with others.

Supplied

Mr Krope, who would go on and continue to broadcast for 18 years, said there was a sense of history in the air as the first programs were broadcast.

“Feedback from listeners of many cultures and languages was enormously positive,” he told SBS News ahead of the 45th anniversary on Tuesday. 

“Once [SBS] was born, it was here to stay.”

The burgeoning radio initiative was formally established and renamed SBS in 1978 by then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

‘Nothing like this had ever happened before’

Migrant communities relished the opportunity to hear the news in their native tongue and SBS provided a rare point of connection for those living from their homeland and at a time of great change in Australia. 

The White Australia Policy had only been officially dismantled two years prior and there was a growing need for social inclusion. 

Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam both played a role in helping set up SBS

AAP

Mr Krope said while the novel nature of SBS initially raised eyebrows, widespread criticism didn’t last too long. 

“Nothing like this had ever happened before, and as such, it did become a subject of debate and scrutiny from some mainstream media and the public. Why would Australia need a station such as SBS, funded by taxpayers?” 

“However, it would soon become evident the programs in many different languages were commanding strong support, not only by the new migrants who came and called Australia home, but also by the majority of mainstream society in general.”

As SBS branched out into TV in 1980, and later, digital, the number of radio language programs continued to grow.

On 26 January 1994, SBS launched its national network, bringing its radio programming to listeners across up to 90 per cent of the country. A decade later, the shows would reach an even larger audience as they became available to stream online and on-demand.

Changing with communities

There are more than 300 separately identified languages spoken in Australian homes, according to the last census, with 21 per cent of Australians speaking a language other than English at home. 

Many of those languages are new to Australia, and numbers in the communities that speak them are growing.

SBS reviews data after every census to identify which new languages would benefit from being added to its radio service, and which have declining speakers in the community.

The languages are selected and changed based on need – some because of increasing numbers, others due to lower than average English levels – meaning it is harder to access information about life in Australia.

In 2018, the Mongolian, Kirundi, Tibetan, Karen, Rohingya, Telugu and Hakha Chin programs were added to SBS Radio

SBS Kirundi Language Producer Mireille Kayeye when the new language group launched in 2018.

SBS

Hakha Chin is mainly spoken in Myanmar, and in 2018 there were around 5,000 speakers in Australia.

“I was amazed when I got to Australia that many emerging languages did not have many programs in the media,” SBS Hakha Chin producer Salai Biak Za Lian Ching said.

“I’m very thankful for the people who helped set up SBS so we now have the Hakha Chin program.”

He said keeping up with new and emerging languages as Australia becomes more multicultural was “very important”.

“We use the Hakha Chin radio program as part of maintaining our language and preserving it for future generations of speakers in Australia.”

Mr Krope believes in-language radio will continue to play an important role in Australia’s future.

“SBS Radio is, in my opinion, a strong platform to inform, and it will be for the innovation of many cultures and languages for future generations to come.”

SBS RADIO: Find a program in your language