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Before SBS TV was known for sexy foreign movies, soccer and subtitles, SBS came into our homes on the wireless. This year SBS Radio is celebrating its 40th birthday.
Peggy Giakoumelos

20 Feb 2015 - 1:17 PM  UPDATED 2 Sep 2016 - 8:44 AM

In 1975 Australian band Sherbet's Summer Love provided the soundtrack to the biggest constitutional crisis in the nation's history, which resulted in the sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

Overseas the Lebanese civil war began and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia while colour TV went mainstream.

And a young migrant from the Yugoslavian state of Croatia was trying to find her way in her new life in Australia.

Ivana Bacic-Serdarevic arrived in Australia in 1973, two years before a bold experiment was implemented in Australian broadcasting.

"I had a sixth sense, sort of, that I would be living somewhere else not in the country where I was born. I was dreaming about living somewhere faraway and I think Australia was far enough to move and to live," she said.

On June the 9th, 1975, former immigration minister Al Grassby launched Radio Ethnic Australia with the aim of explaining the new Medibank scheme to migrant groups in different languages.

Broadcasting began in seven languages in Sydney on 2EA, and eight on Melbourne's 3EA, and with the first broadcast in Greek.

Ivana Bacic-Serdarevic with a co-worker

Staffed by volunteers, broadcasters came from all walks of life, including Bacic-Serdarevic, who simply wanted to connect with others.

"I have started as a volunteer working at 2EA for the Yugoslav group which was the umbrella under which there were four language groups. They were Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovenian. It's been 40 years since then and I'm still here. It's not an experiment any more."

"The period of time when there was a war in Croatia was really so hard to be so professional and balanced, especially when Dubrovnik and the rest of the country was being so heavily bombarded and attacked."

While Croatia is now an independent country, back in 1975 it was part of what is now the former Yugoslavia, a country made up of six states and two autonomous regions.

It wasn't until after 1991, when Croatia gained independence from the former Yugoslavia, that Croatians began to be classified separately in Australia's Census.

But the transition to independence wasn't a smooth one for Croatia with its declaration prompted the Yugoslav Peoples Army to besiege cities, including Dubrovnik.

As the region plunged into war, Bacic-Serdarevic's work had taken on a personal dimension, that challenged her personally and professionally.

"The period of time when there was a war in Croatia was really so hard to be so professional and balanced, especially when Dubrovnik and the rest of the country was being so heavily bombarded and attacked and having my parents and my brother and his family in Dubrovnik, it was a really hard time.

"At the time there was no internet it was not easy to access the news, I'm so happy that that is behind us now. That was a really hard time and challenging."

Her story was far from unique.

Stories from their homelands

From the war in Syria to the refugee exodus from Sudan, many SBS radio broadcasters continue to find themselves personally affected by stories from their homelands.

The stories have changed over the years along with changes to Australia's migration program.

SBS radio broadcaster Ivana Bacic-Serdarevic.

From the original eight languages in that early experiment in 1975, SBS now has 74 languages on its schedule.

"Australia itself obviously has changed enormously in the last 40 years, so when SBS Radio launched 40 years ago, of course a lot of the large communities were from European backgrounds so we had to produce a lot of services for them," said Mandi Wicks, Director of SBS Radio.

"In the last 40 years that has changed enormously in Australia so today for example the fastest growing communities are from Asia and India, and we've had to adjust to reflect those changes and add new languages as well as new communities as they've arrived."

Technology and radio 

Along with the expansion in the number of languages, technology has also changed the way radio is produced and listened to.

Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Western Sydney, Ien Ang co-authored the book "The SBS Story".

She said the impact of technology cannot be underestimated.

"Because of of technological developments such as podcasting and online digital radio and so forth, it has become much more possible to cater for a very different type of multicultural audiences because people can now download the podcast from the internet and so forth," Ang said.

"So the flexibility has become much greater in how people can listen to radio."

On average, around half a million SBS podcasts are downloaded by listeners in Australia and around the world every month.

And while Bacic-Serdarevic had witnessed many political and cultural changes since she began in 1975, she said technology had been the biggest revolution of all.

"When we started our first newsroom our first news journalists used to hang the news items with pegs and then we would go and choose which item would be relevant for each language group," she said.

"And then we were writing current affairs and news by hand and then a typewriter and then an electrical typewriter was amazing, fax machine and not even to think about the personal computer.

"And today the internet, like all this amazing technology that I believe has evolved more in the last 40 years than god knows for how many centuries before."

Full Coverage: 40 Years of Radio