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Franca Arena is one of SBS's founding members. It was January 1975 when Al Grassby, from the Commission of Community Relations, rang Franca to start the first public ethnic radio broadcaster in Australia. The initial budget: $67,000. The name: 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne.
Luisa Perugini / SBS Radio Italian

22 Apr 2015 - 12:12 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2015 - 9:37 PM

Grassby's objective was to set up a radio station broadcasting in different languages and he did in 1975, when he became a Commissioner for Community Relations, after losing his seat in 1974.

Not only all the work was done by volunteers. Also, the broadcasters had to provide part of the logistics, like the tapes to record. When it started to be successful, the government started paying $20 a week.

When it started, SBS Radio broadcast in 7 languages.

The initial 67,000 could pay for two full time employees for three months and under these conditions, SBS Radio started broadcasting in July 1975.

After founding SBS Radio, Franca worked as a broadcaster in SBS until 1977 and soon after that she started her career has a politician.

Franca thinks SBS radio has a bright future ahead.


SBS Radio, 40 years young, by Franca Arena

Next June SBS radio will be 40 years young.

It started from humble beginnings on a shoe string budget.

It was the beginning of 1975, January 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 organized ourselves, and we 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 and 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 asked also 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 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, now SBS radio broadcasts 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 A.B.C., at the time, did not want to be involved with the ethnic communities at all. This despite the fact that management was approached on several occasions by various activists in the ethnic communities

The ABC at the time, 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 ABC 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 appointed in 1976 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, there is a station broadcasting in 74 languages like SBS radio.

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


Franca Arena A.M.