Radio broadcasts in languages other than English (LOTE) were being heard on Australian commercial radio as early as 1931, when Sydney’s 2UW broadcast a program of French music. Broadcasts of European operas were common on ABC and commercial radio in the 1930s, although Italian and German compositions, along with Lutheran church services, were a controversial feature of the airwaves during World War II.
But it was the surge in post-war immigration that saw LOTE broadcasts—particularly in Italian and Greek—become increasingly common on commercial radio, although not without controversy. The newly established Australian Broadcasting Control Board (1949) received complaints about broadcasting in languages most of the population did not understand. In 1959, restrictions were imposed on LOTE broadcasts, limiting them to 2.5 per cent of transmission time, on the condition that all foreign-language material was re-broadcast in English. 2CH Sydney and 3XY Melbourne obtained special permission in 1964 to increase their LOTE transmission to 10 per cent and 6 per cent respectively, but by 1972, 2CH had dropped most of its LOTE programming.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, more than 30 of Australia’s commercial stations were involved in foreign-language broadcasting at some stage, with programming largely supplied by individuals or ethnic communities, who would buy airtime, make the programs and sell the advertising. Pino Bosi (later chair of the NSW State Ethnic Broadcast Advisory Council) was an early entrepreneur, while Al Grassby, later Minister for Immigration, presented broadcasts to the large Italian community on 2RG Griffith in the 1950s.
The general restriction on LOTE broadcasting was lifted by the Whitlam Labor government in 1974. Commercial radio was withdrawing from the field because of the demand for tighter, Top 40 formats, a uniform station image and increasing competition in the metropolitan radio market. There was also considerable pressure from the communities themselves to move away from commercial broadcasting. The 1972 Migrant Workers’ Conference in Melbourne called for government-funded ‘ethnic broadcasting’.
In 1974, Al Grassby, as Commissioner for Community Relations, pressed to set up directly funded ethnic radio. The Whitlam government was keen to promote Medicare, but was concerned a great number of former migrants could not understand existing English-language media. Radio Ethnic Australia (2EA and 3EA) came into being, not as fully licensed stations but under special ministerial arrangement. They went to air in June 1975 under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905, which allowed for special-case broadcasting.
Meanwhile, the 1974 McLean inquiry into FM radio and the first Public Broadcasting Conference the same year led to the establishment of community-based public broadcasting stations, one of which, 5UV in Adelaide, went to air in March 1975 and ran ethnic programming as part of its access policy. Others followed. By 1978, the ethnic broadcasters at 5UV split off and formed the first specialist public ethnic radio station to be granted a licence, 5EBI. But Brisbane’s 4EB claims it was in fact the first ethnic community station to go to air, on 1 December 1979, beating 5EBI by two weeks.
A third sector of ethnic broadcasting went to air in 1975: the short-lived community access station 3ZZ, attached to the ABC, on air just five hours a night. 3ZZ was available to any community groups, but it became largely dominated by ethnic broadcasters, simply because the demand was there. The simultaneous establishment of 3EA in Melbourne meant the government had unwittingly set up two similar concepts in competition. One of them was bound to fail. 3ZZ was shut down after two years, and 3EA went on to become one of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) stations in 1978, the other being Sydney’s 2EA.
By the 21st century, SBS Radio broadcast through one national network (est. 1994) and two city networks each in Sydney and Melbourne: five services in all. Meanwhile, community radio thrived. By 1986 there were 21 community radio stations carrying LOTE programming, and by the early 1990s there were at least 60 community radio stations with significant levels of ethnic broadcasting. Five of them were full community ethnic stations. By 2004, the figure was more than 100. In 2012 there were 131 community stations carrying ethnic programming in more than 100 languages, out of a sector total of 526, and six dedicated ethnic community radio stations. The five radio services of SBS maintain programming in 68 languages, reaching about one million people each week.
Multicultural television came in 1980, five years after radio. It had emerged out of an inquiry into post-arrival migrant services, the Galbally Report (1978). Galbally recommended extending ethnic radio and establishing multicultural television, and that both should operate under SBS. There had in fact been early stirrings for ethnic television, which pre-dated Galbally. Ethnic television probably began in 1969 when bushfire warnings were broadcast in a number of languages on mainstream channels, while The Greek Variety Show was a feature of Network Ten’s schedule from 1977 to 1984. There were several test transmissions on ABC Television and SBS Television prior to the official launch of SBS Television on 28 October 1980.
English for New Australians went to air on the ABC in 1949 on Saturday and Sunday mornings, using an amalgam of printed and broadcast material. The Sunday program was expanded after 1950 to include questions and answers, general information and a serial called In a Sunburnt Country. Keith Smith interviewed newly arrived children and adults about their impressions of Australia. English for New Australians changed its name to Learning English in 1964, and survived until 1979. As late as 1986, a reminder was inserted in the ABC charter that it should take into account ‘the multicultural character of the Australian community’.
A television multicultural unit was formed in 1988, providing advice and sometimes making programs. It produced a staff guide to non-discriminatory language, with prominent sections on ‘ethnicity’ and ‘gender’. In 1994, the Labor Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Senator Nick Bolkus, noted that all broadcasters, including the ABC, had vacated the field of broadcasting for ethnic audiences ‘on the grounds that SBS already provides content for this market’. Certainly the ABC had helped set up access radio 3ZZZ, but ethnic volunteers found ABC management and training somewhat restrictive in their Anglophone emphasis. A similar attempt to provide ethnic access to ABC Television by Monday Conference anchor Robert Moore in 1974 went largely unheralded.
Yet languages other than English were well known to the ABC. Radio Australia had been operating since December 1939, and by 1956 its short-wave overseas service was broadcasting in English, French, Indonesian, Thai and Mandarin in more than 17 countries across the Asia Pacific region. By 2014 it had dropped Thai and added Burmese, Khmer, Tok Pisin and Vietnamese, carrying news, commentary and some entertainment programs to overseas audiences, including Australian service personnel abroad.
REFs: C. Lawe Davies, ‘Enacting Cultural Diversity Through Multicultural Radio in Australia’, European Jnl of Communication Research, 30 (2005); B. Griffen-Foley, ‘From the Murrumbidgee to Mamma Lena: Foreign Language Broadcasting on Australian Commercial Radio, Part 1’, Jnl of Australian Studies, 30 (2006).
CHRIS LAWE DAVIES