Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) launched as a radio station in 1975 with seven languages, mainly serving the country’s European language speakers. Today it shares the news in 63 languages across broadcast and digital platforms, social media and more.
JNI spoke to SBS’s Head of Language Content, Davide Schiappapietra, to find out how the public broadcaster is serving communities around Australia, covering the war in Ukraine and communicating important information ahead of the federal election.
Davide, can you tell us a bit about the history of SBS Language Content?
SBS started on June 9, 1975 as a radio station, launched as REA (Radio Ethnic Australia) with seven languages, broadcasting in Sydney on 2EA and Melbourne as 3EA, five years before SBS TV commenced broadcasting in 1980. The first language to go to air was Greek.
Since then we expanded to today’s 63 languages, which produce content across radio, online, podcasts and social media, as well as contributing to the output of the other SBS Divisions including linear TV, OnDemand and News and Current Affairs.
How many editorial staff members work on SBS Language Content?
More than 200 including multi-platform broadcaster/journalists, digital and multimedia producers, podcast experts, social media editors and senior editorial staff.
We have 63 language programs and they are resourced in proportion to the size and needs of their Australian audiences, who are speakers of languages other than English, residing in Australia.
As part of the Audio and Language Content (ALC) division, we also broadcast Indigenous Australian news, information and entertainment through our NITV Radio program, with the ALC Indigenous Lead providing guidance and advice regarding all the First Nation content we publish across all the language programs.
Which audiences to you serve — both in terms of languages and geography?
Australia has changed since we started broadcasting in 1975. When it was launched, the majority of our audience comprised European language speakers, reflecting the composition of our society at the time.
Today, the largest portion of our audiences is made of the fastest-growing migrant communities of the past decade, including Mandarin and Cantonese, Arabic, as well as the speakers of the many languages of South Asia, such as Hindi and Punjabi.
In order to continue reflecting the composition of our multicultural society and servicing its members, every five years and following the Australian Census, SBS adapts its services to address the needs of growing communities and adds language services for emerging and newly arrived language groups.
How do your newsrooms interact and overlap with the work of the general SBS newsrooms?
ALC has an Intake and Output model of operation which ensures that content from across SBS reaches languages teams (Intake), while also offering the chance for unique in-language pieces to be produced in English and distributed to other divisions (Output).
Conversations never stop between the different SBS divisions on the best ways to collaborate in terms of co-promotion of content across different mediums, including online, radio and on TV.
Often, stories that are conceived and produced by language teams, are the source of TV and radio news packages produced by other divisions, which ensures the cross pollination of ideas and resources.
How important is it for your journalists to chase original stories that reflect local communities?
It is crucial to give voices to the respective communities in their language and to see themselves reflected in the stories we produce. And, through our collaboration with the other divisions of SBS, including SBS TV, SBS World News, online and our programs such as Insight and Dateline, to inform and educate on the diversity of our society all members of the mainstream audiences, thus contributing to the overall diversity of Australian broadcasting.
What are some of the recent stories you’ve been most proud of?
I am especially proud of the work done by SBS Ukrainian and SBS Russian in covering the conflict in Ukraine and its impact on the Ukrainian and Russian-speaking communities of Australia, promoting mutual understanding and adding scope to SBS’ coverage of the current events
From expanding our offering to daily news bulletins and online news in the two languages to launching two podcasts series in the Russian language, Voices from Ukraine, giving voice to people living on the ground and telling their stories of fear and resilience, and Escaping Putin’s Russia interviewing people who left Russia after February 24, when the war started.
Can you tell us about some of the work you’ve been doing to connect with CALD communities outside the major cities?
We organised SBS’s Election Exchange where multiple language teams interviewed candidates and community members in Wagga Wagga, Launceston, Hobart and Ballarat.
Around 100 interviews with sitting MPs, candidates and community members were conducted with 20 of our language teams and NITV Radio producers who travelled to those locations.
Moreover, the producers from more than 20 teams are currently travelling to Queensland and South Australia to meet leaders and members of their community, the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
How have your journalists been covering the federal election?
Our vision for the election is to increase awareness and accessibility of candidates, policies, and the voting process amongst Australia’s CALD community.
The live interpretation of the three debates between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader in various languages have been broadcasted on our channels, with the participation of senior SBS editorial staff. Articles and podcasts on ‘How to Enrol’ to vote were produced, with accompanying social media videos in 40 languages.
And we selected, from the feedback of the audiences of our 63 language teams and NITV Radio, a series of questions that we asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison in an ALC interview and we are working on doing the same with the Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese.