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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 30 May 2015
14 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 30 MAY 2015 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM A pioneer of ethnic Becoming a radio presenter was the last thing on Koula Bitsis’ mind when she migrated to Australia. But her natural ability, sincere approach and strong work ethic have left a mark on Australian ethnic radio that will forever be remembered ANASTASIA TSIRTSAKIS It all started with a letter, addressed to a 20-year-old Koula, from a businessman by the name of George Bitsis. Owner of a store on Melbourne's Russell and Lonsdale Streets, selling everything from electrical appliances to Greek records, books and magazines, Mr Bitsis was also the head of radio program 3CS Colac. However, when he propositioned Koula about taking over the program she recalls straight out refusing. "I wasn't interested at all! I wanted to go and study at university," she says. Yet her dream to pursue studies in child psychology would never eventuate. Instead, she gave in to his offer, which would see her enjoy a long, rich and at times turbulent career on the Australian ethnic radio circuit. Commencing in June 1958, every Sunday Koula and George, whom she eventually married, would travel to Colac and back, soon adding 3KZ and 3XY to their list of stations. "I was very busy with the radio programs," she explains. "And people were surprised. They used to say, 'What do you do? How do you travel from one station to the other?' See in those days they didn't know anything about tape recording," she says with a laugh. Rather than study child psychology, Koula still went on to fulfil her dream of attending university but instead to further her studies in business, with a focus on accounting, economics and commercial law. Although radio was never on her list of career options, she was instantly a hit with listeners; a natural, with a sincere approach that resonated with the Greek Australian people, who would often reach out to her through phone calls and letters. "I had listeners from all over the country. In those days there were a lot of cafés, milk bars in the country towns, so they were listening to the programs and sending me letters and so forth," she tells Neos Kosmos. "One time a woman with a black head scarf came from a village to Odeon Music House, and she said: 'Koula, stop with the advertisements for the washing machine! I bought the washing machine the other day, what else do you want? Put a song on for us to hear.' And the manager of the shop says to me, 'you know, that was the best compliment you've had, because she thinks you're talking directly to her.' We laughed so much." She recalls one man who lived in country Victoria who wrote to thank her, as hers was the only Greek voice he heard where he lived, far from the urban centres. This is one of many touching stories the 79-year-old holds dear from her time on air. Being a fan of Greek radio herself, she realised how significant the medium of radio was to the Greek Australian community and respected this fact. "As a listener of the Stanley Young program (Yiannopoulos) I realised how important it was for the migrants because we were new in the country. I thought it was a great responsibility," Koula tells. Although today there are various forums through which we can reach out to the general public, radio at the time was one of the main platforms to communicate with the community. The power and influence Koula held as a presenter was truly realised when one week into an initially unsuccessful fundraising appeal, she was asked to assist the plight of the young widow and child left behind by a Greek Australian man who was murdered in Prahran. "It was tremendous, the response of our listeners. We were promised by our listeners 750 pounds, which was a lot of money in those days! There were several articles written about that," she recalls. "These were the first steps for the government and Australian society to realise that there is a need for radio programs in different languages." Radio segments in the 1950s and ‘60s, Koula explains, were funded by sponsors, such as Odeon Music House, who would buy the radio time. With the cost considered expensive but of great value, the sponsor would establish the format of how they wanted the program to run and what the focus would be. While such programs were open to direct community engagement and funding, when Gough Whitlam decided to extend the licence of 3EA and 2EA with the introduction of SBS - an autonomous radio station and independent body - the Greek community was slightly confused. "The Greek community was not prepared at the time; they didn't know SBS radio was not a community radio," she explains. "So you only took orders from the board of SBS and not from any other committee. It took them some time to realise, but unfortunately I was the victim of that." And the victim of that she was. Shortly into her term of working for the broadcaster, a sector of people from the Greek community banded together and presented a petition for the dismissal of Koula from her position as coordinator of the program. Unwilling to bow down to their demands, the broadcaster lost her job and after that decided it was time to move onto something new, which would lead to a short career in stockbroking. The only woman at the firm, she agreed to train herself and with determination was very successful for her two-and-a-half-year stint. "I wanted to have a career from a very young age. I didn't want to be a housewife and depend on my husband. I wasn't like that at all," she reflects. Born in a village outside Ioannina, her Christmas at 3KZ in 1960, Koula, second from the left, along with presenters Phillip Gibbs and Stan Roff. Koula Bitsis at a dinner hosted by SBS in the 1980s, along with Eugenia Gyokarinis, Angela Pyrdas, Harris Shamaris, Elly Papantoniou and Alexis Doudoulakis.
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