Faten El Dana: community broadcasting trailblazer

December 22, 2020
2MFM broadcaster Faten El Dana smiling, wearing a pink headscarf

Faten El Dana, OAM, is a long-serving broadcaster and Program Manager at Muslim Community Radio, 2MFM, in Sydney’s western suburbs. A woman of many firsts and the recipient of many community leadership awards, Faten was part of the founding generation of 2MFM in 1995.  Here’s her story.

How did you start in community radio?

My background in women’s health and midwifery at Westmead Hospital led to an approach by the President of the Islamic Charity Project Association (ICPA) which is the organisation that funded and supported the establishment of the 2MFM Muslim Community Radio. He asked me to prepare a health program with a focus on women’s health issues. This idea was exciting to me, as it meant serving the most vulnerable section of my community – women, and in an area that is directly related to my specialty.

I undertook media courses and workshops to develop my skills and presented a bilingual program, which led to me becoming an accredited interpreter. In 2001, I was offered a full-time position as Program Manager and I became the producer and presenter of the morning program which encompasses segments of news, views and interviews, presented in both Arabic and English, that discusses current health, social, educational and political topics. Because it also focuses on women-related issues, it is regarded as a major source of information for women and a platform to communicate with other women in their community.

My chief interest continued to be reaching newly arrived migrant women and refugees, helping them to access the services they need and enhancing their integration into the wider community. Despite leaving my childhood dream-job of midwifery, I am very happy working behind microphone because I can still enhance the knowledge of women and their access to relevant information, empowering them and strengthening their ability to actively participate in their communities.

How significant was it to establish a Muslim radio station in Sydney at that time?

Prior to 1995, the Muslim community was totally unrepresented in terms of community based cultural services. Muslims remain the largest non-Christian religious population in Sydney. The greatest Islamic population of Arabic / Lebanese immigrants migrated to Australia under Australian humanitarian law from the late 1970s to early 1980s: a time of intense civil war in Lebanon. Over time, Australia also experienced an influx of refugees due to the Gulf war in Iraq, then the war in Afghanistan.

Arabic is the leading community language spoken at home, other than English. However, many of these immigrants lived in isolation with no sense of community belonging and no access to a medium that connected them to their culture. Establishing the 2MFM community radio station acted as a bridge to meet the needs of immigrants and refugees who called Australia their new home. Consequently, 2MFM was the first to be granted the temporary broadcasting licence in 1995 to serve the community in Sydney.

We are a non-profit, politically independent, religiously-focused radio station licensed to meet the social and religious needs of the Muslim community in Sydney. With its solid foundation, functional infrastructure and moderate views, 2MFM has been embraced by the diverse Islamic and Arabic subcultures of Sydney. Our policies follow ACMA guidelines and govern the philosophies, quality, professionalism, commitment, reliability, and interactive process of Muslim community radio. That eventually led to 2MFM becoming licensee in 2001.

Can you describe some of the programs and initiatives you’ve been most proud of?

Through my work as a midwife, I developed an understanding of pressing health issues in Australian society, particularly those pertaining to women from non-English speaking backgrounds. This understanding has helped me to demystify many concerns within the greater Muslim community through my radio program, some of which have been generally regarded as taboo – cancer, drug and alcohol use, as well as developmental problems in children.

As an advocate for breastfeeding, I interviewed one of my colleagues who was a lactation consultant. During the interview, I invited listeners to call and seek advice on how to overcome any breastfeeding difficulties. It was a challenging initiative, however, contrary to what some colleagues at 2MFM expected with such a sensitive topic, the program was very successful and the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive – from both female and male listeners.

Another important issue close to my heart was highlighting the urgent need for assistance for those families managing child developmental delays or an intellectual disability. Through a partnership with Pathways Early Childhood Intervention Service NSW,  we developed a  bilingual messaging and a series of interviews on the topic. The success of this campaign won me the Inaugural National Ethnic Multicultural Broadcasters award for the best live-to-air program presented by a woman.

I also saw the necessity to focus the community’s awareness on issues regarding alcohol. With the growing drug and alcohol problem among the Arabic and Islamic community’s youth, I took interest in conducting an educational media campaign aimed to help listeners – particularly parents – develop a better understanding of alcohol related issues and to provide them with tools to counteract the problem. The project was very successful, and was given a high commendation award by Multicultural NSW in 2009.

You’ve become a high-profile community leader during your time at 2MFM and the recipient of many community awards, including the Order of Australia. Why is sharing your knowledge important to you?

During my work as a midwife at Westmead Hospital, I was confronted by the fact that many people were ill-informed about important health issues due to language barriers as a result of being recent migrants. As a migrant myself, I empathised with migrant women and quickly developed a passion for helping them settle easily in Australia and improve their awareness of important health issues. This was the reason I pursued a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language – I was determined to instill a sense of empowerment in women through educational opportunities and health awareness programs.

My passion for community work and education has underpinned a number of important media campaigns and community projects aimed at promoting a cohesive and harmonious multicultural society. Additionally, I closely liaised with Bankstown TAFE to promote the outreach program specifically designed to encourage women from ethnic backgrounds to enter the workforce.

My role as a health practitioner and teacher paved the way for me to become a community leader at Muslim Women’s Welfare of Australia (MWWA) and led to my appointment as the NSW Multicultural Communication Health Service’s consultant for the Arabic community covering initiatives such as breast and ovarian cancer campaigns. This provided me with the opportunity to serve the most vulnerable members of the community, particularly female refugees and new arrivals.

My ongoing leadership and commitment to promoting national pride have inspired a new generation of first – and second-generation migrants, especially the youth – to follow in my footsteps. My hope is that they will pursue further education and become passionate, loyal and active Australian citizens. I believe it is crucial to invest in tomorrow’s leaders, this is why I use every opportunity to coach and mentor volunteers especially the youth to become young leaders.

Can you describe the importance of 2MFM for diaspora communities?

2MFM’s success lies in its ability to engage diverse communities and build strong networks, responding to local community needs and planning for the future. 2MFM’s broad community reach has helped embed its multilingual broadcast services in ten languages including English, Arabic, Urdu, Bahasa Indonesia, Bosnian, African, French, Dari, Turkish and Bosnian. The diversity of the Australian Muslim community has driven 2MFM to new heights in its capacity to serve culturally and linguistically diverse communities across Sydney.

Our award-winning multilingual and multicultural programs are a testament to these communities – the assets of 2MFM and Australia. 2MFM’s ethnic and tailored programs continue to give listeners, regardless of linguistic background a platform to engage on, enjoy and voice their concerns and develop their interests. Being a leader in ethnic broadcast highlights 2MFM’s focus on community inclusiveness, collaboration informed by networking, research and community participation.

Today 2MFM continues to play a major role in informing Muslim communities about the common practices on the Islamic calendar such as Ramadan, Eid Al-Adha and Eidul-Fitr, Hajj season, the Mawlid celebrations – commemorating prophet Muhammad’s birth –  the Hijri new-year and other significant events that unite Muslims in Australia and aboard. 2MFM produces programs and entertaining material that establishes sound foundations for mutual understanding between cultures and perspectives and provides them with a shared sense of belongingness.

With a large migrant listenership, 2MFM continues to serves as a link with their cultural background, their social, religious and personal experiences. As with many migrants, language barriers and cultural shifts can make many feel isolated and lonely. 2MFMs diversity in programming helps listeners get in touch with recent and pressing issues that affect them, including daily local and international news. 2MFM is well known as the ‘voice of moderation’ within and outside the Islamic community. Its ongoing commitment to community services has made 2MFM a trusted and dependable link to diaspora communities, broader Australian society and associated regulatory authorities. For these reasons, 2MFM remains a home, a sense of security and comfort to the minds of tens of thousands of community members.

There is no doubt that 2020 goes down as one of the toughest years for many communities. Yet, ‘tough’ times were an opportunity for 2MFM to showcase its vital community work it does during crisis. In these times of uncertainty, 2MFM continued to keep audiences and multicultural communities connected, informed and helped build their resilience throughout the recent drought, black summer bushfires and COVID-19.

Collectively, concentrated community radio efforts form a significant service for multilingual communities, as many newly arrived migrants including those from low socio-economic backgrounds within areas of Sydney’s West may not have the finances to afford the luxury of prepaid television services. Hence, the opportunity to hear spoken word and entertainment in their native language is vital – and refreshing.

There have been some significant political & cultural flashpoints during your time at the 2MFM. How has 2MFM contributed to greater understanding and tolerance?

2MFM invests considerable effort into bridging the gap between Australian Muslims and the wider community. This is facilitated through timely coverage of sensitive issues relevant to Australian Muslims and the development of radio programs aimed at helping the community deal with issues which may threaten the stability of ethnic minority groups.

While 2MFM was broadcasting intermittently, conflicts in the Middle East were raging and their impacts were fast travelling into Australia. The existence of 2MFM was not only vital in keeping the community informed about those events, but it also played a significant role in helping the community maintain cohesive relations and social harmony despite pressures from other parts of the world.

During the September 11 terrorist attack,  a few months after 2MFM was granted the full license, the need for the radio station grew even stronger. There was an even greater need for it to spread the correct teachings of Islam and to denounce acts of extremism. Islam is innocent of extremism and the Muslim community radio station played a major role in breaking assumptions about Islam and in addressing the racism and prejudice that many Muslims experienced during this time, particularly women who wore the hijab. The radio station’s presence during key social and political events helped people from diverse communities understand important social and political issues and equipped them with the tools necessary to contribute to society in a meaningful way. This included providing information, resources, religious judgements on various issues and a safe forum to raise concerns and have a voice in society.

During the Cronulla riots in 2005, 60 Minutes recognised 2MFM as a leading media source for the Arabic and Muslim community in Sydney which resulted in journalist Ray Martin hosting a talkback forum on my program. Listeners of all backgrounds were invited to call in live on air and were given an opportunity to chat.

Ray Martin and Faten El Dana in the studio in front of a microphone

On another occasion, 2MFM was the first ethnic radio station to be informed about the anti-terror raid by the NSW police on the 18 September, 2015. This was in order to inform the community about the developing events directly from the original sources.

In the same year, we launched a media awareness campaign called ‘Together Standing Against Extremism and Racism’ warning against the damaging effects of extremism, radicalisation and racism. The campaign won the 2015 people’s choice award thus reconfirming what has long been known about the Muslim Community Radio’s popularity – it is the community’s chosen voice of moderation.

Similar work was undertaken during last year’s terrorist act in New Zealand. The attack on Christchurch’s Muslim community on the 15 March 2019, came as a great shock to the entire Muslim community in Australia and the world. 2MFM took the initiative to travel to Christchurch not only to cover the aftermath of the atrocities, but to also offer support and stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in New Zealand. This provided the community with reassurance and allowed them to voice their grief and concerns via our radio airwaves.

The Christchurch shootings also incited a lot of Islamophobic attacks against the Muslim community. For Muslims in Australia and around the world, the terror attack was incredibly intimidating and horrifying. There were many reports of Muslims, especially Muslim women, encountering incidents of religious and racial vilification, especially about their Islamic headscarf. As a community leader and a high-profile Muslim radio presenter, I felt the responsibility to bring this topic to light in order to generate much needed awareness and discussion. We developed an anti-racism series which initiated conversations about personal experiences or encounters of racism by our listeners. A lot of Muslims from culturally and linguistically diverse communities are known to shy away from talking about experiencing racist incidents. It is for this reason that I invited listeners to share their personal experiences of being racially or religiously vilified. The aim of this was to encourage the Muslim community to openly and confidently talk about their racial encounters and report them immediately.

The overwhelming response we received was positive and affirmed the strength of the anti-racism project and its necessity. I received many calls, messages, and comments from the community about their personal experiences of racism. Some even reported that for the first time, they were able to voice their concerns confidently about their experiences. The series demonstrated 2MFM’s commitment to stand alongside the community through challenging times, to ensure that they understand their social and political environment and to encourage tolerance for the safety and security of everyone.

How is community radio fostering the next generation of leadership in diaspora communities?

One of the significant roles of Muslim Community Radio is to guide the younger generations to preserve their cultural identity whilst helping them to integrate into the wider Australian community. Our youth programs expose our young listeners to other cultures and languages, bridging the gap between the Muslim community and the wider society. Although Arabic and English are the two main broadcasting languages on Muslim Community Radio, 2MFM plays an active role in improving the youth language skills by presenting multilingual programs in up to ten different languages.

A great example in helping the younger generations in being involved in learning culture, tradition, language, and stories is the Kids Show program. This show is hosted by young presenters who are fluent in English and a second foreign language. It helps familiarise the new generation about their mother tongue and builds their confidence in communicating in more than one language, especially with their families & friends.

Listeners as young as three years old are given an opportunity to call in and participate in various segments of the show which is aimed at entertaining them while at the same time educating them about their and other traditions. For example, during Ramadan, the two Eids or during the Hajj season (pilgrimage), listeners of all ages and from different communities often call in to share their stories on how various Muslim countries celebrate these occasions in their home countries.

By broadcasting a range of multicultural programs 2MFM passes on the culture and experiences of first generation settled migrants to their Australian-born offspring. It also empowers the younger generations in our multicultural society to be more active and involved in serving the community by participating in events such as Clean Up Australia Day and workshops held by 2MFM. This is achieved by giving major roles to the young ones and the responsibility to accomplish these roles in the best way they can. This builds up a sense of leadership and a cultural connection in them.

Muslim Community Radio trains new generations as future leaders and holds workshops to equip them with the necessary skills they need, but also provides them with mentors that serve as role models and inspirational guides to ensure they continue to be interested, involved and inventive young leaders at 2MFM

What do you see as your greatest achievement at 2MFM?

Doing work behind the microphone has been a very pleasant experience for me indeed. I really enjoy my job despite all the hard work it requires, knowing I am providing the listeners with the service they need. It is the medium that allows me to connect with the rest of my community. It is my voice and their voice and the platform on which we are heard, informed and united.

We all know that radio is popular with most people from all walks of life, particularly migrants and women from non-English speaking backgrounds who are stay-at-home mothers. Community radio is their major source of information, community connection and cultural identity. Radio becomes their close friend. From the comfort of their homes they can be entertained, educated, and informed about relevant and topical issues and stay connected to their community. 2MFM is both effective and efficient in breaking the barriers of language and integration.

For me, sharing information and imparting knowledge to migrants and women from all backgrounds, is vital and satisfying. Most of the women who are recent arrivals in Australia come from very different parts of the world, carrying very traumatic and painful experiences with them. These migrants face real and difficult settlement issues in their new country. To be able to turn on the radio and hear a voice in a language they understand and to hear other women voicing their experiences is very comforting to them. I think that community radio really adds to the quality of those women’s lives, and I am sure it helps them become active and more engaged in Australian society.

I am proud to say that over the last 25 years of being a broadcaster, program producer and now a program manager, I played a major role in making 2MFM the large and renowned organization it is today. It is now a multilingual, multicultural, and multi-award-winning radio station, serving the diverse Muslim communities and connecting them to their social environment. 2MFM is the first point of contact for political figures, government and leading non-government departments and agencies, community leaders and others.

I also believe my community radio and education work has led to a greater understanding of Islam and its moderate teachings in the wider community. It is my aim to continue my hard work of encouraging awareness, peace, and tolerance in my community through 2MFM for as long as I can in order to benefit our wider community. Finally, Australians and migrants had not heard of a Muslim Community Radio station before 2MFM, today they live by it. I believe that this is my biggest achievement.

Know any community broadcasting trailblazers?

This story is part of a series of a in-depth interviews (scroll through our stories page to read others) with community broadcasting trailblazers and others who have made a lasting contribution to community media. If you’d like us to profile someone at your station, please get in touch.

Photos: (top) Faten El Dana received the A.H. Beard’s Community Hero Award in the 2014 NSW Women of the Year Awards, (middle) Faten El Dana with Ray Martin.