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Māori radio – reo irirangi

by Piripi Walker

In 2020 there were 21 Māori radio stations around New Zealand, revitalising the Māori language and continuing a tradition of Māori broadcasting that began in the 1920s.

First decades of Māori radio

Early Māori-language broadcasts

Although radio broadcasting in Aotearoa New Zealand began in 1921, the Māori language was not heard on air with any regularity until 1927. In that year Airini Grenell (of Ngāi Tahu) sang for radio listeners and performances by the Petone Māori Variety Entertainers and a group from Ōtaki Māori College were recorded. On the following Waitangi Day, 6 February 1928, an elaborate pageant of Māori history, song and story was broadcast by all four national radio stations and later repeated for international listeners. It was thought to be New Zealand’s most widely broadcast radio programme to that time.

Te reo on te radio

The first bishop of Aotearoa, Frederick Bennett, broadcast a 20-minute talk in June 1929. The Radio Record reported that ‘the smoothly flowing native words, perfectly enunciated, came over the air with crystal clarity and did not justify [Bennett’s] humorous apology to his white listeners – “I hope no one is cursing old-man static for what some of you have not understood. I have been greeting my Maori people”.’

Pronunciation of Māori

Also in 1928, a Pākehā speaker of Māori, J. F. Montague, broadcast a series of programmes dedicated to improving what he called the atrocious pronunciation of Māori words. The following year Hare Hongi (Henry Stowell, of Ngāpuhi) took over as presenter of Montague’s programme. Various Māori groups such as the Māori Native College Choir were also invited to perform on the national network.

Four regional announcers

During the late 1930s the director of broadcasting, James Shelley, appointed four Māori announcers, one in each of the four main cities. The first, employed in 1936, was Lou Paul (Ngāti Whātua) in Auckland. The others were Kīngi Tāhiwi (Ngāti Raukawa) in Wellington, Te Ari Pītama (Ngāi Tahu), Christchurch, and the pioneering Māori broadcaster Airini Grenell in Dunedin.

First Māori-language radio programme

The first programme entirely in the Māori language was broadcast in 1940, after Māori elders lobbied the government for this service. It was a weekly 15-minute bulletin of news about 28 (Maori) Battalion. The broadcaster was Wiremu (Bill) Parker (Ngāti Porou), whose excellence in both the Māori and English languages was widely acknowledged. He presented the latest war news, listed casualties and also covered domestic Māori news. Parker vowed never to use a non-Māori word in his bulletins, and relied on his imaginative translation skills to cope with terms such as ‘submarine’. Fittingly, Parker was the broadcaster who covered the return of the Maori Battalion to Wellington on 23 January 1946. His career in broadcasting spanned 40 years.

Farewells on air

On the death of politician and leader Te Rangihīroa (Peter Buck) in 1949, final farewells were broadcast on 2YZ. Fellow politician and Māori leader Āpirana Ngata gave a farewell speech to his friend, followed by an old waiata.

Nga pao me nga pakiwaitara

From 1949 to 1958 the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS) broadcast a series of Māori programmes under the title Nga pao me nga pakiwaitara a te Maori: song and story of the Maori. These featured recordings of Māori events made by the NZBS in the 1940s and were narrated in English by Ulric Williams, Clive Drummond and Airini Grenell.

Ted Nēpia

In 1957 Ted (Edward) Nēpia (Ngāti Kahungunu) began a weekly 20-minute Māori current-affairs programme on the local radio station in Napier. Entirely in Māori, Te reo o te Maori was extremely popular with the Māori people of Hawke’s Bay and continued for many years.

Leo Fowler

In this period Leo Fowler, a Pākehā, was the manager of Gisborne’s radio station, and heard the pleas of local Māori leaders for more Māori programmes. Later, as director of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), Fowler was able to respond to such requests. In 1964 he set up the NZBC’s Māori Programmes Section, which expanded Ted Nēpia’s Te reo o te Maori from a regional to a national programme.

Bill Kerekere

Fowler also took the NZBC’s large mobile broadcasting studio around the country to record reminiscences from both Māori and Pākehā. Wiremu (Bill) Kerekere (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki) was his assistant and cultural advisor. Kerekere was a skilled linguist and renowned composer, cultural-group tutor and pianist, who was comfortable on any marae. The two men’s microphones became familiar sights at major hui, tangihanga and cultural festivals. Kerekere became manager of the Māori Programmes Section after Fowler’s death.

Broadcasting Māori music and speech, 1960s to 1980s

Māori showbands

From the 1960s Māori voices and the Māori language were heard on radio periodically in both spoken-word and music programmes. Showbands such as the Howard Morrison Quartet, the Quin Tikis and the Maori Hi-Five rose to national and international prominence, and some of their songs became favourites among radio listeners.

Māori Programmes Section

The Māori Programmes Section of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), continued to broadcast the work of gifted and dedicated producers such as Selwyn Muru (of Ngāti Kurī) and Haare Williams (Ngāi Tūhoe and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki) in Auckland, and Whai Ngata (Ngāti Porou) and Hāmuera Mitchell (Te Arawa) in Wellington.

Te puna wai korero

Te puna wai korero was established by Selwyn Muru in 1971. Its brief was to be an English-language programme that reflected the interests of Māori people, and that purpose remained unchanged until the final edition was broadcast in 1996. Muru highlighted issues such as the number of Māori in prisons, and the concerns of social workers among urban Māori.

Whai Ngata took over as producer of Te puna wai korero in 1978. His approach covered the spectrum of Māori events and interests, from old waiata to contemporary gangs. His coverage of the occupation of Auckland’s Takaparawhā (Bastion Point) in the late 1970s and the memories of members of 28 (Maori) Battalion are outstanding examples of radio documentary. Henare te Ua produced Te puna wai korero from 1981 to 1996.

‘Poi e’

A historic turning point for Māori-language songs and their impact on the nation’s radio waves occurred in 1984, when the song ‘Poi e’ was released. It was sung by the Pātea Māori Club, with Māori-language lyrics by Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi and an arrangement by Dalvanius Prime that used catchy modern rhythms. ‘Poi e’ reached number one in the New Zealand charts and sold widely overseas, with the British magazine New Musical Express nominating it as their ‘single of the week’.

Hirini Melbourne

In the same period Hirini Melbourne (Ngāi Tūhoe), a multi-talented musician who wrote many Māori-language songs for children, entered an astoundingly fruitful period in his life, and his songs became a treasure for Māori radio.

First iwi radio station

Agitating for Māori on air

By the 1970s, despite improvements on earlier decades, Māori-language and Māori-interest programming by state broadcasters totalled less than 90 minutes a week. In the same period the state of the Māori language reached crisis point, as the number of fluent Māori speakers declined while relatively few younger people acquired competence in the language. Members of Victoria University of Wellington’s Te Reo Māori Society and their mentor, senior lecturer Te Kapunga (Koro) Dewes, began agitating for Māori to be spoken and heard more widely in New Zealand society, including on radio and television.

Proposed Polynesian radio station

The Te Reo Māori Society and other Māori organisations made a submission to the government’s Committee on Broadcasting, calling for a Māori radio station. In its 1973 report the committee recommended that a multicultural Polynesian (including Māori) radio station should be set up in Auckland. However, the proposal to establish Radio Polynesia was scrapped in 1975 by the incoming National government.

Te Reo o Aotearoa

Instead of a separate radio station, Māori and other Pacific peoples were given a voice on air through a new unit of Radio New Zealand. Te Reo o Aotearoa, which produced Pacific Island and Māori news and magazine programmes, began broadcasting in 1978. Its programmes were broadcast in Māori and several Pacific Island languages, and were the major feature on the Pacific and Māori language landscape for a decade. Te Reo o Aotearoa was initially managed by Haare Williams and employed a number of other Māori broadcasters including Whai Ngata (Ngāti Porou) and Henare te Ua.

Te Reo o Pōneke

In 1981 Īhakara Puketapu and Iritana Tawhiwhirangi of the Māori Affairs Department set up regional language boards. The Wellington Māori Language Board adopted the name Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo (those who make the language secure). It set up an experimental FM radio station, Te Reo o Pōneke (the voice of Wellington) for one week in August 1983. The station had no government support, although language experts such as Maaka Jones, Ruka Broughton and Wiremu Parker came in to help. The programming included group storytelling sessions, current-affairs discussions and Māori music, and broadcast for 12 hours a day. A similar station operated for several days during Māori Language Week in 1984.

First permanent Māori radio station

In 1987 Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo established Te Reo Irirangi o Te Upoko o Te Ika, to run for two months from May to June. Positive community and listener feedback led the board to bring the station to air permanently. It went to air on April 1988 as the first permanent Māori radio station.

Legal action over access to airwaves

In the late 1980s and 1990s Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo and the New Zealand Māori Council jointly took a number of major legal cases concerning Māori broadcasting to the Waitangi Tribunal, the High Court and the Court of Appeal, with one going as far as the Privy Council in London.

The iwi radio network

New iwi stations go to air

From 1985 the example set by Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo was followed by a wave of other regional Māori radio stations. Lacking state funding, they used outdated equipment discarded by mainstream radio stations. Many stations were staffed by energetic rangatahi (young people), and some relied on employment schemes to pay and train staff. Later, these young enthusiasts were hailed for their professionalism as broadcasters.

Radio terms

Aratuku: frequency bands, for example AM, FM and UHF.

Hōtaka: a radio or television programme.

Hunga pāpāho: the media, including all forms of broadcasting and the press.

Kaipāho: a person who broadcasts on the radio or television.

Pāho: to broadcast on radio.

Whakapaoho: to broadcast signals.

Te Reo o Raukawa in Ōtaki went on air part-time in 1985. Tautoko Radio in Mangamuka, Northland, and Radio Ngāti Porou in Ruatōria, East Coast, followed in 1987. Te Toa Takitini was established as a dedicated station for Ngāti Kahungunu, and given a home and support systems by Te Tairāwhiti Polytechnic in Gisborne, where its founder, Joe Te Rito, headed the Department of Māori Studies. This station focused on gathering the iwi’s remaining native speakers and bringing them to the microphone, using idiomatic language, and carefully recording and archiving many hours of material.

New Zealand on Air – Irirangi te Motu

In 1989 the government established the New Zealand Broadcasting Commission, which later became New Zealand on Air – Irirangi te Motu. In 1990, in response to pressure from iwi, New Zealand on Air agreed to establish iwi radio and provide funding for staff, overheads, and transmitters and studio equipment. Under this policy iwi stations burgeoned throughout the country, with more than 20 stations eventually operating. Māori saw this development as major progress towards the dream of an iwi-based radio network, owned by the iwi themselves, in districts with a significant Māori population.

Funding and technical challenges

The new stations struggled to survive in their formative years. Budgets did not cover all outgoings, and maintaining the enthusiasm of volunteer staff was a constant challenge. Adequate staff training and professional career paths were never established for iwi radio stations due to the low funding levels. Three of the stations broadcast on AM frequencies, which entailed running costs up to $100,000 a year higher than FM stations, but were funded at the same flat rate.

Te Māngai Pāho

In 1993, as a result of undertakings given by the Crown in Waitangi Tribunal cases, Te Māngai Pāho, a Māori broadcasting commission, was established. It became the conduit for annual funding agreements to iwi radio. Funded stations were required to broadcast at least a stated amount of quality Māori language.

Māori Media Network

In 1994 Māori Media Network, a national advertising sales bureau, was established by Ngahiwi Apanui, the manager of Radio Ngāti Porou. The major shareholders in the company were iwi radio stations themselves.

‘Resounding from the echoing cliffs’

In 2020 there were 21 iwi stations throughout the country – the resilient, iwi-based network dreamed of by its pioneers, listeners and supporters. Māori were able to hear the Māori language spoken in the context of the life of their communities, at any hour of the day. The indigenous language was present, broadcasting, in the words of an ancient proverb, ‘to the hills and resounding from the echoing cliffs’.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Piripi Walker, 'Māori radio – reo irirangi', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2021)

Story by Piripi Walker, published 22 Oct 2014