Justine Murray finds out what was required to get Māori radio off the ground in the four-part series Aotearoa On Air.
In this episode, we hear reflections from Cyril Chapman of Tautoko FM, Eruera Rerekura of Awa FM, sports commentator Hemana Waaka and broadcast and sound technician Papa George Burt.
*The interviews featured in this series convey the personal views and experiences of each individual.
On 3 February 1991, Moana AM 1440Khz launched on the AM frequency from a caravan near Hungahungatōroa Marae. A church service and champagne breakfast marked the occasion.
Jeanette Curnow was the first announcer to hit the airwaves. Now living in Australia, Jeanette shared some memories via email about that day 31 years ago.
"[It was] so humbling...it was a terrifying yet sweet and significantly poignant moment, working from a caravan presented its own set of challenges [announcing] “sorry whanau that one’s scratched” to the memories of the Tui bird call to herald each morning." - Jeanette Curnow-Trotter
A few years before Moana AM launched in Tauranga, the Mangamuka-based Māori radio station Tautoko FM began its broadcast in a small bach.
The console was acquired from Auckland’s Radio I and the staff were voluntary.
When it came to financial help, Cyril Chapman remembers the whanau who gave a little each week from their benefit.
“We had our aunties and uncles that donated every week... we’d have our whanau from Panguru who would say, come out to us and we’ll have a big basket social…and so we’d make these beautiful kai baskets with kete, preserves and Māori food in them…and they’d say we made a thousand dollars to help you pay for your power."
The decision to establish a radio station was born out of the support from the kuia and kaumatua of the Te Tai Tokerau community, Cyril says.
“It was a passion we had… We had left our home and our papa kainga and went to the city to find a better life and realised we had missed out on our reo... we missed out on being with our old people who were diminishing at that time…so we decided to come home and we had this idea to start a radio station.”
Choosing a name that wasn't exclusive was important, Cyril remembers, so ‘Tautoko’ (meaning 'support') was the more neutral name chosen to counteract the negative stories that came out of mainstream media about Te Tai Tokerau.
A two-week broadcast license was granted, but after positive feedback from listeners, Tautoko FM applied for a permanent license.
After more than 25 years on the air, in 2015 a fire destroyed the Tautoko FM premises.
At the time the former dairy factory at Mangamuka was renovated to meet the station's needs, but tragically many of their tāonga were destroyed in the blaze, Cyril says.
“We lost most of our archives… it was terrible... we were woken up and they said the station is on fire and all we could do was stand and watch… It was our elders who had established us… but I remember as devastating as that was, we were able to focus on the reason why we existed and within three days we were up and running again.”
In 1984, former broadcaster Hemana Waaka’s interest in Māori media was piqued, following a Māori economic development hui organised by the then-Labour lead government and former Minister of Māori Affairs Koro Wetere to support their economic reforms.
By that time, Hemana had served 20 years in the NZ Army. In 1984 he worked at a probation office for the Department of Justice and was always interested in policies that impacted Māori.
“I followed up the economic kaupapa because one [discussion] was about establishing iwi radio stations,” Hemana says.
With knowledge in radio communications gained from the army, Hemana seized an opportunity and set up his own iwi radio consultancy business in 1988.
“They [Ministry of Economic Development] held all the frequencies and they held all the licenses and the applications, so they sent me an application and I studied what was required…and then I decided to help some of the iwi to get up and running."
Hemana would go on to travel to Whakatane, Paeroa, Kaitaia and Whanganui to assist on how to look at technical requirements like transmitter locations and the distance to the broadcast premises.
“Api Mahuika got the roopu together in Ngati Pōrou and they got a frequency very quickly and they started up their own little radio station in a garage in Ruatoria and of course I went over there to have a look…I had a good look at how Te Upoko o te Ika was working… it was like a wooden crate… that was their initial studio… They had some good playlists of Māori songs as well."
Hemana has worked in radio and in television after he was shoulder-tapped by the late veteran broadcaster Whai Ngata to host a pilot programme called ‘Waka Huia’.
Hemana says he was bewildered by the voice training sessions and had a "puku full of butterflies" facing his first interviewee - Sir James Henare.
After a year hosting Waka Huia, Hemana worked at Aotearoa Radio where he began his work in te reo Māori sports commentary.
He needed to find new words in te reo Māori for the various positions of rugby.
"I went back home to Ruatoki and there was a big raffle exercise for our marae and I knew my koros were going to be there so I went down with a bottle of whiskey...and I got them all together and I said to them 'I've got a kaupapa - I want you to give me the Māori words for the positions of the rugby team. For fullback, don't say 'whurupeke'. I won't buy that.' And this kaumatua said to me 'haika', and I said 'what's that?'. And he said 'the haika is the one [person] that holds the canoe. A haika is the anchorperson at the stern to make sure everyone is okay. The fullback, he's the last man of defence, he looks after the try line behind him'."
Eruera Rerekura has always been interested in radio. He remembers back in in 1990 - at the age of 14 - attending a hui that discussed establishing a local Māori radio station.
“I was the only person probably under the age of 40 and I’m sure those Kaumatua were thinking 'what the heck is this kid doing here?'” he laughs.
Eruera says he hung around the station long enough and was given a role as an on-air announcer.
He went on to host a popular syndicated music show Te Reo o te Uru with Te Korimako FM in Taranaki. The phone rang off the hook and Eru remembers getting more national calls than local.
Eruera recalls operating the on-air panel before the advent of automation and computers.
“You had to be there to push the play button…and so if you wanted to go to the wharepaku one of the songs I’d play to give me a lot of time was 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' because it had a long intro.”
After graduating from the New Zealand Broadcasting School, Eruera went on to work for the Auckland-based news service Ruia Mai, RNZ National and TVNZ.
Last year he returned home to Whanganui and is now a programme director and breakfast show host for Te Karere. He also fronts their social media news service Te Reo o Te Uru.
On 17 June 1991, Awa FM was established and this year celebrated 30 years on air.
Broadcast and sound technician George Burt’s parents immigrated to New Zealand from South Africa in the 1950s, first to Wellington before settling in Greymouth where George was born.
His was an idyllic childhood, sailing and exploring. In his teenage years, George got involved with amateur radio in Greymouth and studied for an amateur radio license.
During the summer break, George worked at TV repair shops and at 18 he ended up in Christchurch working with mobile radio systems at the radio section of the post office.
Later, George went to the Chatham Islands and worked at ZLC - a maritime coastal shipping station. For leisure, he played in bands.
In 1979, George met his wife Mabel Wharekawa-Burt. They played in bands together and would marry in the early 1980s before moving to Katikati.
“Mabel has a lot of extended family… and that was in comparison for me who came from little extended family so we had the opportunity to move the Cook Islands and that was to help out with our haahi that is the Baha’i faith. So that opportunity came for me to go there and do electronic servicing.”
Mabel and George lived in the Cook Islands for ten years, and his radio experience would come in handy when he helped out at Radio Ikurangi.
In 1991, home called and the couple moved back to Katikati just in time for the launch of Moana AM in Tauranga.
“I was there on that day that Moana AM first began broadcasting from its site at Matapihi and that was my beginning in iwi radio.”
Since that time, George - who is affectionately known as Poppa George in the Māori radio community - has worked with most of the iwi radio stations throughout the country.
From transmitter maintenance to technical assistance, to setting up outside broadcasts and live streaming kaupapa Māori events, it's not unusual for George to be travelling around the motu.
He also helped Tautoko FM to get back on the airwaves after a fire destroyed their building in 2015.
George has many stories about the early years of Māori radio.
“One of the early stations was Tautoko FM in the Mangamuka Valley… they were neat actually because kua maraetia ta rātou reo irirangi they would have their nannies, their kuia and koroua would be on air from six o clock in the morning. There would be karakia, and by the time it was eight in the morning they had solved the world’s problems."
In 2020 George Burt was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to Māori and Broadcasting as part of the New Year Honours list.