You may already be familiar with Niva Retimanu’s voice because she’s been on radio, one way or another, for many years. But her job there has been to tell us listeners about what other people have been up to. In this conversation with Dale Husband, the spotlight is on her.
In these interviews, I’ve discovered that you can learn all sorts of things about people just from asking about their names. So, naturally, I’m interested in the story of your name.
Are you ready for this? Niva is just part of my full name which is Fa’aniniva Tapa’au Fa’asisina Fa’aopoopo Retimanu.
That’s my first name, middle name and surname. If I used my full name on Newstalk ZB, there’d be no time left for the news. I have three siblings, Peter, Marie and Paul and then there’s me with that name. Their middle names are Fa’aopoopo, Josephine and Eddie.
As a kid, I asked my parents: “What the hell? What happened? How did I get all these Samoan names?” Well, the story is that I’m named after my grandmother, Fa’aniniva. She arrived in New Zealand the day I was born. But my parents also wanted to name me after my great aunty, Tapa’au Fa’asisina. My parents were very close to my great aunty. They couldn’t make up their minds on my name. So I was named after both women. I’m from Invercargill and here I am with these very Samoan names.
My mum, Fipe, was from Falefa and my dad, Faaopoopo, was from Fasito’otai. They met on the boat coming over from Samoa to Auckland in 1960. They courted and got married. Neither of them were educated. Couldn’t speak English either. But my father had the promise of a job at the Ocean Beach freezing works in Southland. So they moved to Bluff where Ocean Beach was based at the time and began their family.
How was it growing up in Invercargill?
I think it was quite tough for my parents at the start because, coming from Samoa, they weren’t prepared for the cold. My parents were one of three Samoan couples who were pioneers in Invercargill. Jane and Tusi Malosi were there too. But, like my parents, sadly passed away now. Their daughter is Ida Malosi who is one of the first Pacific district court judges. She’s about four years older than me and based here in Auckland.
It was humble beginnings for us in Invercargill. There was no money and, because English wasn’t my parents’ first language, my siblings and I, who are very close in age, couldn’t speak English. So, when I started school, I had a lot of difficulty with English. Maths too. And, because there wasn’t a lot of money, books were scarce. That’s why I’ve been part of the Duffy Books in Homes programme for the past eight years. I go out to schools in South Auckland and I really love that because it reminds me of my upbringing.
As I tell the kids, I wasn’t very good at reading. But, because it was so cold in Invercargill and we didn’t have much money, my father used to say: “Okay. What are the activities? You can’t go outside and it has to be free.” We’re talking about the 1970s and early 1980s. The only thing that was free was the library. So my father would take the four of us to the library. And we used to think: “He’s only taking us to the library because it’s warmer there, and he wants to save on the electricity bill.” But, even though I struggled at school, I grew to love books.
You’ve now spent a long time in radio and you’ve become a very familiar voice delivering the news. How did that come about?
I’ve only worked in radio. I’m a journalist/newsreader. I’ve been working in radio for 30 years, since I was 18. I left school after the sixth form and got a job there in Invercargill at Southland 4ZA. It was a Classic Hits station. I was a receptionist and a dogsbody — cleaning windows, giving everyone their newspapers, answering the phone. And, a couple of times, I would read pre-recorded fill-in community notices. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do except that I knew I wanted to work somewhere in radio.
At the same time, I was having an identity crisis. I didn’t really know who I was. I knew I was Samoan but, because we lived in Invercargill, we saw only two or three other Samoan families. At school there were just a handful of us. I had a good education there. There was no racism. But I didn’t know who I was as a Samoan.
And I suppose that, all this time, you had no chance of seeing Samoa for yourself?
My parents had often said: “If you get an opportunity, you’ve got to go back to Samoa. Go back and see the lifestyle.” Like other parents, Dad would come home from work and tell us stories about how he used to walk to school over rocks and that’s why his feet were so hard and his toenails were like stones. And my siblings and I would go: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But, when I was 18 or so, I thought, I can’t get a career because I don’t know where to place myself.
So, without telling my parents, a friend and I decided to have a Samoan adventure. We paid for our tickets – just one way because we didn’t have much money. Then I told Mum and Dad: “I’ve resigned from my job and we’re going to Samoa.” Mum and Dad nearly had a heart attack. “Yes, we told you to go. But we meant 10 years down the track. Not now.”
I spent just under 12 months in Samoa and it was the best thing I ever did. I saw my father’s mother, my one surviving grandparent. It was a big culture shock for me, especially the poverty. But things were put in place. I could see why Mum and Dad were like they are and I could understand the struggles that they’d had.
I worked there part-time, speaking English on air at the radio station. I immersed myself in the culture, I spent time with the family, and I kind of knew there that I wanted to be a reporter. So, when I came back to New Zealand, I did the Pacific Island journalism course at Manukau Polytech.
That was an innovation, wasn’t it, in the 1980s — along with the Waiariki course in Rotorua for Māori journalism students. So how did that work out for you?
There were about 18 of us Pacific students, many from other areas of the Pacific who came here to train and then go back to their home country to work as reporters. That was a really good course for me to do. And I loved it. Some key people came out of that course during the time it ran. Strong reporters like Sandra Kailahi, Barbara Dreaver, and Juli Malo Clausen. Tapu Misa and her husband Sef Hao’uli helped organise it.
I knew after the course that I wanted to go into radio. I didn’t want to do print or TV. My first job was with Radio NZ at Oamaru. I spent six months there as a reporter and newsreader in the morning. I had no fear of moving around and I spent a lot of time in the regions, unlike now when most reporters are based in the main centres. I worked in Timaru, Tauranga and Wellington. For a short time I worked with Radio NZ international. They had a shortwave service doing Asia Pacific news.
Then I went back into the main newsroom in the commercial sector. That was over 20 years ago and I’ve stayed with commercial since then. Some time ago, the commercial arm of Newstalk ZB was sold to IRN and they were moved to Auckland. I’ve been with Newstalk ZB ever since.
I imagine that newsreading was pretty much a male preserve when you started. How did you break into that line of work?
Even as an 18-year-old, I had a very mature voice. In other words, I had this deep voice and sounded quite masculine. Female voices don’t mature until 27 or 28. So, as an 18-year-old, I viewed my voice as a curse. All my friends were reporters so they were chasing fire engines and police cars and I thought: “I want to be one of them.” I spent a lot of time in Wellington, under Radio NZ, learning to speak English properly. Because I was from Invercargill I rolled my Rs. The bosses were saying: “This girl’s got talent but she rolls her Rs. We need to get rid of that.” So it was “fiRst” and “foRemost” when I was reading the news. They don’t have that training nowadays, but they did back then.
As a young person, I viewed news reading as old people’s work. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. I had great training from icons like Angela D’Audney and Peter Sinclair. I was one of the very few Maori or Pacific newsreaders. People still don’t know my face, but they do recognise my name and voice.
I’ve had many nicknames and one of my favourites is “never eat a tomato”, because it sounds so similar to Niva Retimanu.
Have you ever given any thought to the pride Pacific people feel when they hear you on NewstalkZB?
That’s a really interesting question. I’ve never thought about it. I only get the odd question about whether it has ever been a struggle for me, being from the Pacific, working in the radio industry. I feel blessed that I’m there and to me it’s just the work I am meant to do. I love my job.
It’s great that we have All Blacks and Warriors and so many wonderful sports people but there are very few coming through the ranks as reporters and newsreaders in the mainstream media. I would LOVE a Pacific Islander or Māori to come through in radio and take over from me. That’s one reason why I keep pushing the need for our kids to read.
Let’s change tack and talk briefly about your running. I understand that you were a party girl before you changed your lifestyle.
There was a strong Pacific connection for me in making that change. I was a big drinker, big cigarette smoker, didn’t cook, lived on fast food, would eat out. Had a fantastic lifestyle, but was doing all the wrong things. And it just caught up with me. I put on a lot of weight. I got to a stage where I was just sick of myself. My mother died of heart disease and I knew all the stats about Pacific obesity.
I just woke up one day and I thought, if I carry on the way I’m going, I’ll be six feet under a lot sooner. And I thought: “I read this news every day and I’m not practising what I preach. What sort of role model am I?”
I started slowly though. There was no way I was going to a city gym and having my arse out there. My confidence was low. Then some mates said: “There are boot camps out here in South Auckland and there are many Pacific people bigger than you, Niva.” So I decided that’s where I’ll go. And that’s where I got my inspiration. Then, eventually, I got the endorphin hit. I ditched the cigarettes and I stopped drinking for six or seven months. I changed my diet too. But I needed a goal.
And for some reason you settled on a marathon.
Yes. I picked up Kerre Woodham’s book Short Fat Chick to Marathon Runner — and I decided to train for a marathon and go to the one in New York. That’s exactly what I did. But it was the year the storm hit, so that marathon was cancelled.
The first one I did was in Marlborough, in December, 2012. My trainer from Get Running ran the whole way with me. I came last. My time was 6 hours and 52 minutes. But I finished and I did it in the searing heat. It was 28 degrees.
For me the marathon was about my life, where I am and what I’ve achieved. And I wasn’t going to give up. The prizegiving should’ve started at midday, but they postponed it until about 2pm when I came in. That was amazing. I got a standing ovation from the 200 or 300 people there in the Blenheim vineyard. And I cried.
I’ve completed five marathons now. Marlborough, two in New York, Queenstown and Paris. And this November I’m heading to Beirut for another one. Some people ask me: “Wouldn’t you like to do a sub-four hour marathon?”
But no. I don’t want to. That might be someone else’s goal, but it’s not mine. My goal is to stay active and finish. Let’s be honest. I’m Samoan. I don’t have the legs or the arse for running. But I just get out there and do it.
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