It’s just over 30 years since Te Reo Irirangi o Te Ūpoko o Te Ika first took to the airwaves in Wellington — and the station has been broadcasting non-stop ever since.
The opening in 1987 came in a big year for Māori politics. Muriwhenua, the Māori Council and others were taking the Crown to court over Treaty claims, and winning major victories. The Hawaiian loan affair was still dominating parliament. And that was also the year that Ngati hit the movie screens.
What else was going on? Well, Rogernomics was in full swing. The country was still taking stock of the Lange Labour government passing the 1986 SOE Act to corporatise government departments and then privatise public services. And, especially satisfying for many New Zealanders, the Māori Language Act was passed and te reo Māori became an official language of Aotearoa in 1987.
The law and the radio station both arose, in different ways, from the Waitangi Tribunal claim by Huirangi Waikerepuru and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo, who said the Crown was failing in its Treaty obligations to protect te reo Māori.
Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau is an incorporated society set up in 1983 as the Wellington Māori Language Board, and it used an initial grant of $7,000 from the Department of Māori Affairs to launch Te Ūpoko, the Tribunal claim, and over 20 years of litigation against the Crown on Māori language and broadcasting issues.
Huirangi was the founding chairperson. He’d grown up in Taranaki immersed in reo and tikanga and then spent some time teaching intensive Māori language courses, with Te Ariki Mei, at Wellington Polytech.
It was Huirangi who led the campaigns, which he did with unflinching courage and determination, through all our New Zealand courts and on to the Privy Council in London, through the bowels of the government bureaucracy and into parliament — emerging triumphant in his distinctive hat at the launch of Māori Television in 2004.
The Waitangi Tribunal claimants had called for official recognition of Māori as a national language, and the Act was passed in 1987 in response. They had also argued that the Crown ought to be using public broadcasting to promote te reo Māori.
Back then on TV, we had six minutes of Te Karere on weeknights and a weekend programme (Koha, which then became Marae) that was mostly in English. On Sunday afternoons, RNZ's National Radio broadcast a half-hour programme called Te Reo o te Pipiwharauroa, but there was nothing on the other publicly-owned networks.
Ten years of petitions and appeals for more Māori language in broadcasting, by Te Reo Māori Society and others, had fallen on deaf ears.
Te Reo Māori Society was a student group based in Wellington at Victoria University, led by Cathy and Whaimutu Dewes of Ngāti Porou and Te Arawa, the late Rawiri Rangitauira of Ngāti Whakaue, Lee Smith and Joseph Te Rito of Ngāti Kahungunu, Tom Roa of Tainui, Hākopa Te Whata of Ngāti Hine, Ngaronoa Gardiner from Tauranga, Tāmati Kruger of Ngāi Tūhoe, and others.
Their submissions and petitions during successive Māori Language Weeks had led, in 1980, to a Māori TV production unit being established and Koha going to air. This was followed in 1983 by Te Karere, fronted by Derek Fox who, live on air in te reo, once famously called out apparent efforts by TVNZ’s technical staff to sabotage the broadcasts.
It was an uphill battle against entrenched opposition so, in 1983, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau took matters into their own hands, and set up an independent Māori-language radio station, led by the indomitable Piripi Walker of Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga.
Those broadcasts started with short-term broadcasting warrants, in the name of Te Reo o Pōneke, during Māori Language Week in 1983 and 1984. And the impact was amazing. A radio station in Māori language all day had never been heard before. Native speakers phoned in to celebrate, and crowds flocked to the studios to join in the excitement.
In 1987, at the end of a six week-long authorised broadcast, the station reluctantly went off air in June – although promising to return. Then, after running a month-long training course at the RNZ Training Centre in October, the plan was to get back on air on the same Mt Victoria transmitter in April, 1988.
But the BCNZ (the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand) said the transmitter was “obsolete” and wasn’t available for lease. A showdown was looming. So a volunteer army rallied. They held protests outside Broadcasting House, and staged an occupation of BCNZ’s head office which led to the chief executive, Nigel Dick, changing his mind, and telling the crowd the transmitter was available after all.
Back on air, the station had its supporters taking in pots of food for the staff, donating money, and even lending their cars. Most of all, they’d go into the studios to talk, to sing, to debate, to reminisce, to show their solidarity.
So the station was able to stay on air through voluntary efforts, before there was any public funding for iwi radio. In fact, Te Ūpoko was able to lend others a hand in setting up their radio stations. Ngāti Porou, for instance, and Te Arawa — as well as Tumeke in Whakatane and Tautoko in Mangamuka.
And, when Rogernomics turned to broadcasting, and frequencies were privatised and sold to the highest bidder, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau and Te Ūpoko began a campaign for spectrum to be allocated for Māori broadcasting nationwide.
That battle, which continues to the present day in various ways, was the beginning of the iwi radio network which now has 21 stations. And those developments provided the foundation for Māori Television.
Because Te Ūpoko was an established station when the Radiocommunications Act was passed in 1989, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau was automatically granted a licence for the hours that it was on air. When NZ On Air was set up, it adopted a policy that iwi radio licences should be owned by tangata whenua, and that the broadcaster should be a separate entity.
So a second licence, created for the remaining hours, was owned jointly by Ngāti Toa, Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Raukawa. And Te Reo Irirangi o Te Ūpoko o te Ika Trust (with representatives from taura here as well as tangata whenua) was established to manage the station. Thus Te Ūpoko is a genuinely multi-tribal and pan-Māori enterprise.
In normal situations, the studio had one or two announcers and, often, a stream of visitors contributing live on air. It wasn’t conventional radio. But tikanga was followed in terms of karakia, welcoming visitors, and respecting the views of guests or talkback callers.
And, throughout the 30 years, there’s been wairua Māori on air and in the organisation.
Most of the staff have been skilled native speakers of Māori — people like Hēnare Kingi of Ngāpuhi, who was more or less the kaumātua of Māori radio until he retired a few years ago, Te Ripowai Higgins, the late Brian “Te Hēpara” Hemmingsen and Wena Tait, all of Ngāi Tūhoe, and others. All of them could have earned twice as much, or more, working somewhere else.
The listeners have recognised Te Ūpoko as leading a fight for te reo Māori, and that’s helped the station remain “pono ki te kaupapa”. But it's not always simple. Commercial pressures bear down on the station even though it’s a public broadcaster.
For example, it competes for audience share with commercial stations in a crowded radio market. The issue isn’t so much that ratings determine the advertising revenue, but rather that there’s the question of how broadcasting in beautiful reo Māori can strengthen the language, if few are listening.
The station has tried to stay close to its community by broadcasting their big events live, celebrating their achievements, and mourning their tūpāpaku. But building and holding an audience is still a challenge.
One advantage comes from being based in Wellington, close to the government and parliament. That’s made it easier to broadcast strong news and current affairs programmes.
In the early years, iwi leaders would come to Wellington for negotiations with the Crown, or to pursue their major cases in court. Then, on their way back to the airport, they’d call in to Te Ūpoko, and provide a debrief on air on all the latest twists and turns. Hot news. From right inside. And shared exclusively with a Māori-speaking audience.
Te Ūpoko's broadcasts were recorded, and they make up a valuable oral archive of Māori history, politics, culture and values, by native speakers of many different dialects. Now, with help from the Alexander Turnbull Library, the station has — with the agreement of the whānau of the interviewees — begun the process of digitising and cataloguing our old tapes for streaming over the internet.
Over the years, that history has included a series of clashes with the Crown over what Te Ūpoko has seen as shortcomings in the Crown's policy on Māori broadcasting.
Here's one example. As a result of a decision by NZ On Air, Te Ūpoko has been paying RNZ around $5,000 per month in transmission and co-siting fees for maybe 25 years.
That's a total of around $1.5 million. It’s been allocated to promote Māori language through broadcasting, but it’s ended up subsidising RNZ. Personally, I love RNZ and I welcome their increased funding in the recent budget. But what return have Māori people and Māori language had from the $1.5 million that RNZ has demanded from Te Ūpoko?
Another concern has been that Te Ūpoko has to account to Te Māngai Pāho for all its public funding, through broadcasting plans and regular performance reports. Its broadcasts are monitored 24/7 using software that can distinguish Māori language from English spoken on air. That’s to make sure that enough Māori is being used — which is fair enough.
But what’s missing is hard evidence of how the requirements of TMP make any difference to the future of te reo Māori. There are also other aspects of te tino rangatiratanga o te reo Māori that can never be measured in this way — aspects that the Crown will never recognise or reward.
For example, there’s the fact that, over the 30 years of Te Ūpoko history, the public has come to accept the presence of Māori radio and television as normal and natural. There’s a sense of hope and engagement that Te Ūpoko has aroused in its listeners. And there’s also been a wholesome influence on the wider community which now is increasingly supportive of funding for te reo Māori.
We shouldn’t ignore that influence. Or overlook the role that Te Ūpoko has as an agent of change. Nor should we forget the struggles of the Māori radio pioneers whose vision, dedication and determination helped bring about these changes of attitude.
There’ve been toilers in the engine rooms of Te Ūpoko and other stations up and down the country who deserve our thanks — not just for the pleasure they’ve given their listeners, but also for setting up a situation where the potential of Māori broadcasting is much closer to being realised. And where it can play a full part in rangatiratanga.
Andrew Robb has been a member of Te Reo Māori Society and is now the secretary of Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau and a board member of Te Ūpoko o te Ika.