Story: Māori radio – reo irirangi

Page 1. First decades of Māori radio

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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. Māori groups such as the Māori Native College Choir were also invited to perform.

Four regional announcers

During the late 1930s the director of broadcasting, James Shelley, appointed Māori announcers in the four main centres. 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) in Christchurch, and the pioneering Māori woman 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

The death of the politician and leader Te Rangihīroa (Peter Buck) in 1949 was acknowledged on 2YZ. Fellow politician and Māori leader Apirana Ngata gave a farewell speech to his old friend, followed by a 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 the reminiscences of both Māori and Pākehā. Wiremu (Bill) Kerekere (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki) was his assistant and cultural advisor. Kerekere, a skilled linguist and renowned composer, cultural-group tutor and pianist, 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.

How to cite this page:

Piripi Walker, 'Māori radio – reo irirangi - First decades of Māori radio', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Piripi Walker, published 22 Oct 2014