THE current renaissance Maori language and culture is enjoying has many to thank, but one of the main contributors will celebrate its 25th birthday this month.
Iwi radio station Te Upoko o Te Ika is just one of 21 iwi stations currently broadcasting across New Zealand, but more pertinently, it was the first.
Based in Wellington, Te Upoko created a pathway for other stations to follow, but none has done so with the same dedication and longevity as the award-winning station, which took this year’s awards as top iwi broadcaster.
By tuning into 1161 on the AM frequency, you are part of what station manager Wena Tait calls the whanau. The ethos behind Te Upoko is and always has been “family first”.
Tait has been in charge of the station for six years and is proud to be part of the celebrations as Te Upoko enters its 25th year.
“It’s a good landmark and it’s a real good feeling to be able to sit and for some reminiscences, you know, like the ex-staff members to be able to come back in and still have that feeling.
“Some of the ex-staff come back in and still get that feeling that they had when they were working as DJs.
“It’s a good thing to hear that it’s still here, the whanau spirit is still here, it’s still around,” says Ms Tait.
She also sees it as a chance to give recognition to those who built it up from nothing in 1987.
An indication that she has continued to run the station according to how it was originally intended is the fact that Henare Kingi – part of the original crew and recently retired – is still a keen listener.
“The station was about supporting our young people,” says Mr Kingi, who spent 25 years behind Te Upoko’s microphone, starting work at 5.30am every day for much of his time there. “I still listen to it every day.”
The idea behind Te Upoko o Te Ika was to promote Maori language and ensure te reo’s continued survival in an ever-growing Pakeha environment.
“A lot of elders felt if nothing was done about the language it would die out.
“That was one of the reasons why those who fought for the airwaves actually took it into their own hands, to the government and to the Privy Council, and later on it was proved when we started broadcasting,” says Mr Kingi.
Despite being government-funded, during the first years on air Te Upoko found it difficult to garner sufficient funding and without the help of elders would not have been able to continue.
“We struggled, even though the government funded us. We had to run radio koha to get a bit of money, to keep the station running, and those who actually supported us were our people and they were only on pensions.
“The moment we started running these radio koha to keep the radio station running they came to the station.
“We owe them, we owe these people.”
Many of “these people” were originally from places like the Bay of Islands and areas in the north Island where te reo was still prevalent.
“So for them to come down to Wellington and hear Maori on the radio, it reminded them of home. Hearing te reo on air, it blew them away,” he says.
Henare Kingi had never worked in radio or broadcasting before taking up a job at the station and his first task was to do a church service for Te Upoko’s inauguration.
The story goes that he was confronted by a man named Piripi Walker in Stokes valley one day.
Mr Walker who looked Pakeha to Mr Kingi, introduced himself in “beautiful” Maori and thus convinced Mr Kingi, who at that time was working in factories to run a church service for the station’s opening.
Mr Kingi remembers entering the building and being bewildered at the technology that surrounded him.
“There were strange machines there that I didn’t know what they were,” he says.
But because of his fluency in te reo he was kept on and until his retirement in January of this year became the longest-serving broadcaster on a Maori radio station.
Wena Tait was hopeful Mr Kingi would stay on until the official birthday, but despite her disappointment at his early departure she says she will press on with plans to honour him at the ceremony.
Sunday, April 29, will begin a seven-day celebration to mark the hard work and dedication of those who were part of the genesis and those who have continued to add to Te Upoko o Te Ika’s legacy.
An effort to gather as many of the originals as possible has been made and Mr Kingi is confident most will be present.
“Those who are living, they are trying to get them all down here and I think we will. I am looking forward to seeing them.
“It’ll be a great reunion to see the old staff come back down to the station. We will be speaking of a lot of things that happened at the beginning,”
The programme will include a powhiri at Pipitea Marae, interviews and special programmes from the past 25 years, guest speakers and live entertainment.
A gala dinner on May 5 will be the final celebration where many of the originals will be honoured for their contributions.