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The early radio stations of Aotearoa New Zealand used only English as a broadcasting language. In the time of Sir Apirana Ngata, and his protégé Wiremu Parker, the language crept on to the airwaves. In time, Māori radio stations were conceived. 

The experience of the last three decades, as this new, unfiltered Māori radio, under Māori control, was born. These radio stations are an example of language revitalisation framed within indigenous communities and staffed by ordinary –kāinga –marae people. They have a commitment to providing for their own communities’ needs in the first instance. They have acted as agents for the normalised use of the Māori language, and as architects of culturally authentic Māori institutions. They were also born out of direct struggle with the broadcasting authorities, and a concerted multi-fronted battle to open the electronic media to Māori, from which they had been excluded for 50 years.  

They have been framed and funded on the basis that they will work to use te reo Māori as well as English, in their broadcasting, with the intention of assisting the normalisation and survival of te reo. Over the decades, they have engaged with thinkers, elders, rangatahi, and repositories of knowledge. They have played and popularised traditional and modern waiata, and covered all major events in the life of most iwi, all day, every day. They are intertwined in the closest possible way with te ao Māori, using staff, management and governance from the local people.

A History of the station and its origins

The early pilot broadcasts using the name Te Reo o Pōneke were mounted in Māori language week from 1983-85, at Radio Active (Victoria University,) and Access Radio, within Radio New Zealand. At the same time, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau agitated to free up the BCNZ’s plan for a single national Māori station with one studio in Auckland, to allow the development of iwi radio in each region.

On an April night in 1983, the Wellington Maori Language Board held its monthly meeting at an old Victoria University house on Kelburn Parade. This two story house, now demolished to make way for the Von Zedlitz building, was the first university marae at Victoria. Previously it was home to the Anglican chaplaincy on campus. There were around seven people there that night.

The meeting agreed to do two things. First, Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau decided to establish a Maori Language Radio station for a trial period in Wellington two months off, in July. It would be on air for a week as an activity for Maori Language Week.

Second the group decided to take a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal over the Maori language. The claim would be against successive Governments in New Zealand alleging that they had breached the Treaty of Waitangi by not protecting and promoting te reo.

After these decisions Professor Hirini Moko Mead, as kaumātua of the group, assessed the basis for the claim like a potter checking a clay pot for shape and serviceability. After the resolution was passed he said:

"Look at that, two good kaupapa for us to work on just like that."

Scouts went out to hunt for a small scale FM transmitter – visits were made to the VUW Physics Department’s John Futter, who had built the small transmitter used by Victoria Student Radio, Radio Active. He suggested the Maori Language Board borrow the Radio Active studio and transmitter during the holidays. After an approach, the Manager of Radio Active, Alistair Shennan, and the Radio Active Board, agreed. A programme was devised, and Radio New Zealand pitched in with resources and the secondment of Piripi Walker. Wiremu Parker, protégé of Ngata, and in his time the most famous Māori in Aotearoa in Māori households as the reader of the Sunday Maori news, was kaumātua of Victoria University Māori Studies in 1983. He came into the station when available over that week, with his immaculate dress, and sat at the microphone with the Dominion newspaper. He would then translate all the stories off the page impromptu, and out on the air. Students like Ngahiwi Apanui and Sean Ogden ran specialist music shows in te reo. The late Maaka Jones and Ruka Te Rangiahuta Broughton ran extraordinary, hilarious story-telling sessions live on air.

Te Upoko o Te Ika’s history and whakapapa is strongly linked to the rise of Maori language usage throughout Aotearoa. Its founding body, Nga Kaiwhakapumau I Te Reo, through the Maori language claim to the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 11), and the televison and spectrum cases had a role in laying the foundations for today’s nationwide Maori broadcasting presence in radio and television. Te Upoko o Te Ika has close links with every other Māori radio station and Māori broadcasting organisation. In 1991 Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau created a Trust to take over the ownership and operation of the radio station.

The Trust has a joint structure - composed equally of tangata whenua iwi, and taura here, or iwi more newly settled in Wellington and its surrounding cities and regions. There are 3 Trustees for the tangata whenua, and 3 for taurahere.

Other memories

Te Upoko moved around various demolition buildings in downtown Wellington, the capital city, as we had no money in those first years. We started the station with $400 - just enough to connect the power and phones. But that was enough to - you guessed it - do the first of a number of telethons. We also raised $50,000 from bingo over the first three years.

Our big sash windows looked down on the busiest street in the capital city. Bruce Stewart, a local champion of marae building, and community initiatives, built a sound-proof on-air talk booth out of car cases from the Mitsubishi factory, and we lowered it onto the roof, and through the roof door, from the car park building behind!

The Stewart Dawson was an old Colonial building scheduled for demolition but later saved.

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