Te Karere turns 40: How it changed the voice of Aotearoa

Source: 1News

Jet black hair, typewriters and not taking no for an answer.

Derek Fox - the man who pushed so hard for New Zealand's first te reo Māori broadcast - says a lot has changed since he launched TVNZ's Te Karere show 40 years ago today (February 21).

But he thinks there's still a long way to go.

Te Karere first screened on Aotearoa televisions in 1982 - a year before it got a regular slot.

"I think Te Karere was a trailblazer ... It was a mark in the sand," Fox says.

Derek Fox.

The show first aired during Māori Language Week and initially ran for just four minutes. It has since expanded to 30, but Fox is pushing for more.

"There should be a Te Karere hour, not a half-hour."

That's because Te Karere is not just news in te reo Māori, he says. It is news from a Māori perspective and on issues that matter to them.

"What Te Karere really did and set out to do was to get more Māori language on the air and to get more Māori faces on air.

Former Te Karere reporter Te Waihoroi Shortland fondly remembers those early days on the show.

"There were so few Māori faces on television at that time. Our language wasn't really heard, nor were our faces seen. If I held a meeting with all of the Māori journalists we would be able to fit into a red phone box.

"Te Karere is iconic and a taonga that has helped in the revitalisation of our language. If you look at our history, you cannot go past the contributions Te Karere has made to the Māori language in the broadcasting space."

READ MORE: Record high queries about broadcasters' te reo Māori use

Shortland wasn't formally trained in journalism but landed a job with Te Karere after Fox, his old Tipene (St Stephen's) school mate, offered him a reporter position.

"I travelled the length and breadth of the country," Shortland says. "I was able to get into communities like Ruatoki, like Te Whānau a Apanui and of course my own home, Northland.

"In those times the north was full of native speakers, many of them my uncles and aunties - it was a special time and I was lucky to do that work."

Derek Fox watching Te Karere.

Accusations of separatism

But the number of fluent speakers of te reo Māori was dwindling. In the 1980s fewer than 20 percent of Māori knew enough of the language to be regarded as native speakers.

Fox fought to set up the now-iconic Māori language programme even when there was resistance. He recalls being called a "separatist".

"Of course, it's not separatist the other way if there's only Pākehā broadcast, that's not separatist."

Shortland says he remembers racist phone calls to TVNZ.

"The telephone operator would put the calls through to us Te Karere reporters. They would be shouting down the phone complaining about our language being broadcast on the television."

READ MORE: Kiwis using lockdown to learn 'easy to access' Te Reo Māori

TVNZ still gets the odd call like that today, but Fox says things have come a long way.

"There were ministers who didn't believe it was important to pronounce Māori names and words properly."

Now he says there's a real effort with Māori pronunciation at all levels.

Push for 'Māori stories'

Fox recalls many people didn't quite get the significance of a news programme in te reo Māori in those early days.

"I was the communications secretary for the Māori Congress. Our iwi leaders could all understand land issues and forestry issues and fishing issues and I said, 'You know all of these things, to a greater or lesser degree, will be hampered in the development if you don't have a Māori media.

"'You need to be able to tell Māori stories on television, on radio, in print.'"

Fox says they couldn't cover every news item in the time they had, so instead chose to cover news that was thought-provoking.

"I think Te Karere was the chink in the armour. Gradually the armour started coming apart. We had other programmes, we had Marae… then we moved on and did other Māori television… Mana magazine. All those things they started providing a Māori voice."

READ MORE: How Māori Language Week came to be in Aotearoa

Forty years since that first broadcast the technology has come a long way too.

"I started out when we had typewriters, for goodness' sakes. You're talking to me about this online stuff, that's pretty baffling for a simple country boy from Māhia," Fox jokes.

It's been so long the 40-year milestone almost went unnoticed.

Fox admits he was told by a friend of the anniversary and thought it was "amazing".

"Where did all those years go? I used to have black hair then."

Move to bilingualism?

And while he describes the show he started as a "trigger", Fox wants the show to develop the Māori voice further - and that doesn't just mean the language.

"Te Karere is iconic. I think there's only one Pākehā programme that's lasted as long as Te Karere and that's Country Calendar.

Fox believes more investment is needed in Māori media too.

"We missed out on generations of spend on broadcasting, which was spent only on Pākehā media. I kept saying it to people. They said, 'Oh well, you got some Māori radio stations, you don't need to have any more on our radio station.' I said, 'Look, your radio station is called Radio New Zealand - it's not called Radio Pākehā.

"There needs to be a voice there."

Even in its early days, Te Karere never shied away from having Pākehā voices on.

"We would often go and get comment from someone who was clearly Pākehā but who spoke Māori," says Fox.

"There would be comments in the control room, 'Gee this fella knows Māori.' I said, 'Yeah, it's amazing eh? He hasn't got two heads or green ears or something like that.'

"It's not a life-threatening disease to understand the language."