10 June 2023
Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy reporter
Radio Ngāti Porou’s headquarters in small-town Ruatōria may not look like your typical radio station, and that’s probably because it isn’t.
Neither is Ruatōria your typical small town, tucked away to the side of the East Coast’s crumbling State Highway 35.
The people who call this place home don’t do so out of convenience.
Ruatōria is in the firing line of cyclones rolling off the Pacific, and the time it takes to travel to the nearest city, Gisborne, is increasing as the fragile road wears thin.
At one section about half-an-hour south of the town, a river runs through what used to be the highway, now diverted to a different route.
In the town of 700, the lines between work, life, and crisis management are blurred – a truth Radio Ngāti Porou station manager Erana Keelan-Reedy knows all too well.
Keelan-Reedy has headed up the station for 13 years, the last six of which have seen a shift to providing critical civil defence support in times of emergency.
Whenever a storm hits the East Coast, Radio Ngāti Porou is the first port of call for information that could prove lifesaving.
And the messaging is the same every time: stay off the roads and have at least three days of food on hand.
By the time Cyclone Gabrielle arrived, it was a well-oiled machine.
“We know a weather event is coming, and we’ll just change our schedule and work on touching base with everyone in Civil Defence so we know what the weather is like,” Keelan-Reedy says.
“By the end of the day, we’ll know what’s going on in every community.”
Much like the nearby Waiapu River, the station’s road to providing such a crucial service has had its twists and turns.
It was humble beginnings for Radio Ngāti Porou, founded in 1986 on the back of a visit from Radio Waikato who journeyed east with microphones and a simple question.
“They came over with radio equipment and said, ‘Do you fellas want to run a radio station?’,” Keelan-Reedy recalls.
After a successful trial period in the local Four Square, the station found a more permanent home in a garage after $40,000 was raised at a radiothon event.
It was all voluntary in those days, but the station built itself from the ground up, moving into its current premises in 1991.
Radio Ngāti Porou now has 12 paid staff and annual operating expenditures of around $1 million – an amount which proves a challenge considering the charitable trust only secures around $700,000 in funding every year.
“I’m constantly looking for funding to purchase new equipment, pay my staff well, and make sure everyone is over a living wage,” Keelan-Reedy says.
Her station is one of 21 such iwi networks around the country, with a focus on being a “one-stop Radio Ngāti Porou shop”.
And that focus is as much about catering to the local audience as those abroad.
There are around 70,000 Ngāti Porou globally, but only around 10 percent live on the East Coast, station manager for multi media and sales Paora Brooking says.
Brooking is not only tasked with selling advertising, he also archives swathes of audio and visuals online for generations to come.
During the winter months, he commentates Ngāti Porou East Coast rugby games from nearby Enterprise Whakarua Park.
The team is the pride of Ngāti Porou, and the only iwi-based team in the world.
Keelan-Reedy says rugby commentaries have become a vital link to Ngātis all over the world, and Brooking’s broadcasts have fostered a cultish following in Australia.
Creating that connection comes down to “building on things Ngātis like and love,” she says.
“And we’re all passionate about Ngāti Porou East Coast rugby, especially when they’re winning.”
Keelan-Reedy marvels at Brooking’s ability to commentate games in such a way where even if East Coast are down 70-0, the listener would be forgiven for thinking they’re winning.
“At the rugby he’ll be doing the commentary and people will be listening in their cars. He’ll be shouting out ‘I can’t tell who that was! Was that number 12 or number 10?’,” Reedy chuckles.
“He’s getting the answer shouted at him from the sideline.”
Providing an intimate radio experience relies on knowing your community.
So how are people on the East Coast holding up in the wake of the cyclone?
Brooking fears many are doing it worse than they’re letting on, while Keelan-Reedy is honest about some of her own mental health struggles.
In the months following the cyclone, she said she grew depressed, feeling “stuck” in Ruatōria. Some travel for work helped.
“Being upbeat and positive on radio, that’s hard when you can’t get to town to do your shopping. Or the continuous rain… ‘What’s this one going to do? Will it stick around?’,” she says.
She recalls a Māori Television advert she featured in after the cyclone, which she now struggles to watch.
“I’m talking about our resilience, momo, Ngāti Porou… we’re hardy people. But at the same time there’s a whole lot of vulnerability underneath there,” Keelan-Reedy says.
“We’ve got a high beneficiary population. People are on an average $25,000 a year, maximum. No one comes out and says ‘I need more kai’.
“We’re hardy, but when we peel back the layers, there are whānau still in need.”
Brooking agrees: “People hide it, aye. Even though we feel a bit downtrodden, we probably put on a false front and push on with what we do.”
With the passing of the cyclone, the station has been faced with a fresh set of challenges – staying on air.
From Hicks Bay in the north, to Gisborne in the south, Radio Ngāti Porou manages seven transmitters, which means seven different frequencies.
Its main one in Gisborne, 93.3FM, was supposed to be rolled out to the whole coast, but was delayed due to the cyclone.
Now that frequency cuts out intermittently, an issue that was brought up at a recent Gisborne District Council meeting by Māori ward councillor Ani Pahuru-Huriwai, who called for support.
A solution won’t be quick, however, because the road up to the main transmitter site was washed away during the storm, meaning the station relied on a series of helicopter trips at $2000 a pop to keep its generator running.
But working under difficult conditions isn’t anything new for the station’s gritty team.
Drive show host Oriwa is based 40 minutes down the road in Tokomaru Bay and was only able to make it back to work once the bypass road was put in around the Hikuwai No.1 Bridge in March.
A finance team member living in Whareponga hasn’t seen much of the station in the past four weeks because of rain-related issues, and a fear of getting stuck at work should the weather turn.
Many of the issues faced by the station and the community it serves don’t appear to have a quick fix.
But rising up to meet the challenge is a dedicated team, determined to be the pulse of Ngāti Porou, as long as there’s fuel in the generator.
Asked if she is proud of what the station accomplishes, Keelan-Reedy doesn’t pause to think.
“Oh hell yeah – for me it’s the heart of our people. It’s around showcasing what’s in our archives and what we have to be proud of in terms of our history and heritage.
“It’s a beacon for the future, for the ability of Ngāti Porou to continue telling stories, to learn and grow and be inspired.”
Brooking agrees. For him, the stories of people engaging with iwi radio are enough to fill the tank.
“All the time we bump into things that make you appreciate what you do,” he says, referencing the story of a pākehā shepherd who learnt a mōteatea word-for-word, just from listening to the radio.
“We are who we are, and we’ve just got to carry on. We’re not going to change for anyone.”
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
Published via the RNZ website, June 10, 2023: