Radio Tokelau

By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wellington, New Zealand

‘The Tokelau (or Union) Group of islands which was attached to the Western Samoan administration from 1926 to 1946, became a part of New Zealand as from January 1 1949. The Group consists of three atolls, or groups of islands – namely, Atafu (or Duke of York Group), Nukunono (or Duke of Clarence), and Fakaofo (sometimes called Bowditch) which lie 270 miles due north of Apia, Western Samoa. Nukunono is the central atoll, has the only flying boat moorings, has the principal meteorological reporting station and is the headquarters of the only Europeans (two Catholic missionaries).’

Description from the Pacific Islands Year Book 1956.
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection).

FM radio has ended the dependence of Tokelau people on word of mouth for their local news and information.

Radio Fakaofo FM.
This was the first station to be commissioned. At left, being interviewed, is New Zealand photographer Louise Hyatt, in Tokelau on assignment for VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad)
© Brian Emmett, MED.
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection)

A project funded by the New Zealand Overseas Development Agency (NZODA) and supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development (MED) has seen MED radio technicians design and install three low-powered FM radio stations, one for each of Tokelau’s three widely spaced atolls.

The project came about after consultation in Tokelau revealed a need for more and better communication between the leadership and public service on the one hand and village communities on the other.

The acting manager of the Modern House of Tokelau governance reform programme, Aleki Silao, says villagers felt they had access to little formal information about the decisions made by the village ‘Taupulega’, or council of elders.

Fakaofo Atoll map
Maps from Pacific Islands Year book 1956. © Pacific Publications Pty Ltd, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection).

The only source of news was a ‘village crier’ – a person who walked around calling out the latest developments.

Newsletters were considered as a means of improving the situation, but were rejected on the grounds that ‘words on paper are not an established way of doing things in Tokelau’ Mr Silao says.

Radio was seen as a better alternative because it would allow instant, verbal communication and provide ordinary people with a chance to express their views on a wide range of subjects.

Tokelauans also saw that radio would promote use of their own language, and encourage the recording and performance of local music, he says.

Radio Nukunonu FM.
Behind the desk is Aleki Silao © Brian Emmett, MED.
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection)

NZODA funded the radio project with NZ$70,000 from its Modern House of Tokelau programme.

This aims to develop a modern system of governance that is still founded on village structures and the traditional authority of the ‘Taupulega’.

The MED designed the five-watt radio stations free of charge and sent two technicians to install them.

One is set up on a corner desk in the public service office of Fakaofo island, the station on Atafu has a small hut that used to house a diesel generator and that on Nukuononu is in the meeting and administrative building.

Nukunonu Atoll map
Maps from Pacific Islands Year book 1956. © Pacific Publications Pty Ltd, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection)

‘Generally things went as planned. There were problems, as in any project, but nothing we weren’t able to cope with’ says Brian Emmett, one of the MED technicians who worked on the project.

‘Within minutes of each station going on air the word spread like wildfire and all that could be heard anywhere in the village was the sound of the radio, their own radio speaking their own language.’

The opening of the three stations has meant an ‘excitement in the air’ similar to that experienced during the introduction of colour television to New Zealand, Mr Silao says.

Each of the not-for-profit stations is run by a committee and has at least four announcers, who also act as reporters. Information carried includes messages from the ‘pulenuku’ (mayor), boat schedules, live and pre-recorded interviews and music.

Typical Tokelau atoll scene.
Pen and ink drawing by E H Papps published in ‘The Tokelau Islands’ by A W Reed. © A H & A W Reed. 1967.
(David Ricquish Collection)

‘Some Tokelauan music has been recorded using the radio stations’ mini disc systems’ Mr Silao says.

One station already receives shortwave news from Radio New Zealand International via a donated receiver and other shortwave receivers are now being set up on the other two atolls.

The stations work quite independently, but in time they will be linked up at least once a week – possibly by telephone – for a national programme, Mr Silao says.

Atafu Atoll map
Maps from Pacific Islands Year book 1956. © Pacific Publications Pty Ltd, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
(Radio Heritage Foundation Collection)

At present the radio stations depend on the mains electricity supply which is not continuous. However, deep cycle batteries are being investigated as a means of keeping the radio going even when the island’s generators are off – a major bonus in a cyclone-prone place like Tokelau.

Mr Silao says the new stations mean that for the cost of a pocket-sized FM transistor radio, anyone on the three atolls can get hold of news and stay abreast of village decision-making.

‘This small technology can only bring the people closer together’ he says.

This article was originally published in the May 2002 issue of the NZODA magazine © Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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