When George Burt first set foot on Otakou Marae near Dunedin 44 years ago, the experience changed his life forever. Burt, a pakeha of migrant parents, was inspired to learn the Māori language.

Burt, known respectfully and affectionately as Papa George, is the man behind the wires in iwi radio such as Moana Radio, which he helped establish in 1992. Burt has helped establish most of the tribal network of iwi radio across New Zealand and adapted it to livestream important events including tangihanga of prominent figures and Te Matatini championships. Over the years, his work includes managing translation services for government panels and Treaty of Waitangi hearings.

Today, he has been honoured for his efforts by being made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Burt's tireless work at helping broadcast te reo has been all-encompassing.

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"It's been more about moving in a Māori and Polynesian world," he said.

Thirty-eight years ago Burt and wife Katikati actress Mabel Wharekawa-Burt moved to Rarotonga for 10 years.

"After three months she could be mistaken for a Cook Islander because of the similarity of te reo, she gained fluency very quickly. Likewise, I feel I gained my ears and tongue there - when one can say akateateamamaoanga, everything else follows.

"When we returned to Tauranga, iwi radio was just beginning so it was a natural fit for me, living in the Māori community, to share my technical skills.

"[Iwi] radio was a hard-won battle for Māori, by those pioneers seeking ways to preserve and proliferate te reo, but also seeking justice and partnership under the Treaty of Waitangi."

Another driving force behind Burt's efforts was so nannies at home could hear, or see, their mokopuna performing on stage at events such as Te Matatini. When a prominent local kaumatua died recently, one of his peers was in hospital but able to hear and see the service due to Burt's work.

Over the years, there have been many special moments. These include getting Tautoko FM back on air within 24 hours after the station burned to the ground, and helping launch community television in Kaitaia, he said.

"Seeing now, some [people] I remember coming into radio as youth, moving into management roles and displaying great leadership and vision, is a great reassurance the next generation is carrying the work forward," Burt said.

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As a white man walking in a Māori world, learning the culture's words and ways was not without price, but it's one Burt is more than happy to pay. Burt performs some formal roles on marae, as a recompense for the knowledge shared.

"These days reo is more about fulfilling roles and responsibilities on the marae and in the community."

Burt's Baha'i faith means work performed in the spirit of service to others was counted as worship. It was something he said fitted naturally in Māori society where manakitanga – courtesy, respect and hospitality and honouring one's guests – was an art form.

"Hence the whakatauki, 'me ki mai ki ahau he aha te mea nui o te ao, maku e ki atu, he tangata he tangata he tangata'. Should you ask me what is the most important thing in the world, I will say, it is people, it is people it is people."


Translations
Te reo - The language
Whakatauki - Proverb
Tangihanga - Funeral
Mokopuna - Grandchildren
Manakitanga - Hospitality
Kaumatua - Respected elder