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Emma Espiner: Holding the door open

Last week Newsroom’s award-winning columnist Emma Espiner released a podcast series for RNZ looking at the experience of Māori in the health system. She writes about the process of making the podcast, and what it says about the necessary components for authentic storytelling.

We all talk to each other, you know. By ‘we’ I mean anybody trying to tell an authentic story from a non-mainstream perspective. Between us we have mapped out who is likely to be receptive to a ‘diverse’ story, and who will put up barriers. It’s an essential roadmap because any creative endeavour is fraught with emotion - you’ve got an idea, a taonga, and you’re taking it to the world. You know there will be rejections and you steel yourself for that, but when you are new or brown or look or sound different to the norm there’s an extra layer of explaining that happens because almost all of the people you have to pitch your idea to don’t look like you.

Every creative person in my wider community has had a variation on this feedback: “But we already did a {insert category here - Muslim, Māori, immigrant etc} story, can’t you do something a bit more appealing to a mainstream audience?” As if we only get to tell one story, once, and then the box is ticked for a few more years until the key performance indicator for ‘diverse programming’ comes up again.

This is the story of how our podcast got made. I’ve written about it to support our creative community to know what a good process looks like, and to put the commissioners, funders, producers and editors on notice that we’re wise to how this works. That might sound weird in a competitive landscape but for many of us, success for the collective is what we’re ultimately about. When a door opens we stick a foot in it and hold it open for long enough to bring others through.

Targeted funding. We received funding through the joint RNZ/NZ on Air Joint Innovation Fund, a one-off allocation of $6 million of government funding for the 2018/2019 year. There was a ring-fenced portion of the fund for something called ‘growth audiences: Māori’ and the only other project in the category was Morgan Godfery and the Aotearoa Media Collective’s excellent Matangireia series, also for RNZ. This fund has not been renewed.

Experts inside the tent. Kay Ellmers came into the lead commissioner role at RNZ just before we pitched our project. She has an extensive background in Māori media. She also commissioned Kahu Kutia’s He Kākano Ahau, which won best podcast at this year’s Voyager Awards. A few others said no (see ‘reasons’ above) but Kay understood our idea immediately and let us get on with it. We also had invaluable support from Shannon Haunui-Thompson, Kurahautū Māori at RNZ, and Justine Murray from Te Ahi Kaa. That doesn’t mean we got an easy ride to make a crap product, just that the essence of the story was immediately grasped and any suggestions were constructive and relevant rather than ignorant and unhelpful.

Collaborators. I worked with Noelle McCarthy and her podcast company Bird of Paradise Productions, and Gabrielle Baker because I trust them and they’re both experts, respectively, in about 50 things I know nothing about. Nobody was the boss and everyone had to be comfortable with how and what we were doing. Noelle did everything from pulling together our pitch documents and writing a budget, making sure I was fed and watered on location, to drafting scripts, piecing together hours of audio into a coherent and impactful narrative and hustling all her personal connections for PR once we were ready to launch. Gabrielle has read everything, I mean EVERYTHING, that has ever been written or thought about Māori health and equity. She managed to impart all her wisdom with grace and wit, while also drawing beautiful illustrations for our episodes which gave our project its online identity. John Daniell, the other half of Bird of Paradise, was our script editor through a succession of drafts. Bird of Paradise work with Andre Upston at RNZ who is a quiet legend - the best in the business - so when we came to voice six hours of script in one go I was in safe hands.

Shared values. It was Noelle’s first excursion into Te Ao Māori and there were a lot of early discussions about what was tika (correct) in terms of engagement with whānau. The Western journalistic tradition is much more transactional in that sense - you go and take someone’s story and then fashion in with your hands into something that might be unrecognisable to the person in question. They call this ‘objectivity’ and it’s done in the name of ‘selling’ a story. That wasn’t acceptable to us as an approach. Reciprocity and preservation of story sovereignty for whānau and the practitioners we interviewed was paramount, and once we established how to do that we were able to have more meaningful conversations and ultimately produce a better and more authentic story than we might have otherwise. Charles Royal talks about manākitanga as being the art of uplifting mana, and that is what we’ve tried to honour with this project.

Over the past week I’ve been immersed in world-class quality NZ content. From Sis the comedy show which was picked up by Comedy Central, to Stand Up, the hip hop documentary series on RNZ. I had to get a Samoan mate to translate some of the kupu in Sis and I’m not going to win any prizes for letting my six-year-old daughter watch the very sweary Stand Up, but both projects gave me such a sense of pride in who we are, and optimism about who we could be.

What I’m trying to communicate here, especially to people who might not be part of the communities that I’m talking about, is that ‘diverse stories’ as a concept doesn’t mean boring or inaccessible – after all, this is the year that Taika Waititi won an Oscar. The best stories - novels, drama, pūrākau, podcasts - connect us with people; characters whose experiences may be very different from our own but reflect back to us images of ourselves in different surroundings. We relate to how they act, how they cope, how they feel. That connection gives us energy and understanding and empathy, the things that help us understand the world as we move through it and the beauty of the best stories is that the more grounded they are in the specific reality of their character's lives, the more we connect. My plea to funders and commissioners is to make sure you’ve got the right people in the room when you’re assessing our ideas. It makes all the difference.

You can subscribe now to "Getting Better: A Year in The Life of a Māori Medical Student on Apple, Spotify, rnz.co.nz or wherever you get your podcasts.

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