Amplifying voices and empowering communities

In a relatively non-descript brick building on bustling Madras Street, some incredible community work has been going on for over 35 years, and continues to reach every corner of Ōtautahi Christchurch and beyond.

The building is home to Plains FM, a multi-award winning local radio station, which over its long history has been a platform for diverse perspectives, amplifying the voices of people from all walks and life and backgrounds.

Do you have a great idea for a radio show? At Plains FM there is no barrier to you becoming a broadcaster and joining the current hosts of more than 90 radio shows in 20 languages being produced at the station. This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Plains FM, that anyone truly can become a broadcaster and bring their idea to life, with the encouragement, support and training of the station’s team.

At the helm of this extraordinary endeavour is Station Manager, Nicki Reece, who joined Plains FM way back in 1989, just a year after it was founded. She had just finished a course in Radio Broadcasting, heard about a production role at Plains FM, had a chat to the station manager at the time, and the rest is history. Nicki has managed Plains FM since 2007, and her dedication, passion and hard work was rewarded with a New Zealand Radio Award for Services to Broadcasting in 2021. “I was overwhelmed. It was a beautiful thing, and felt like it wasn’t just celebrating my journey, but all those people who had come along with me over my time here,” says Nicki.

Plains FM is one of 12 stations in New Zealand which is part of the Community Access Media Alliance (CAMA). It produces a range of broadcasts to provide for the interests of women, youth, children, persons with disabilities and minorities in the community, including ethnic minorities. “Migrant communities hold a special place in our programming and are definitely a priority group. Their shows celebrate culture, language, traditions and effectively reach and connect with people within their communities,” says Nicki.

Content Co-ordinator, Laura Gartner has been employed by Plains FM for 9 years,  but was a broadcaster back in 1993 with the Earthwise environmental show. During her time in the role, she has been responsible for introducing countless new broadcasters to the airwaves, including many women from migrant communities. “I come from a social justice background and it is really important to me that marginalised voices are part of the media landscape. You don’t find this in mainstream media, but here at Plains FM, people can present their own stories and ideas in their own language, in their own style and there are no barriers. Equity of access is so important.”

A few days after the terror attack on 15 March 2019, Nicki and Laura met with local journalist, Lana Hart, to talk about how Plains FM could do its bit to support the local community through the trauma. The result was a show called After March 15th, which went on to win Best Access Radio Programme at the 2021 New Zealand Radio Awards. This led to a funded project – the powerful Widows of Shuhada, which followed the journey through grief of four Muslim women widowed by the attack. This show was a finalist in the Best Documentary or Factual Talk Feature category at the awards. Also in 2021, Laura was part of the team which produced the show, It’s Getting Hot in Here, about climate change, which won Best Access Radio Programme.

Plains FM broadcasts 24/7 and is a much-loved companion for many engaged listeners. Its shows can also be listened to on demand on the station’s website and podcast platforms.

One of its longest running shows is a weekly, hour-long Tongan language show called, Faka’amanaki, which Siale Faitotonu has been running for 30 years. “Siale is amazing. He is a super busy man but makes the show every week as a service to his community. It provides important messages in the Tongan language and creates important cultural connections,” says Laura. Other Pasifika content makers have been on air for over 10 and even 20 years.

Nicki says these shows were running long before the concept of keeping languages alive really came into vogue, and various Pacific Language Weeks were introduced. “These broadcasters have been committed since way back then to making those connections and maintaining their language and culture through the programmes.”

Many broadcasters from ethnic communities record their shows in English, which helps to create strong cross-cultural connections, providing opportunities for English speakers to listen, learn and gain another perspective on the world, says Nicki.

A snapshot of Plains FM’s current and new shows highlight the station’s incredible diversity. An upcoming show, Cult Chat, is being made by three women who have survived cult-like environments. As well as telling their own incredible stories, they are interviewing others with similar experiences. In July, Muslim life coach, Fariya Naseem is launching Pep Talk, which provides advice for women in challenging situations. The day Uniting Canterbury Women visited Plains FM’s studios, Mercy Munatsi was working with Laura Gartner on her show called African Renaissance, which plays a variety of stunning African music. Another new show to hit the airwaves is Rock for Recovery, created by Carl, a former mental health specialist, who uses examples of hard rock music to support people through mental health and addiction issues.

Many different groups from the disability sector have enjoyed the opportunity to make their own shows at Plains FM, which also supports schools and youth broadcasters. The School for Young Writers has produced a series of radio plays. There are endless creative opportunities to be explored.

Nicki says the most popular show in terms of audience numbers is the weekly podcast created by Alcoholics Anonymous, featuring stories of recovering alcoholics.

What can you expect if you have an idea for a new radio show at Plains FM? Most new broadcasters start out knowing nothing at all about radio, but if they have an idea or passion, Plains FM can help them turn it into a show, says Laura. “We bring them into the station, show them around the facilities, talk them through the process, and walk them through every step of the way at their own pace, including training on all the elements that go into making a programme. Some people want to work with us on the technical aspects, and many go on to learn to record and edit the shows themselves once they feel comfortable with the technology.”

Broadcasters pay a small, very reasonable fee for the training process, and for each 25-minute episode of their shows.

As well as her pivotal role bringing new broadcasters into Plains FM’s ever-growing network, Laura has been active out in the community, recording various live events and public speakers, with the recordings later played on the radio. She has recorded everything from engaging lectures at University of Canterbury, to talks by interesting guest speakers at Quaker meetings, and Canterbury Workers Education Association meetings. The Plains FM team even recorded Uniting Canterbury Women’s inaugural event in July 2019.

Plains FM is also positively impacting on the education sector. It has recently launched Content Making for Radio and Podcasts, a comprehensive programme, which fits into the New Zealand Curriculum and NCEA frameworks. The programme guides students, particularly those studying English, Media Studies and Digital Technology, right through the audio content production process. “Communication is key these days, but not everyone knows how to make a really good audio show. This resource, which is available for schools to purchase, helps students to make great content, and earn the credits they need to fulfill curriculum requirements. The programme is a great resource for teachers, as it reduces the amount of time they need to spend planning, preparing and organising these projects.”

Sadly, Laura’s tenure at Plains FM is coming to an end later in June as she heads back to Canada for several months for family reasons. “It has been an absolute privilege and amazing experience to work here. I’ve met so many people who have shared their stories and life stories with me and the station. One of the greatest things is seeing people gain their confidence, after coming into the station for the first time feeling scared and nervous. It’s such a great feeling to be able to support their vision so they can achieve their goals. That’s been a highlight, along with a great team to work with, and the exposure to so many different cultures, and different ways of thinking.”

Laura’s departure will undoubtedly leave a void, but the Plains FM team will share her role until a new person is employed, supported by Nicki who will help out with induction and training as needed. “There is a lot of sadness about losing Laura.  I will miss her hugely but she leaves such a positive legacy, with her unwavering dedication allowing countless individuals to find their voice and share their stories. I am confident that because Plains FM is such a special place, good people always end up here, and we will ensure that Laura’s legacy of nurturing connections continues on. We are sure the wonderful relationship we have with Laura will continue once she returns to Christchurch. Hopefully she will come back and make another fabulous programme with us.”

As she reflects on her 34 years at Plains FM, Nicki is grateful for the ways she has been stretched and grown in many areas in her role, including personal development, the ability to connect with people from all walks of life, keeping up with technological changes, creative thinking, and being flexible. She is rightly proud of the station’s amazing work of the past and present, and is excited as it looks ahead to the future. “Plains FM will continue to evolve and innovate and ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard and celebrated. The legacy of community empowerment will remain at the core of everything we do.”