From an early age Mike Rehu dreamt of a career in the performing arts, but he wasn’t exactly sure of the details. Growing up in Invercargill and Christchurch, one option he did explore was theatre. “I saw these guys at the Court Theatre, rehearsing 16 hours a day and then performing at night,” says Rehu. “They were bringing in around $300 a week, and I thought ‘that’s hard work!'”
Instead Rehu chose radio, partly "because TV was a million miles away". In 1982, he was offered a cadetship at Radio New Zealand. Fifteen months later, he won a place on an announcer training course. “I was something like the second youngest person ever to have done the course,’ he says. “I was a breakfast DJ by the time I turned 21.”
The 3am starts, and associated early bedtimes, didn’t fit his energetic lifestyle; so he moved to afternoon radio and then into sport, which became a passion.
When children’s TV show Play School moved from Dunedin to Christchurch in the mid 1980s, Rehu auditioned. In 1985 he won one of the six presenting roles. “We worked on one show every three weeks,” he says. “So I worked at the radio and did Play School at the same time." TVNZ then decided to return Play School to its Dunedin studio. Rehu was torn; should he stick with radio in Christchurch, or move to Dunedin? “I took off overseas — as you do when you’re 23.”
His OE included time in Africa and India, and in London, work for the BBC and a theatre group. Back home by late 1989, Rehu got the presenter’s job on The Video Dispatch, TVNZ’s news programme for younger viewers. Producer Amanda Evans, who chose him for the gig, called him a disciplined performer with "a fun, warm sort of personality. He just had that x factor — that sparkle on camera. He can communicate directly with an individual through television".
By the end of the next year, Video Dispatch had been dropped. Rehu headed off overseas again, touring through South America for four months, before ending up in Thailand and a job in radio. He was tracked down in Bangkok by What Now? producer Janine Morrell-Gunn, who asked him to be a field director on the show.
It was a pressured environment. Rehu recalls researching, shooting and editing many stories over each three week block. Then in 1993 he was asked if he’d ever done any studio direction. “I hadn’t, but said I’d give it a go. A week later he was in the hot seat for three hours of live television. “It was a baptism by fire, but I loved it!”
Rehu moved to directing and producing Jason Gunn’s Son of a Gunn show, and was in charge on that dark day when Thingee’s eye fell out. “Some of the school kids in the studio were genuinely upset.” With TVNZ rationalising staff numbers, Rehu was offered a choice — he could either move to News in Auckland, or to Singapore, where TVNZ had launched a joint venture with financial information company Dow Jones, reporting Asian business news.
Rehu opted for Singapore, and was involved in among other things, training print journalists in how to be television journalists. It was challenging. “We were running automated software and hardware systems so we had to follow a set process,” Rehu says. “Journos will be journos: they were reluctant to adapt and change. At first — until systems crashed and we went off-air.”
In 1996, Rehu took a job at ESPN Star Sports. As a senior sports director, he travelled through Asia covering live cricket and football. By 2001, now married with children, he decided to move to studio-based productions. When Fox took over the Star Sports network in 2006, Rehu became Head of Content for Fox International in Singapore.
Keen to return to Aotearoa and give his kids a Kiwi high school education, Rehu had been talking to Māori Television executives during 2014. In a phone call on Christmas Eve that year, he was offered the newly created role of Head of Content. “The idea was to bring all the various production departments together, and break down the walls,” he says. “With a multi-platform environment especially, you need to share all the content so there’s effective crossover.”
Based on an award-winning audience research project, Rehu crafted a content strategy that helped lead to a 25% growth in Māori Television's audience reach over the next three years.
Funding was always an issue. “We were making content for under $10,000 an hour,” Rehu says. “That’s not going to happen anywhere else — so that’s where the passion for the kaupapa has to kick in.” Rehu left Māori TV in mid 2018. “When you get to a certain level, you make decisions but you don’t actually get your hands dirty. I was missing that.”
During his time in Singapore, Rehu had done some rugby commentary; now he approached Sky Television and got back behind the mic.
His interest in sports also led him to join the board of company Spalk, which had created a system for synching up multiple audio commentaries to a single piece of live footage. An obvious application is in sports coverage, where there might be several commentaries going on, something Rehu had experience in. “In a pan-Asian network you’re calling games in many languages,” he says. “We could have seven booths doing a game, and that gets expensive flying commentators in.” Under Spalk, commentators can watch and contribute online from wherever they might be based.
Rehu also turned to consultancy work — especially in public radio, where he felt there was some unfinished business. “I am very impassioned by public media," he says. "Is the public giving the people who need it great content that enlightens and entertains? This is especially relevant now that we have this deluge of overseas content coming in, and a plethora of platforms. Public media must stay robust and relevant.”
Profile by Doug Coutts; published on 3 April 2019
Elizabeth Dickson, 'The Cerebrality Kid (Interview) - The Listener (TV Times pullout), 20 August 1990, page 36