Suzy Cato first captured the hearts and minds of children more than two decades ago presenting The Early Bird Show, alongside the bright, brash Russell Rooster.
The bubbly, spectacled broadcaster, who cemented the welcome jingle “It’s our time, kia ora, talofa” into Kiwi psyches, went on to dominate children’s television for the next decade before her final episode of Suzy’s World in 2003.
But although the 47-year-old, who began her career in radio, is no longer on our screens, she continues to inform and entertain children and parents throughout New Zealand.
At first, the cancellation of Suzy’s World allowed the Kaikohe-raised star to take stock of her busy life and focus on a project she’d spent years practising for – being a mum. “I had been script editing, presenting and executive producing Suzy’s World,” she says recalling her frenetic work schedule. “Having a break from the hectic pace gave me time to have my beautiful babes.”
But Suzy says having her children – Morgan, 8 and Riley, 10 – only reinforced her desire to work in children’s broadcasting. So she continued to run Treehut Productions, the company behind Suzy’s World, creating community safety show Bryan and Bobby, and its biggest success story, children’s radio programme The Great Big Kids Show (TGBKS).
The idea for TGBKS, which has just been funded for a new series by New Zealand on Air, was conceived when Suzy returned to her radio roots in 2009, presenting for start-up station Big FM.
“I was on the 10am to 2pm slot [for adults] but I found myself going, ‘Hey, this is what you could do with your kids this weekend’ – because that’s what I had done for more than 10 years.”
TGBKS is now broadcast through 22 regional stations and follows a traditional kids’ show format with “all the old classic songs and stories plus a whole lot of fun we’ve commissioned ourselves”. It also gives kids the chance to participate. “Every few months we travel to one of our regions to meet some of our young friends and one of them helps us co-host a show,” says Suzy.
It’s a feature that takes her back to the days of her longest running show, You and Me, which screened more than 2000 episodes over seven years from 1993. The show took Suzy all over the country doing preschool fundraisers.
“We’d do interactive action songs and then we would have a photo opportunity afterwards. I was a bit like Santa; children would come and sit on my knee. Now on Facebook I’ve got so many young friends in their teens and early 20s who post those photographs of themselves with glasses perched on their noses to look like Suzy.”
It’s a project that sits perfectly in Suzy’s career trajectory, which is firmly focused on whanau.
“After my time with TV3 had come to a sudden end I thought it might have been time to try my hand at something new, but everything I looked at pointed to children and families and media,” she says with her trademark warm smile.
“Mum calls me her Peter Pan – maybe one day I’ll grow up, but I have always enjoyed humour and music and all the things kids enjoy. There are so many wonderful opportunities and such a real need for kids to be kids for as long as possible.”
Words by: Nicola Russell
Photographs by: Jonathan Suckling, courtesy of Woman’s Day and Suzy Cato.