Mrs. Adesuwa Onyenokwe epitomizes beauty and brains. A mother of six, nothing about her svelte and sweet looks suggest that she’s been through childbirth that number of times. A broadcaster par excellence, she also publishes Every Woman, an unputdownable glossy as well as tutors both the young and old on the art of speaking well, elocution, among other things.
An ex-student of Emotan Preparatory School and Idia College, both in Benin, Edo State, she was also at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife where she bagged a degree in Drama and much later, the University of Ibadan, where she added a master’s in Language Arts to her academic laurels.
Born on August 8, 1963 and married to Engr. Ikechukwu Onyenokwe, she obliged YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, ample time on Friday, February 12, 2021.
And together, they looked at the art of speaking well, broadcast journalism in Nigeria, her family, business, passion and more…
Now, to have a taste of success in the media what must one do?
Persistence and passion. Well, persistence more or less is what keeps you going. You have to have an interest and you have to believe in yourself. Persistence is the No. 1 ingredient. But of course, you have to have the skill too. But even if you didn’t have the skill, and you are persistent, you will learn and improve yourself. That’s it!
So, what are the attributes of a good broadcaster?
One of the primary things is diction, and when I say diction, it does not necessarily mean that you have to speak like the English man. It means you have to be audible, you have to practice your script and have complete control of whatever it is you are delivering – whether it’s a script, or you are just speaking extempore. If you know what you are talking about and you practice and you learn; like personally, I try to learn a new word, maybe not every day. But at the beginning of my career, everyday, I tried to learn a new word and learning is not enough, you also have to sound it. But the most important thing is understanding what you are going to read or present. Because, that way, you can present it with confidence. You will find that most people think it’s about how the words are sounding – what we call ‘sprispri’ in our side. But the truth is, with the right pronunciation, what you should aim for is to be understood. That’s why you’ll find that people who may not necessarily speak the Queen’s English can still communicate in whatever environment they are in. If you are a Nigerian now and you are struggling to speak the Queen’s English, and you don’t have all the sounds right, you may lose people. But if you have the sounds right, even if you have an Igbo accent and you are speaking and they understand what you are saying and they hear you, the chances are that you will communicate. However, if you are a broadcaster, the onus is on you to learn how to sound words right, because people are going to be learning from you and for that, I believe you must practice.
As a media person, what are the attributes of a good story?
The stories that touch the heart. First of all, the stories that are human, stories that when I listen or I read, I can find myself in them – whether it’s finance, whether it’s literature, whether it’s science, whatever it is you are telling me, if you can paint pictures that I can see myself in, that I can identify with, I would listen to you, or I would watch you or I would read you. So, that’s why a story that can connect to whoever it is, that’s consuming your story, that’s a good story.
Most times, it’s stories that touch the heart. Sensation works, because you want to get away… When we hear that other people fail, like we do; we want to know that people are human and they don’t succeed or even somebody succeeding. You want to be like that person. That’s why you find sometimes that people would rather read sensational stories – because basically, our lives, to us, is boring. So, reading about other people takes us away from our problems. That’s why, for example, you’ll find that comedy works. Things that are funny or things that are worth laughing at. So, you are going away from your problem. But it’s only temporary. The stories that you don’t forget are the ones that you actually take something from, the ones that actually will help you become better. Those are the stories that people don’t forget. Yes, people may watch the sensational ones, people may listen to the sensational ones, but they probably will not leave a permanent impact on them. From experience, that’s what I think works, that’s what I know works.
What are the attributes of a good magazine?
Hmmmm! It depends on the public you are talking to. You have to be very sure of your public. I, for example, have been determined to talk to women primarily, because I know how important they are in the society, and because they are the glue that holds society together. So, I’ve deliberately thought to communicate first to women, because even if a woman picks the magazine, a man can still identify with it, because he will understand and probably learn a little bit about what makes women tick or how women’s mind work or things like that. Or you’ll like to look at the pictures or learn from some of the stories we publish. So, it’s a function of what’s your target market? And what do they want? If you can give them what they want, then you are a good magazine. So, whatever it is you are publishing, you have to decide, okay, what do I wanna tell people, who do I wanna talk to?
You know, in those days, we used to call some publications junk. I’m sure you remember? Junk publications and such things. But junk publishers had their public – people were struggling to read them. I don’t wanna call names, but that’s the truth. It’s a market they had chosen to speak to. That’s their market. You have an entertainment magazine, you are talking about entertainment. You have a market. So, if you are feeding your public what they want to read, then you are a good magazine. But I may not want to read junk. That’s my personal choice. But you see, you’ll find that because you want to sell, sometimes you feel let’s do this, let’s publish this kind of magazine, because people are buying it. But it may not be what you are good at or what you really wanna communicate; then you will never do it right.
If I decided to do junk today, I wouldn’t even know the first thing to do. Because you have to have the language right, you have to have the pictures right and you have to have the heart to do it. But if you call me today to come and tell you stories about women, or about what makes women tick, or about what makes the female mind, how it works, I will do it, because that’s what I like. It’s going to be easy for me. I won’t even have to think.
What are the attributes of a good interview?
Maybe because I’ve done more than 30 years, I can afford to define that. And I can also be described as an authority of sorts. So, attributes of a great interview… I realized that the best interviewers are those who are curious. If you are curious, then you are more likely to listen and be able to catch some things that will help you bring follow up questions, that will bring out more. So, you first start by being very curious and then with time you learn to listen and don’t interject frequently. I used to have a problem when I’m interviewing, where I interject. That’s because in my head, I know where I want to go and if I think the person I’m talking to is driving slowly, I’m going forward. But at the end of the day, my viewers don’t benefit. So, whether you like it or not, every interviewer knows where they are going, most times. Now, I’ve learnt that even if I know where I’m going, I may find other areas, if I only listen. And that’s why I try to listen a little bit more… For example, for television, for live, you have half an hour or even like Instagram, you know what you want to say and you are determined that you must finish it within 45 minutes and so if the person you are talking to seems to be wasting time, you try to urge them on. But you have to learn that I may know where I’m going, but where the person is taking me may just be more interesting than where I’m going. When I have an interview that’s live, for example, I always tell my guest, you know what, let’s agree on some things – if I start to twitch my finger, it means that I want to interrupt you. So, you should know that I have something to say. The same thing, if you want me to stop, give me a silent cue. These are some of the things I teach when I’m teaching communication – about doing a great interview. There are some things that you do that you’ve learnt over time. But at the end of the day, the strength of an interview is in how much the interviewer is able to get out of the person and the subject – with regard to the topic they’ve chosen and if they have brought enough clarity to those who are listening or watching or reading.
To continue to be relevant, what must today’s journalists do?
You have to find out what’s working and what’s not. Take for example, all us, even oldies like us have had to go to the digital space. The point is, what do you wanna do? You wanna communicate. What’s the mode of communication at any point in time? You got to use it! And you got to learn to use it right. So, the best of communicators or the best of people who are in the media are those that learn to innovate. I describe myself as a ‘technoslow.’ It’s still not very easy, but I learn. And I’m willing to fail and start all over again. In the past, when I will do an Instagram Live, after five minutes, the guest drops off, I start to panic, I start to worry – can I go on? What did I press? Talking to you today, what happened was, in trying to fix my telephone to the stand, I pressed my off button, and my power button went off. Ordinarily, I would be shouting, but I called for help immediately. I called my 19-year-old, I called my husband who has a better understanding of technology and we managed to get it right. So, if you have to be relevant, you got to move with the times. Try and be ready to not be the best at the beginning. There are people who are experts on this platform now, but they didn’t start yesterday. They grew on it. So, grow on whatever platform it is that is available to you, and use it well – because, remember, your job as a media person or a media practitioner is to communicate through education, information, entertainment, whatever. That’s your job, that’s your passion, that’s your desire. So, find the means to do it and innovate, if you have to.
What’s your candid assessment of Nigeria’s media industry and the practitioners?
I will say I personally like the fact that there is more democratization, where you don’t have to own some huge media outfit to be able to communicate. I like that! That’s one of the beautiful things that the digital space and technology have done. In the past, you would have to use some media organization to pass on your message. Now, you can just start your own and go to YouTube or Facebook if it’s audio visual or go to Instagram. Even if you are not doing this live conversation, you can type, send your message, send your communication. I tell journalists, you don’t have to say I want to be a reporter anymore. No! Your phone is a very powerful tool. Go ahead and report. When you see information that is key, so long as it’s not a lie, you can use it. It may only be two people that are watching, but they can pass it on if your story is true, if they can verify it, and your story is engaging and it’s catchy, people will move it. Whether it’s through WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, etc. But I would appreciate it if people are a little bit more responsible using it, because we must thank God that social media exists. Otherwise most or some of the advancements that we have made, we won’t make them. Imagine all those forward, forward, forward… Something happens and suddenly it’s all over the world or all over the place. All these smart phones that we have can be put to better use. You can use it to inform people within your group and slowly it will grow. But use it responsibly. You are only one data connection away from passing information. So, I think it’s a good thing that it’s been democratized, but I just wish people will be more responsible. And then again, the way we consume information here – let’s take it with ease.
What mistakes must every journalist flee from?
Copycatting, photoshopping. You just take somebody’s story and that’s plagiarization, if it’s in a written form. You don’t have to be like the next newscaster, you don’t have to be like the next writer, you don’t have to be like the next radio presenter. No! You don’t have to be like them. You can create your own niche. Find the basic elements. What are the basic elements of writing? You have to be able to string words together, you have to be able to put tenses that are correct, you have to be able to write stories that are not boring, that people will sit down and be reading and they won’t get your message. So, find what works for you. I find people trying to copycat and be like the next person; instead of seeing what that person is doing and say how can I make it my own? There cannot be another Adesuwa Onyenokwe. Never! It’s not possible. We all have our individual finger prints. But there can be people who do what I do, and they will do it differently and they will have their own stamp. So, we should refrain from copycatting, refrain from plagiarizing, because if we keep copycatting, we will keep jumping from one person to the other and the other. There’s nothing wrong with having a role model or having a model with the kind of thing you like to do, but do it your own way. Learn the ropes. Don’t just go and start writing or be on television or whatever. Shadow some people and then find your own path.
You made your name as a broadcaster at NTA (Nigerian Television Authority). What is your take on the current state of presentation in the media space?
I was like maybe third generation of the NTA people. We were like a close family. When we were working in that space, we didn’t have the best of facilities, but clearly, everybody worked because they loved the job. The pay wasn’t good, but the fact that you had that job, you liked it. We worked and we enjoyed it. So, we gave our best. But our best finally didn’t take us home. It’s true! When television was liberalized and more stations opened, some people moved away because there were better salaries. But even those stations can’t afford to keep people – because the cost of running the stations is not easy. So, what I’m saying is that if it is for the money, the media really doesn’t pay much and you and I know that. But you can use your credibility or your name to make an income in different ways. Like when you are on the job, do it because you love the job. Do your best. Instead of you saying oh, my salary is not good and therefore I won’t endure. If you are a good writer, your byline is there. If you are a good broadcaster, you are a good broadcaster. It doesn’t matter whether you are on Channels or Arise or NTA or TVC, if you are good, you are good. So, hon your skill where you are and do it well. The truth is that media organizations are only trying to pay well. We know that advertising is what keeps them going. The economy is not that great and there are so many media houses now. I think most of these journalists, the ones that get it right always make it. I mean, you are there. As a presenter, for example, if you are very good, you can be a master of ceremonies, you can anchor events. But they will have to see you first that you are good from your job. If you are a good writer, through your byline, they will look for you when they want to write speeches, they will look for you when they want to edit books. So, just do your job well where you are. It’s very important. When I see people not doing good on air, it pains me, because they are killing themselves.
Other than emceeing, writing speeches and editing, what are the other legitimate avenues through which a journalist can make money?
They can endorse products, they can produce. For example, because I was a reporter and I used to go out, I did documentaries. Most of my colleagues were commissioned to do documentaries too and you can also get other jobs. You can do two lines of business. The fact that I’m a broadcaster, if I have a sense of style, for example, I can be a stylist, I can start providing services to people and making money. Whatever it is I am good at, apart from being able to speak, I will create another business out of it and begin to do it. You can manufacture, you can produce something. So, it’s a function of what works for me.
At what point did you decide to be a broadcaster and what prompted it?
Hmmmm! That’s a tall order. I would say it was by accident, even though I always knew that I would be in communications. But to be on television was really by accident, because it’s just about being at the right place at the right time and then you having the interest. You know how they say it – opportunity meets preparation. I’ve always liked communications and I’ve always wanted to be able to package information, because I was only a child when I used to admire the Coca-Cola commercials and others on television. So, from childhood, I had always read to myself – you know how kids are, you are thinking that you are going to be newscasters tomorrow… I’ve always learnt, tried to read and speak correct English. But the first time I ever went on television was in Sokoto during my youth service and the producer of the youth programme, who is Danladi Bako, didn’t have his presenter on and I told him I could do it. Then, I was the assistant. And he said are you sure you can do it? I said yes, I can do it. That’s how I got on television in one day. After that, I said to myself, television is not a bad idea after all. So, when I came back to Benin – then it was BTV. Bendel Television Authority. They were advertising for newscasters. I said okay, why not? I don’t mind being on television. Let me go and try. I auditioned, I got it and that was it. In being a newscaster, I remember (ex-President Ibrahim) Babangida came to Benin that time for an inspection or something and they were looking for reporters too! I said I could. My boss said you again? I said yes, I can do reporting, I will go. I offered myself, I went, covered it and came back. So, I became a reporter/newscaster. When I changed to NTA, coming to Lagos, it was easy for me because I already had that experience. That’s to tell you it was a marriage of my desire to be able to marry pictures to sound and to stories. I just love it. For me, it wasn’t about coming to read the news, it was about being able to communicate the emotions of the story and that was why broadcasting got me. I’m an audio visual person any day. Even though I publish a magazine, you will find that I publish a lifestyle magazine that is largely, almost audio visual, because it’s mostly pictures. Fine, fine pictures, words, and they attract you and you want to feel them.
What was the most memorable thing that happened the first day you went on air? Can you remember?
I really can’t remember, but every time I go on air, it’s always the same thing. Even after 30 years! I still feel a little anxiety, a sense of butterflies flying in your tummy. But now I see it as adrenalin. And it’s because I’m doing something I just love. So, I’m not seeing cameras, I’m not seeing people, I’m just thinking about what I want to say. So, for me, it’s always an excitement. So, I’ll say it’s a little bit of fear, but it propels me. So, the very first time, maybe excitement and that is what I still get.
To speak well, what must one do? What are the secrets?
You’ve got to learn. For example, it’s like saying you want to speak Edo language very well. How are you going to learn to speak Edo language if you don’t stay around people that speak it? And keep asking – how do they sound this? I mean, like my name, A-d-e-s-u-w-a! I will tell you what it means, I will tell you how to sound it, I will give you the syllabus. English is like that. Adesuwa is four syllables. Let me give you another example with an English word – development. Four syllables also. So, you have to learn the dynamics of the language. All languages have a structure. It’s simple, you listen to people and you practice it… You have to practice it o! It’s practice, and it’s actually easy. I can teach you the basics in two or three hours. But you have to practice it yourself everyday and be ready to have people laugh at you and still continuing, regardless. It’s practice. Practice makes perfect.
From NTA, you came up with Today’s Woman magazine. What later happened to it?
Well, on TV and also the magazine. Tell us about the two.
Let me tell you the story. Now, Today’s Woman on television, at the time I started it, I think I had four children or so and the something was becoming difficult balancing it with work. I love my work, so I was always going for assignments. But it was becoming more difficult. I wanted to be more in control of my time. Again, over time, as a reporter, I knew it was difficult for me to get people to respond to interviews. So, I said okay, why don’t you leave and start a newsletter. In the course of that, I decided, okay, instead of a newsletter, start a magazine show on NTA, where you worked before so that at least you can have some soft landing. Get 30 minutes on air, get your bosses to give you credit and you give them content and you both can make money. That’s how Today’s Woman started on television. But when it was becoming very tedious to keep it going, cost-wise; I was on NTA, and when they want to play a programme, they remove my own, I said okay, you know what, I just wanted women to have a window, let me go to magazine, let me go into print, because I still found there was a space there. So, we moved to print. That means we are going to shut down the TV, because I can’t afford to keep it going and there were many more stations then. We were losing viewership in NTA and I wasn’t getting as much patronage as I would have liked to in NTA to keep it going. So, I went into magazine. That’s why I started a magazine. That was in 2007. That’s 15 years ago. I was still working part time with NTA though – presenting One on One. Because I like to interview people. So, I was doing One on One and I was doing my magazine. I was feeding my two desires – audio visual and print.
Eventually, One on One was terminated, because I moved on and they too moved on. And I came back on air, to television again, still interviewing people, with Seriously Speaking. Which also had a four-year run. This time, it was a collaboration with two organizations – Ultima Studios and Channels TV. That one had a lifeline till we rested it, because we were tired. But like I said, we keep coming up with new things and we keep innovating. Very soon you are going to see Indepth on Facebook and YouTube.
You sure have written hundreds of stories in your career. Of all these stories, which one is the most memorable and why?
You know what – it’s like asking me which child I love most? I love them for different reasons. I don’t do investigative reporting all the time, but I know some special events I’ve covered – like when Pope John Paul was here in 1988. I was one of the people that covered it and I still remember it. I’ve covered a lot of memorable things – being part of the panel that interviewed former President Goodluck Jonathan was also good. It was good to the extent that you had people abusing you for doing one thing or the other. They said why didn’t you ask him this question? Why didn’t you ask him that question? I’ve had a number of great stories. Great people I’ve interviewed too.
What’s the greatest thing that journalism has done for you?
It has taken me to different parts of the world. I’ve met all kinds of people. It has made me even more liberal, because I remember in those days when I was on Newsline and we travelled to different parts of Nigeria. It started to make me see people just as human beings. I could identify with people from any part of Nigeria, because I went all over Nigeria. Until you interact with somebody, they don’t mean anything to you. So, with this, I’ve learnt to be more tolerant and liberal, because I’ve seen all kinds of people. I’ve seen horrible people and I’ve seen great people from different parts of Nigeria. There are very, very terrible Christians, very, very terrible Muslims; there are very, very terrible southerners, there are very, very terrible northerners, there are great southerners, there are great northeners. But I always wish to only talk about the best in people, to encourage people. I don’t like telling stories that discourage people. Let’s always talk about the good people – even when we recognize the bad that they have.
What would you have wanted journalism to do for you that it has done?
Make me money (laughing), make me a multi billionaire, make me as rich as Aliko Dangote. I don’t think there’s any journalist that has made that kind of money except in the other parts of the world – or those that use their journalism to do other things.
Who would you have wanted to interview that you have not been able to?
Two people from Africa – maybe Nelson Mandela – to see how he managed for 27 years in prison. And you know, funny enough, right now, as we speak, do you know one person I would also like to interview? Donald Trump! Why is he so crazy? I mean, I like to get behind the minds of people. I remember when I did an interview with Bob Risky. People were like ah-ah! How can you interview Bob Risky? But I was curious. So, maybe now, in Nigeria, who would I like to interview that I haven’t? Maybe Shekau. Ibrahim Shekau. If he’s still alive o! I don’t know whether he’s alive or he’s dead.
Any regrets as a broadcaster?
Hmmmm! No! No! If I did, I can’t remember any one. Because I retired from NTA… I voluntarily retired. I’ve always moved with the times. Even though at each point in time, I won’t say I wasn’t afraid of what will come, but I’ve always done what I wanted to do. Of course, with encouragement from people. But I’ve always done what I wanted to do. I may be slow in some areas, but I really don’t have any regrets. Okay, maybe I should have started Instagram much earlier… But when you wake up is your morning.
You still look good and intact for someone your age. What’s the secret?
I beg your pardon, Azuh! But what’s the secret to looking good? It’s only in the mind o! If you feel old, you look old. I mean, the gray hairs are there standing (pointing to her head). But there are some people who have gray hairs at 22. However, your bones will tell you, you are old, whether you like it or not. So, you’ve got to keep exercising them. I was reading recently about how we age from the legs upward, which means you have to keep your legs moving. Walk, move around so that you have energy. But there are things you can actually do to make yourself have energy – exercise! No matter how little. It might seem like it’s difficult, but the truth is that it’s the kind of body that you want that you get. I just don’t want to carry weight around, because I think it’s a lot of work. So, I try. I’m not saying that I always succeed. But I try, I make a conscious effort, finding the information that will help me to feel better and look better, because really, why should you look old, when you can look healthy? Why?
How does it feel to be a mother of six? You don’t also look it…
I actually have seven. I raised seven kids. But I didn’t push one in the labour room. It’s a function of… Having many children, it costs more money, it takes more of your time, but it is a sacrifice that you have to decide that you want to make. If you did it out of choice, then you have to find ways to manage, which I have done. And the truth is, the older ones will look after the younger ones. It means that you are paying more school fees, so you have to work harder, it means that more children are pulling you, because they call me mama, mama… But you have to learn to know when to shut them out and not shut them down. So, it’s something I chose to do. You want one, two… whatever number you decide to have, know that every child is your responsibility and you have to live with the consequences of your action. Instead of grumbling, oh, I have seven children; nobody forced you to have them. So, you have to learn to take good care of them.
Tell us more about your family…
I have a family of seven children – two girls at the beginning and two girls at the end. Three boys in the middle. So, I had two girls first, three boys, then two girls. Five of them have graduated. No. 6 will be graduating soon. The seventh is just 19. The others are all working – they are not all around here. One is in the UK, three are in Canada, one is in the US and the youngest one… So, they are all relatively good kids. I’m married to a man that I am his only wife and we’ve been married for 33 years.
What made you say yes to that one man and accept to spend the rest of your life with him when he wooed you? What was that one thing he said that melted your heart?
It was his sincerity. Sincerity and loyalty, because you can tell when a guy is sincere. So, if you are gonna score him over one hundred, from day one, he was already at more than seventy; he got to one hundred at times. He knew where he was going. Not like people that didn’t know what they wanted or where they were going.
On a final note, it’s obvious that God has been nice to you. What more do you want from Him?
I want to see my grandchildren. I was just thinking about it. I lost my mom recently – she was 87 and in the past three or four years, because I lost my father about five years ago. After our father died, she was moving from house to house. So, she’s gone round all the children’s houses these past four years. And when she finished the rounds of seeing all her children, she went to rest. So, I also want to be able to do that. She lived to see her grandchildren.