It is a Konnect Africa Interview!
Femi Oke is the Host of the highly successful TV and online Show on Al-Jazeera, The Stream. This past week, the delectable and highly intelligent Femi was in Lagos, Nigeria for the Social Media Week. She is so full of life. During the Week long event, she hosted the Africans in the Stream Keynote as well as other highly illuminating and fun-filled events. While in Lagos, she spoke to Konnect Africa about her life, her career, The Stream and her thoughts on social media. Relax, read and be inspired!
From CNN to The Stream on Al-Jazeera…what informed your change of jobs?
I didn’t go directly from one to the other. So I moved from CNN, I went to New York. I had a wonderful job offer in New York. I worked for a public radio in New York for five (5) years as a Senior Editor and also a News Correspondent, and I did all American News. Which is interesting because by then, I had lived in the States for a decade and I hadn’t done any US stories. I had always been thinking CNN headquarters was in Atlanta so it was always looking at the world from Atlanta. So it was interesting to actually spend five (5) years reporting on news for America.
After that, I realised I was really an international person. I realised I cared more about the world than what was immediately the immediate concerns of America. I really am an International person, so if you work for American News, you have to continually justify doing an international story – how does that relate to Americans? what do Americans know about this story? If you try to explain South Sudan to an American audience, it is hard to explain it, there is a lot of explaining to do, before you even get to the latest news. So I realised that my real passion was the world, so I knew that even though I was in radio enjoying it, I wanted to get back to international coverage.
I love Al Jazeera, I love it as a viewer and I love the way they tell their stories. I love how much they cover Africa, how much they cover the world, in a different way. They don’t just follow others. They actually feel like they can set their own stories. The Voice of the Voiceless is a great catch saying, it sounds good, but if you look at the stories, it is really what happens. So, I love that.
I spent a long time trying to get into Al Jazeera. I am glad that I didn’t get the jobs I applied for before (in Al Jazeera). The job that I have right now is perfect for me.
How did this whole process of journalism begin for you? Is a journalist born or bred?
From when I was a kid, I was always asking questions. I always had questions to ask. When I was very small, I used to do fake news bulletins for my family, so I would collect their news stories and do the news for them. Then, I worked for radio when I was 14, so I was a young reporter at 14; it continued all the way through to the University. At University, I worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC]. I worked for lots of radio stations, so when I left the University, I already had 6 years experience working in radio and working for the BBC. Then I just started my career at the BBC, then moved through for many years.
Why didn’t you study Journalism or Mass Communications?
I studied English actually. But because a lot of things people study in Journalism, I had already been doing since I was 14, so all those courses – how to do radio, how to write for radio, I had actually been doing in real life, so I felt I had already done 6 years of real-life radio before I even finished from the University.
What big breaks stand out for you in the course of your career?
CNN. I was very experienced before I got to CNN but in terms of what I do now, which is international news, I am also covering the African continent as well, and covering it with a sense of empathy and understanding, which I think is really important and that didn’t happen until I went to CNN. It took me a long time to find where I would fit, and that was important because you do need Africans to appreciate their stories. Let me give you an example, in 2005, there was the Liberian elections that had George Weah and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf running for President, I covered those elections. The only reason I covered those election was because I said to CNN, ‘we have to be in Liberia for their stories, there are so few stories that are positive stories that we cover in CNN, we have to be there’. They said ‘we can not afford to send you because we have sent everybody to Hurricane Katrina’. They would even send their African correspondents from Africa to New Orleans to cover this major disaster. They had spent all their money. And I said, ‘it is Africa. How can you not go there?’
I looked and looked and looked and found a fellowship. It was a fellowship from the National Association of Black Journalists and the UNDP and they wanted to go to Africa to cover stories. I applied for the fellowship and I got the fellowship. They gave me the money and I said to CNN, ‘I have just got this fellowship to go to Liberia, will you give me a camera man?’ They were like, ‘ooooo….!’ I said, ‘I need a camera man. How can I go without a camera man?’ Eventually, they let me go.
I covered the Liberian elections. we did two Specials. We did all of this covering. I was reporting everyday and now, on CNN’s literature for the major stories they have covered in Africa, Liberian elections is down there. One, I had to beg. They refused to send me. This is why Africans telling Africa’s stories is important because who else would have begged? What other correspondent would have begged to go to Liberia to cover this elections, if they hadn’t been Africans, if they hadn’t understood the importance of these Liberian elections? The first African female Head of State, they didn’t want to send me for that story.
How long were you in Liberia?
We did it very quickly. Because they didn’t even want to send me because they didn’t have money, we did it for about two weeks. and we went back because they were reruns. The only reason we even did it was because I begged and found the money.
How long have you been the host of The Stream on Al-Jazeera?
My one year anniversary is March 11. Because I started a few months before I was on air. Then, my on-air anniversary is May 6. My second story on the air was Boko Haram, on my second day.
So you got into the thick of the action pretty quickly?
Yeah! I am sure people were thinking, this is great… She is doing it… Nigeria, the second day.
What makes The Stream stand out from the myriad online news services?
When you are doing a news story, the news story is only a few minutes long. You have to pack some very important details into a few minutes, even when we do interviews on the news set, it is just a few minutes long. We have 30 minutes and if you include the time before and after online, we have about 40 minutes for one subject. Our audience are asking our guests questions. They are actually holding them to account. Some of the toughest questions come not from me, but from the online audience. They are very direct.
So you think of a subject which will normally get two (2) minutes of news and we are spending at least 30 minutes, even if you are just watching on TV – 30 minutes!! Think of everything you can have and also, we debate it. So it is not even just doing everything in 30 minutes, it is a debate. We are finding out the strengths, the weakness of the conversation, and also it is Live. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know what the guest is going to say, what the chemistry is going to be, if it is a contentious issue, at what point?
We do it Live at 8.30pm Nigerian Time and then the repeats that happen the rest of the day will be repeats. If you watch it 8.30pm Nigerian Time, that is the Live one.
And this happens every day?
We do it Monday through Thursday. We do four editions.
What is the most enjoyable part of hosting The Stream?
For me, it is the Liveness. It is the fact that we have more time. It is unpredictable. The fact that some of the best questions actually come from our audience. Also, I get to work with African-American Malika Bilal who is my co-host. I think it is very powerful to have two black women hosting a very serious show, and we are not talking about make up or fashion.
So, to have two black women hosting a show, we are not making a statement about it, we are just doing it, it is just the norm. For me, that is the difference between Al-Jazeera and maybe other networks. They (other networks) will make a big deal out of it but we just do it. And also, because Malika is muslim, she wears the hijab and so without any fuss, this is her, this is me. I wear my hair and braids, no fuss. She wears her hijab, just normal. To present that as normal is fantastic for young people growing up and for older people who maybe haven’t seen that. It is not unusual to see that in Africa or in the middle east, but to see it internationally, it’s unusual. I think that is very special, so for me, those are the things that makes the show very special.
How did your time and experience on CNN’s Inside Africa influence your work now?
Yes, it came very naturally for me. The thing is that I watched the Stream several years ago and I loved it. and I felt I could do things with this program, because it is Live. I love Live, I love conversations, I love the excitement of mixing all of those different things, sometimes people google-hangout, sometimes Skype, sometimes they are in the studio. This is like, wow! This is juggling all those different things. I loved that. I was following it. I was looking for a vacancy and I kept on looking and looking and looking, then I found it. I couldn’t believe they were looking for a host. I was like, ‘who would leave this show?’ I applied for it and I got the job.
How was the recruitment process?
It was very long and torturous. They spent a long time looking.
I love the passion you bring to the job. Tell us about it
I am very lucky because everyday I get to do something I love. Also, your knowledge grows, because as a journalist, you have to study for different things. so I have to study every day, every week for a different topic from a different part of the world. For me, it is like an education, it is like having this whole education on a daily basis. I go to the University every day.
How do you measure the impact of your reach on The Stream?
A couple of ways we are doing it. Now we are beginning to get figures and data which is great. Before, we were getting more of a sense, like we knew that we were very popular in Nigeria, because you watch any subject and you see retweets coming down. You see all the Nigerian names coming down. We are doing all these subjects about Asia – Nigerian names. We are doing a subject about South America – Nigerian names. Nigerians love to comment on everything, so we knew we had this big popular audience. They were always with us, always discussing so you could just see that from social media.
Al-Jazeera is very popular on the African continent and our biggest most loyal audience is in Nigeria. So it is amazing that for some reason, Al-Jazeera speaks to Nigeria, Nigeria speaks to Al-Jazeera and then of course, you put a Nigerian host on The Stream, Bingo!! Nigeria has a big population and we are very diverse. I love that.
You curate for Upworthy.com; kindly share with us what kind of work you do there. This must translate to a lot of man-hours online?
It is hard. I spend a lot of time. For me, here was my thinking. It wasn’t just good enough to be hosting or presenting a show about social media, and then go home and do nothing. For me, I had to be not just presenting. I have to be in it. I have to be online, I have to be tweeting, I have to be on Facebook, Google+, I have to be writing on digital platforms. Of course I am just talking the talk and not walking the walk.
So to walk the walk, I have to write stuff, I have to be blogging and talking to people, I have to have my articles circulating. Upworthy started recently in the past two years. They wanted to take the idea that there were so many amazing things on the internet that nobody knew about. We shared crazy things, funny videos, a politician having a meltdown, these are not cool things, they don’t change our lives, they don’t make us more knowledgeable about the world.
So we were like, if we share this, how do we make a million people better off for having seen this? It is issues, it could be about poverty, it could be about women empowerment, really serious issues, in a way that is actually very conversational, very accessible, and that was the whole idea, we curate the internet, we are not writing new stuff. We find the great stuff that is out there and we package it and we write a fantastic headline and we say we care about this. I think you might care about it too.
What is the followership?
It is amazing now. You have to look at the Upworthy site then you see the followership, but the idea is that we do it in such a way that you see the headline and you go, “O my God, I want to see what that is”. So you want to read it and you click on it and you go, “I did not know that”. Not some foolishness but something amazing. Simple concept. I am proud to do that. It is tiring.
That means you are awake most nights?
Yeah, I don’t sleep much. I should sleep more.
Social media; do you think it’s just another fad? Are we all making much ado about nothing?
I don’t think it is going to go away. I think it will change. Things change very fast, and very quickly. I think it is a new way to actually interact with each other. So now, if we can interact with each other around the world, how would that change? Would we have less interaction? No! It will just be different. The fact now is that you can send a tweet and someone else on the other side of the world will respond to it.
I have even met people here (at the Social Media Week Lagos) that I have been tweeting to for a year, we have never met but we were friends. So for the first time we hug and now we are online friends and offline friends. So when people think, ‘do you think social media will go away?’ (I respond) ‘why would that go away?’ This is like saying we are going to get rid of the telephone. No! we are going to get better telephones. We are not going to get rid of the telephone.
What is the most amazing experience you have had on Social Media?
There are a couple of things, one is being able to connect the world. The theme for this social media week is connecting Africa and I felt The Stream has been connecting Africa very successfully for several years. That is very special to me. The other thing I think is, you know we always love it when somebody re-tweets us. When you see someone re-tweet you a thousand times, you are like ‘Awwwww’. You get instant validation that someone cares about what you care about.
I am not an organization. I am just one person and I am tweeting myself. For someone to re-tweet you a thousand times, I am like ‘Wow!’ So I ask myself, ‘what did I put in that tweet that I can put in my next tweet?’ For me, that is very rewarding and also, I think that can be the slightly addictive side of social media. You get an instant response when people like it. You don’t have to be a big company. You don’t have to be Al Jazeera. You can be somebody who is just smart or witty, who knows how to construct a sentence and has ideas other people want to share. That is the beauty of social media.
“Africans telling Africa’s stories” is fast becoming a cliche. What do you think?
I feel so a little bit, but I think it is one of those things you can’t repeat enough. Just to remind ourselves that the most powerful stories are the ones that we know we understand and we have our own context for. It was initially, I mean 10 years ago or beyond that, that we were having reporters who were coming from outside of the continent who really didn’t know Africa well and are telling some of our most terrible stories in a way that they only have context from outside and they don’t have context from inside; and context is the most important thing. I speak from the news sort of perspective, if you have Africans telling Africa’s stories, then you get the back story, you want to sound the depth of the story, how complicated it is and how it connects to your audience, and I think I am not saying those are exclusively in the knowledge base of African reporters, but we come to it understanding a depth of the story that outsiders don’t.
Every region will have outsiders coming to tell their stories but the problem was that it was the only version that was being heard internationally and that is where you get stereotypes from, but I think it is less so now and I think also a lot of the international networks who were doing that are changing in the way that they recruit people, in using people who are local, because no one wants to be an outsider and telling a story and feeling that you don’t understand them, not even for your audience.
And you notice it then when you start seeing reporters who are like Haru Mutasa from Zimbabwe, when you see Yvonne Ndege who is Kenyan but she is based in Nigeria; when you come with context to that and understanding, and also empathy with the people you are talking to, it changes everything and you always get more depth that way.
You mentioned during the Keynote at the Social Media Week about the need to go back to our old stories. Tell us about that.
It is like following up. “What happened next? After the protesters stormed the building, what happened next?” Many times, the story filters out of the news and I find that frustrating for me and it is nice to have a go like “Remember this, we said this six (6) months ago, here is the update.” I think that is why people get a little confused.
How do you remain relevant in your industry, year after year?
The online community keep us relevant. Like they would ask us to do stories, they would say, ‘did you know that this is important, check this out’; ‘do you know about this?’ As long as you literally stay in the mix, other people are there to make sure that you are still relevant.
What is your Inspiration?
I have a lot of drive and ambition. I think that came from my parents who had very high expectations, and they expected us to study and to work hard. They were not very specific about work or career or profession- they didn’t mind. They just wanted us to study very hard and for me, that was a very good foundation. I always think about what I am going to do next. What is the next big thing? I never felt that there was any ceiling that I couldn’t achieve. I always think about what else is there. What am I going to do in 5 years time? On my laptop I have a little plan. I literally look at it every now and then, I look at it and say, where am I right now? I feel it is like a road map and even when you don’t stick to the map, at least you know when you have made a detour. If you write nothing down, if you don’t think for it, how do you know if you are going off course? How do you know if you are staying focused? Even if you decide that actually, I am going to head off in a different direction, at least you know that that is not just random.
Also it is funny being back here and I have had a lot of conversations with Nigerians and also Ghanaian friends, and they were talking about the chemistry between Nigerians and Ghanaians; and the Ghanaians have said that Nigerians have a lot of drive and they have a lot of initiative. And I feel like even though I grew up in London, my parents are Nigerians and they brought that and instilled that in me, and I am realizing as I come back here, how Nigerian I am, even though I have a British accent, I live in America, and I grew up in London; that the essence, the parents that bring you up, can only bring you up in the way they were brought up. My parents brought me up as a Yoruba girl and a Yoruba girl with London accent. I have all of that in me, and coming back here, I realize it because I see it in my fellow Nigerians. It is like we all share that drive and ambition. I don’t think it is special. I think that we understand each other.
Our Kenyan friends also say the same thing, that Nigerians are too driven…
We are like, “okay we did this. We are not done. Why will we be done?” We are like, “what is the next thing?” People are like, “‘Oh my goodness, you do so much”.’ We should recognize it because that is what we do. That is how we are wired. I don’t know why. We just are.
Inspire a young African.
This is from my own personal experience. Just because somebody says ‘no’, or turns you down, or there is a challenge, that is not the end of it. Work out a strategy to get to where you want to go even if somebody says ‘no’. We talked about this, the Liberian elections. CNN says we have no money. I found the money, I beg for a camera man. Now they celebrate that story that I did, they celebrate it as part of CNN history right now.
Even though they told me, ‘no’. Like my bosses said, ‘no way’! I went to all the Vice Presidents and they were like ‘No! No! No! NO’! We did it. So I think that was the single thing. You have to have perception about when ‘no’ means ‘no’, you think of a strategy, ‘how do I want to get to where I want to get to’? This is my experience for how I achieve things. Just because I get STOP doesn’t mean I stop.
It is not amazing. It is the Nigerian way.
Femi, we really want to thank you for this interview. Keep doing what you are doing. We are encouraged and inspired.
You are welcome. Just by doing my work, I want to become somebody that people feel they can look up to and see that it is possible. So when Malika and I do The Stream, I want you to see that it is okay for two women, two black people – somebody who wears a hijab and somebody who has a British accent and is Nigerian, that just by doing that show, to let you know that everything is possible.
Thank you very much for having me.