By Eseosa Olumhense
In the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional mix of midtown New York City, Adeola Fayehun is planning the shoot of episode eighty-one of Keeping It Real, her popular African news satire show on Sahara TV. She remains relatively collected, even though the sidewalk-scorching heat of the July afternoon, the cacophony that is the city’s endless soundtrack, and a last-minute delay in shooting caused by construction at Sahara TV’s studio might be enough to wrench the screws off any TV show host’s patience.
What accounts for her calm demeanor? Perhaps it’s because the self-described satirist is not simply the host of Keeping It Real, but also the producer, writer, camera person, and video editor. She’s also in charge of wardrobe as well as hair and makeup team behind the long-running program. She knows it is solely on her to deliver the quality production her viewers have come to expect after eighty episodes of Keeping It Real. More so, she knows that any time spent worrying is time lost doing something else.
While it is rather tempting to just discuss Keeping It Real and all the hats Fayehun has worn in the last eighty episodes, eighty different times, it is Fayehun’s character off screen that is especially significant. After the teleprompter has scrolled to each episode’s final sentence, and the massive studio lights are shut off, Adeola Fayehun appears quite reticent and reserved. “I always have to get in character for Keeping It Real, so some people are surprised when they meet me in person,” she says. In addition to poking fun at the likes of Zimbabwean leader, Robert Mugabe, on air, she enjoys watching movies, cooking, and unwinding like everyone else.
Born in Nigeria, her love for the media began early – as a member of the press club in secondary school to be exact. “I loved reading the news,” Fayehun says with a wistful smile. This passion for journalism stayed, and when Fayehun entered college in Nigeria to pursue a linguistics degree, she soon realized that was not what she desired. She moved to the United States in 2003 to pursue her collegiate education at Michigan’s Olivet College. There, while earning a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications and Journalism, she began hosting a Christian radio show and writing for the school’s newspaper.
Her most impressive accomplishment, though, was starting the Olivet College TV Studio. “At the time they didn’t have a TV studio,” she recollects, “and I wanted to be on TV. I talked to my advisor and she said, ‘why don’t you make it your project?’” After extensive research, Fayehun successfully presented the project to the school president and administration, and Olivet College’s television studio was born.
After Olivet, Fayehun attended The City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism, pursuing a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism. Though it was a very competitive program, it was the only one she applied to.
After grad school, Fayehun worked as a producer for CUNY TV Channel 75 in midtown New York. When she left CUNY TV, she began freelancing as a foreign correspondent for the popular Nigerian daily paper, The Nation, and created the website africanspolight.com. It was her work at CUNY TV that actually led to her first encounter with SaharaReporters’ founder and publisher, Omoyele Sowore, in 2009.
“When I was working at CUNY TV we focused on community media here in New York,” she said. “Sahara caught my attention.”
After getting approval from her supervisor, she did the first video profile of SaharaReporters’ Sowore, which included clips of his activism that Fayehun, as a Nigerian with knowledge of the impact of corruption, felt resonated with her.
“It came out well,” she says of the project. And she was not the only person that thought so.
Sowore, who later saw the video, liked the project and appreciated the strength of the video work. He invited her to help him with SaharaReporters, editing videos for the growing project. The role soon expanded, as Fayehun began operating the streaming device for the weekly live production, as well as producing and editing a brand-new Sahara TV program, Dr. Damages. “I was doing all of it,” she laughs.
Her involvement at Sahara TV increased when a position opened up for the station’s weekly news report. The vacancy prompted Sowore to ask Fayehun if she was interested in filling in and doing the news program, an offer she accepted on one condition: that she get to do the news her way. On the choice, she says, “I personally don’t see anything interesting in just listening to news, I just get depressed. If I myself get depressed then you bet my listeners are also depressed. If I can make it in my way and make it fun then I can do the news.”
Episode one of Keeping It Real, which she admits she was “goofing around” with, was produced completely by Fayehun. “I did it, I shot it, nobody knew about it. I edited it, and I put it on Youtube, and I sent him [Sowore] the link,” she says.
“And he just fell in love with it, everyone loved it. They thought it was fun and funny and informative at the same time. Then they were expecting episode two!” she exclaims.
Seventy-nine episodes later, Keeping It Real has grown tremendously. The program, which had a first episode that was just over four minutes, now has weekly episodes that run around twenty minutes, with the occasional thirty-minute feature. The show’s audience has also expanded exponentially, drawing in crowds from around the world who look to the show to clue them in on African news. “I get several emails from people who tell me they don’t read news anymore because it’s depressing,” she said. “Instead they tune in to Keeping It Real to know the latest and to get a good laugh while at it.”
Fayehun believes that the next five years will see the program at another, larger phase of growth. “I see Keeping It Real doing better than it is right now, with more viewers and being picked up by more stations,” she says confidently.
When asked what has challenged her the most, Fayehun confesses that one of the most difficult parts of hosting Keeping It Real is coming up with the stories and writing them, while the challenge of editing the show comes in at a close second.
When it is suggested that online threats from angry viewers could be a more significant challenge, Fayehun brushes that off. She says of irate viewers: “Sometimes a few of them will write threatening stuff, but mostly it’s just abuse and hate comments. But there are encouraging comments on YouTube as well.”
One might also be tempted to imagine that coming up with effortlessly fashionable, shoot-ready outfits each week would present some significant additional difficulty, but Fayehun doesn’t stress this. Instead she says she is simply motivated weekly to look good while staying modest. “My job requires I look good, it helps to catch and retain the attention of viewers,” she states. If viewership counts are any indication of the success of this thinking, she is right.
Fayehun likens her show to other satirical news shows, like SaharaTV’s Dr. Damages and Kenya’s The XYZ show. She reveals that Keeping It Real had its most notable episode when it discussed the UK bombing. Viewership spiked after that point, and has increased steadily ever since. One of her episodes also went viral among Ethiopians. “Someone in Ethiopia told me episode 47 was banned because I talked about their former First Lady not wanting to leave the palace,” she says.
Fayehun advises all young journalists to take in everything about the field whenever they can. “Try to learn all that you can learn, take advantage of all the equipment that you have, and learn how to use them. Find out what the engineers are doing. Find out what the producers are doing and learn it, learn your craft.”
Her rationale comes not only from experience, but from practicality as well. The media world, she claims, is looking for people that can fill a number of roles in addition to being active in all facets of the newsroom.
Building on that, she also encourages young members of the press, especially women, to be open to constructive criticism, but to learn never to take it personally. “Women are not encouraged in our culture to be vocal or to be politically active. Also, some men are not ready for the era of women in power,” she says in reference to the notion that African women cannot be effective political commentators.
“People will criticize you whether you do well or not,” she says, recounting some experiences of her own. “You have to be comfortable with who you are, and be willing to make necessary adjustments.” She states furthers: “The day you start listening to people’s criticism is the day you start living for other people. And you can’t afford to do that, not even for one day.”
And judging by Keeping It Real’s longevity, it seems Fayehun has figured a formula for doing an extraordinary job – and having fun doing it.
This piece was first published in the Nigerian SUN newspaper