It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Definitely, Peter Okwoche has come a long way.
Spurred early in his career when he received the Best Presenter Award while working as a DJ/presenter with Radio Benue (Nigeria) in the early 90s, Okwoche has gone on to achieve global prominence. Since 2004, the Nigerian-born journalist, who used to play guitar in a band at university, has been working with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Passionate about his job, country and changing the world for good through his profession; he travels around the world covering major news stories and interviewing many global figures. “The best way to understand a story is to experience it and the BBC gives you the opportunity to do that… I have travelled to places that I would otherwise never have been to,” he said.
Although far away from his home country, Nigeria, Okwoche, who holds a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Jos, Nigeria, acknowledged that life and working in London have also provided him with new experiences plus he hasn’t missed much of his favourite Nigerian delicacies. Like he puts it, his wife cooks the best ‘edikainkong’ (vegetable) soup in the world!
Recently, I caught up with Okwoche in London and he was glad to be on the other end of the interview. As expected, ‘he’ made a great piece.
SU: Being the son of a diplomat father (former Nigerian Ambassador to France), how was growing up like for you?
PETER OKWOCHE: It was really a great experience. I was just getting into my teens at the time and you know kids adapt easily to new cultures and experiences. I learnt the language quite fast. I still speak French and Paris is still my second favourite city in the world, after Jos, where I was born.
SU: How did you make the transition from print to broadcast journalism, having worked with Hints, once regarded as Nigeria’s leading romance magazine?
PETER OKWOCHE: Actually I was a Radio DJ before I ventured into print journalism. After my (National) Youth Service in Bauchi State, I taught English and Literature for two years at a secondary school before going into Radio. I’ve always loved music and by that time, I had played in several bands. So, getting into Radio was easy for me. I also really enjoyed working as print journalist.
SU: How much has your print journalism experience helped your broadcasting career?
PETER OKWOCHE: I believe it enhanced my writing skills. And at that time I was working with some brilliant young writers, like Toni Kan, Helon Habila and Dozie Njoku – all established writers now, who really encouraged me; and although I was older than them, inspired me as well. As a news reader today, I have to write my own introductions (what we call ‘cues’) and I believe working in print has been of immense benefit to my career. Now that I’m working in television and online, I can say I have covered all mediums in the industry.
SU: You once stated that you actually got into radio by mistake; when someone who worked in a radio station came to your father’s house, heard you talking and convinced you to come for an audition. Could you shed more light on your foray into broadcasting?
PETER OKWOCHE: Like I said earlier, I taught for two years after I graduated from the university. And teaching was not what I had planned as a career; but my parents, both having started out as teachers, thought it was the best place for me to (also) start. I was quite an impatient young man and they felt teaching would teach me patience. And as always, they were right. Teaching also taught me how to speak in public too. I loved it! But when the opportunity came to work in radio, I grabbed it. It was a new opportunity and I was going to learn new skills. I went for my first audition and waited for six months before I heard anything from them. Then they made me come in for another audition and within two weeks, I was undergoing training as a Newsreader and Radio DJ!
SU: The BBC is highly regarded by many worldwide as the doyen of broadcasting. Have you had any opportunity to train and share your experiences with broadcasters in Africa?
PETER OKWOCHE: Yes. I meet young African journalists all the time, both abroad and when I come home to Nigeria and they all ask me how they can get into the BBC. I always have the same answer for all of them; you have to stay true to your love for the job. If you love it, it will love you back. There are a lot of brilliant journalists in Nigeria, but my fear is that the young ones are being infected by this ‘brown envelope’ syndrome. It’s killing our profession in Nigeria. Once you collect a ‘bribe’ (because that’s what it is) from someone you have interviewed or are about to interview, then you can no longer hold that person to account or ask tough questions. Invariably, it means you no longer have a story, which means you are not doing your job! On the other hand, I also like to give them tips on writing for radio and television and generally how to increase their stock.
SU: What are some of the most embarrassing moments in your professional career, both as a broadcaster and print journalist?
PETER OKWOCHE: To be honest, there haven’t been many ‘terrible mistakes’. But that’s down to the fact that I have had brilliant mentors who always taught me to research my subject thoroughly and also to check and double-check my facts. However, I remember one episode which reinforces these values in my career. Then, I was still working in Nigeria and a colleague, who was meant to interview some doctors about a new blood bank, had called in sick. My boss asked me to step in and conduct the one-hour live interview. I was like, ‘well we will be talking about blood, how hard could it be?’ Five minutes into this one-hour interview, which was live, I ran out of things to say. Don’t ask me how I got through it, because I don’t even know. But it taught me a valuable lesson: never go on air if you are not well prepared, (because) you will only make a fool of yourself. I still cringe when I think of it. I’m happy to say it’s never happened since then.
SU: Before joining the BBC, you had worked with Radio Benue, Makurdi, and also with Rhythms 93.7 FM, Abuja. If you were given a juicy multi-million naira offer to return to Nigeria to work for one of the major broadcast stations, would you jump at it?
PETER OKWOCHE: I don’t need a multi-million naira offer. The plan has always been to return to Nigeria when the time is right. When I feel I have learnt enough, I want to go back and teach young people about the joys of broadcasting. I love my profession and want others to fall in love with it too. I guess it’s the teacher in me coming out. Life is a cycle, right?
SU: You have also travelled around the world to cover stories and interview prominent personalities. How has the experience shaped your life?
PETER OKWOCHE: The best way to understand a story is to experience it. The BBC gives you the opportunity to do that. Each time you are sent to do a story, you live that story a little. I have worked in current affairs and sports and both have their own excitements. I’ve also travelled to places that I would otherwise never have been to, even places in Africa. It’s been such a great ride and I’m still enjoying it.
SU: Having been away for so long, what do you miss and don’t miss most about living and working in Nigeria?
PETER OKWOCHE: The good thing about London is that I can get almost every Nigerian food that I like here. And I like my Nigerian food. As a Benue man, if you give me pounded yam and vegetable soup, then you have me. I travel home quite often too, sometimes for work and sometimes on holiday. So, it’s not that bad. But, I do miss home. My parents, as well as most of my friends, still live there. Sometimes, what depresses me the most is when, on my way back from work, I call my twin brother in Abuja and find out that they (he and all our friends) are having a drink together, while I’m in the London cold… that’s when you miss home. It’s also very important to me that my children know that Nigeria is home.
SU: How come you are still an avid Arsenal fan, despite the fact that Arsene Wenger and his boys have not won a trophy in the last eight years?
PETER OKWOCHE: Arsenal runs through my blood, I could never switch to any other club in England. My wife, kids and most of my extended family members are all Gunners (fans). I also support Lobi Stars in Nigeria because they are my home team. I used to watch their home games in Makurdi back then and I still follow them. Although, both my teams are not doing too well at the moment (even though Lobi are in the CAF Confederations Cup), but I still love them. I am a true fan.
SU: What’s your advice to those who would love to pursue broadcasting as a career, but don’t know how to go about it, especially now that some ‘prominent’ broadcasters have little or no professional training?
PETER OKWOCHE: It’s a big shame, really. There is so much inexperience on Nigerian airwaves these days and that’s scary. Once a university student speaks with a pretentious accent, stations want to snap him up. I once told one of these ‘presenters’ that she needed to brush up her news reading skills, and she told me she wasn’t interested. The lady is still presenting at the same radio station and she still reads the news! How can you take such a person seriously? These kids just want the fame or notoriety that being on air gives them. I haven’t been to one radio station in Nigeria where these presenters are made to work shifts in the newsroom. How can they then know what they are doing? As for getting into the industry, many of these stations offer internships and work experience. So, it’s a good way to get a foot in.
SU: After your National Youth Service in Bauchi state, you worked as a trainer in the State’s Arts Council and then as an English teacher at the Government Girls Secondary School. If you were to turn back the hands of time, would you change those early days?
PETER OKWOCHE: I wouldn’t change anything! Not for a minute. I’m lucky in the sense that I am doing what I love to do at the highest possible level – just like a footballer who wins the World Cup! When I look back, I realise that every single step I’ve taken on this journey was a building block to where I am right now. I am grateful to God because He has guided my steps.