Toun Okewale-Sonaiya is Chief Executive Officer of St. Ives Communications, owners of WFM 91.7, a gender-sensitive radio station dedicated to broadcasting programmes for women and the families. It is celebrated as the first female-oriented radio station in Sub-Saharan Africa. Okewale-Sonaiya began her journey into broadcast journalism in 1987 as a kid presenter with the Ogun State Broadcasting Corporation. She tells Raheem Akingbolu about her background and how her father, ace broadcaster Olawale Okewale of blessed memory, shaped her career and life, generally
Toun Okewale-Sonaiya, the woman behind Nigeria’s first radio station for women and their families, is a delightful woman who has made enormous contribution to the Nigerian broadcast industry. Her late father, Olawale Okewale, was a popular broadcaster at the then Western Nigeria Television in Ibadan and the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, Ibadan.
The familiar faces at the late Okewale’s house in Ibadan during his active years were top broadcasters like Mrs. Anike Agbaje Williams, Toun Adeyemi, and Fabi Olanipekun. Others were Yomi Onabolu and Chief Adebayo Faleti, a renowned poet and dramatist, who recently passed on. These were the people the young Toun Okewale grew up to know with her late father. They influenced her early life, as she saw them as role models.
“I will say my foray into broadcasting was by design because my father was one,” Okewale-Sonaiya said. “As a broadcaster with the then WNTV, my father’s voice was heard far and near in the then Western Region. That is why I can confidently say I was conceived and born into journalism. I grew up seeing top individuals in the broadcasting industry and I got familiar with them over time. They would correct both my tenses and pronunciations anytime they came around and little by little, I was being inducted into the noble profession.”
Okewale-Sonaiya’s opportunity to shine came shortly after the creation of states in 1976, when her father relocated to Abeokuta, the capital of his native Ogun State. The relocation provided the opportunity for his young daughter to have her first personal contact with broadcasting. She got involved in a children’s radio at the Ayetoro area of Abeokuta.
She said, “I started by being part of the programme. Later, I became a co-presenter and at a time I was both the presenter and producer of the programme. That is why till today, I will always refer to Ogun Radio as the station that discovered me. Without Ogun Radio, I will definitely not be where I am today. In fact, when I was in the university, I was working as a duty continuity announcer. I was shuttling between Ogun State University, where I studied English, and Ogun Radio, where I was understudying the likes of Femi Sowoolu, Sesan Ekisola, Peter Okodo, and Toba opaleye. Those were the bosses I had then. The other two people that gave me the necessary exposure then were Busayo Olaifa and Toyin Sogbesan.”
From Adire Trade to School
Despite her early exposure to broadcasting, Okewale-Sonaiya said there was less incentive for her to proceed beyond secondary school.
“It would shock you to know that if I had my way while growing up, I would not go to school. Towards the tail end of my secondary school education, I was involved in Adire, our local fabric business. I would buy them in Abeokuta and send to my cousin in the United States and he would send me some money. With that, I was fulfilled and since I was making money, I didn’t see any reason why I should go to school. But my father, being what he was, said all his children must go to school and, therefore, insisted I went to school,” she said.
Okewale-Sonaiya’s journey into mainstream journalism started after her university education. She was posted to the Oyo State Ministry of Information for National Youth Service Corps, and was attached to the popular Alhaji Arulogun. With Alhaji Arulogun, she was on the Spotlight and Insight beat. The programmes were being broadcasted on NTA Ibadan and BCOS. According to her, under Arulogun, who she described as a father figure and role model, she was prepared for the task ahead.
A year later, the national service ended and she returned to Abeokuta, where she officially joined Ogun Radio again. Her second coming coincided with the inauguration of OGBC 2. Perhaps, by providence, her voice was the first to go on air on OGBC 2, the FM arm of the radio station, when it was inaugurated. This was when she got her full employment as a staff of the broadcasting station.
She later moved to Daar Communications and became a presenter and producer on Ray Power. She was later moved to Africa Independent Television, the television arm of Daar Communications, where she headed the sales and marketing department.
At a time when many thought she had gotten to her final destination because of the fame the organisation gave her, Okewale-Sonaiya left DAAR Communications for the UK. There, she worked with Choice FM, now Capital Extra, before returning home.
‘No One Has Taken Advantage of Me’
Reports and allegations of gender-based harassment and exploitation are rampant nowadays in the various professions. But Okewale-Sonaiya says no one has ever taken advantage of her.
“Absolutely, nobody has ever taken advantage of me. I have heard some say I’m gullible, but they have never taken advantage of me. Over the years, I have had men nurture me, I have had men respect me, I have had men love me, I have had them inspire me and I have had them encourage me, but nobody has ever taken advantage of me,” she stated.
Okewale-Sonaiya is also never intimidated.
“I was raised in a family where one was independent,” she said. ”It was a family of four girls and a boy and everybody was treated equally. My father exposed all and gave us equal opportunity. You had the floor when you have anything to say and nobody would bully you. As a broadcaster, my father knew the place of communication in children’s upbringing and he explored it to the fullest. We were trained in both formal and informal education. This was the background I took to the newsroom.”
But Okewale-Sonaiya never allows her accomplishments to make her conceited. She is always minded to pause and look back at where she started.
“Iyalode Alaba Lawson once said anybody that forgets his or her source has lost it.” The WFM boss said. “Even before she said it, I knew where I was coming from; I was brought up by two wonderful disciplinarians – my father and mother. They thought me to be humble and respect people. They thought me to appreciate people and know the daughter of whom I am. Besides, I have a very good support system, my husband, children, siblings, my friends and colleagues. Without them I will not be where I am today. So why will I take them for granted or be arrogant.
“Above all, integrity matters. I value my heritage and I respect my father’s name. Why will I jeopardise my marriage? Why should I drag my family’s name in the mud? The moment I do what is contrary to our family ideals, I have disrespected the name and what my parents stood for.”
Okewale-Sonaiya, who disclosed how she met her husband in London during one of her holidays, said the man in her life bought into what she was doing from day one and has since, been supporting her.
“I met him as a broadcaster and he understands what it involves. He shares my dream and he supports me. He knew I had always wanted to have a radio station but no resources and so when the opportunity came, he didn’t only welcome it but also contributed in no small measure,” she stated. One year after, she talks about her experience in the operation of the first Nigerian radio station dedicated to women and children.
“Today, everything is about niche market, so ours is a station that takes care of everything you want in your family,” Okewale-Sonaiya stated. “The experience has been wonderful. Within three months of our transmission, we got adverts and got sponsorship for our events, we were excited. Ours is a radio station for women and children and our vision is to be the radio station that everybody can trust when it comes to information.”