I FAILED AS A MOTHER – VETERAN BROADCASTER, JULIE COKER

JULIE COKER: I failed as a mother:
Ace broadcaster, Julie Coker, is among the pioneer presenters with the Western Nigerian Television (WNTV) in 1959. Coker, one of the early presenters trained abroad, told FLORA ONWUDIWE that most of the newscasters of the 21st century wouldn’t be employable in their days. She also spoke on other issues. Excerpts…

Life in broadcasting? I retired in 1993. It has been very exciting. I thought after retirement I would be able to go and stay by the rivers, I come from Warri and there are so many activities in the riverine area. I lived in a kind of sober atmosphere among my people, the Itsekiris, and there were a lot of Yorubas, Ijaws and people from other tribes living in the riverine areas. You learn something from them. When I left school, I thought of doing the same thing. I taught in the Catholic school and it really helped me because I wanted to do something where I will be close to the people; to seek my own life after school. I felt like doing more of the same thing after retirement. My broadcasting was full of life, it was like a vocation and I did it like I owned the station. Even as a presenter I had to do many things; sometimes in the morning we would have Educational Television (ET) in Ibadan and in the afternoon we would have two interviews and early in the evening there would be children’s programmes. And there were not many presenters, most of the people that were doing news casting went out to the fields to do documentaries but mine was not as a desk staff but studio bound. And if I am on call, I would wait for the announcer to report for duty before going home to see my family. So that was the kind of life I lived, it was a full life. Sometimes after work, we also have to socialize, we had a social life in Lagos, I was very active then and I was young. You mean you were in front of the camera for solid 35 years? I moved from being in front of the camera to the commercial department, now it is called marketing department. While in the department you could go into business or own advertising agency. I needed a break in between, but then I had other commitments; I had a very sick child, I had to take care of him as well. So I was in and out of the hospital. You were the second female presenter when the Western Nigerian Television (WNTV) started; who was the first presenter and who were those that came after your set? My colleagues were Anike Agbaje Williams, Nelson Ipaye, Kunle, Olasope, Brian Cowarn, Tunde Adeniyi, John Ediang, Elsie Olusola, and the first female Operations Director Yetunde Olaniyonu Dada

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What’s your critical assessment of newsreaders of 21st century, compared to your days in broadcasting?

In our days, we set a very high standard; we were trained by British or Americans and other professionals from Australia. When we were in Ibadan, people did not know the type of people that were there. The managing director of the WNTV was an English man, Mr. Mat Mathers, while the head of presentation department was an Australian, Mr. Blackledge. The first black Nigerian that was at the top, the head of the production, was Mr. Segun Olusola (of blessed memory) and he was in the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) which later metamorphosed to Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), so we took directives from them. I was among three people including Charity Adadevoh and Segun Smith nominated by the first Information Minister, TOS Benson, for a study visit to America. I was sent to Norridge in America, UCLA in America by the WNTV. They were offering a kind of exchange programme from Independent Television (ITV) in United Kingdom. I was the first person to be sent to abroad. I was attached to Norridge television and later I came to BBC; so standard had been set then. Most of the people that were recruited later, some of them never had that kind of background. All of them were greenhorns; I learnt on the job too. I went to Catholic schools, where I was well formed and grounded in speaking English Language fluently. I was auditioned and one of the panellists, Hedley Chambers, asked me: ‘how come you speak without a Nigerian accent?’ That was because we had Nuns who were Irish. I had basic knowledge about elocution, but the other people that came after never had the kind of opportunity and training that we had. But we were able to impart some of the knowledge to them. They learnt very quickly on the job, presenters like Siene Allwell-Brown, Joan O’dwyer and Bimbo Roberts/Oloyede. It was easy for Bimbo because she went to school in England; you could judge from her performance. Some of them are trying, but you cannot compare with the original broadcasters of pre-Independence. Maybe that is where we had that type of problem, but I still believe that they are doing their best. The crop of presenters we have now cannot even pass the audition in our time because we were NBCTV before we became NTA. We had to go to NBC to collect Daniel Jones for the kind of auditioning texts that you quickly go through, before you spend 30 seconds in front of the panel. From the auditioning, they will know who will be trainable; I don’t think people go through that exercise now.

With these high standards, what were the prerequisites for a good newsreader?

You must have a good disposition, a very pleasant approach to life, the voice was the main thing; you must have a clear diction that people can understand. If you have a speech defect, it will be very difficult to say you want to go into broadcasting. People speak through their noses with a kind of guttural delivery and you find them on the air these days. There are so many factors that are involved. The whole world now is judged by status or whatever. If someone writes a note ‘please employ this person,’ it will be very difficult to say that you cannot employ that person. When Mike Enahoro came and his brother Tony Enahoro was the Minister of Information, he proved to be among the best newscaster we’ve ever had. So you cannot judge from the statement I made, it does not really work out that way all the time. Because of nepotism people want their sisters to come into broadcasting. Even in our own days other people came but they had to leave because they could not fit in, and they were sent to other departments, library or other areas where they could function properly.

There were no institutions that offered a related discipline, yet the standards were at par with the British…

There was training school at NBC, we had continuous trainings. Every Thursday we had what we called post mortem and it was at this stage, people were weeded out. Some people you see on the screen within a month or two they were sent out to other departments. There were people like Christopher Kolade who was Director General of the old Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) now Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) and NBC/TV, which was Nigerian Television Service (NTS). He would collect your tape and play it back and God help you if there was any single mistake you would be sent back to the training school and if you were monitored for a while and could still not measure up to the standard he would send you back to programmes.

You won Miss Western Nigeria in 1957 organised by Daily Times of Nigeria (DTN). That same year you were also first runner-up of Miss Nigeria contest, what was the dress sense like then? Did the beauty queens appear in revealing bikinis?

There were two different outfits that we needed to wear then; one a smart short sunny dress. We had them by Kingsway Stores, it was usually readymade, because nobody had time to go and make dresses at that time. We had some big fashion houses then; Danasil was a famous Italian fashion house followed by Shade Thomas and those ones charged very high prices. And then second, you had to come in your native attire, if you were Igbo, you wear Igbo attire, if you were Yoruba you wear Buba and Iro, Itsekiri you wear fashion close to your tribe. That was what the first Miss Nigeria wore to contest in 1955/1956. She wore Buba Iro and Aso oke. I can’t remember her name now. The smart dresses were like a normal evening wear which can go for an Oscar; that is the one which you would receive the crown or the coronet, the bouquet or flowers in if you were declared the winner.

With all these accolades, you were like nectar to be attracted to the bees; how did you fee handling all these and walking on the streets?

I won Miss Nigeria contest in 1961, it was London version, and in the United Kingdom; I was already a presenter and was crowned by the Nigerian High Commissioner in the United Kingdom Alhaji Abdul Mallik. You know when you went for beauty contests, there will be prominent members of the society as audience, who were special guests of honour.I always had some people to protect me like my guardian angels, so I was able to weather all those storms without being dragged here and there by top people in the society. I was very level headed because of my Catholic background. Even at home my mother and stepfather, always made sure that I was well protected. When we were young, you must get home before 8pm, so going for beauty contest was quite a big challenge. Teresa Ogunbiyi, who was the woman editor of Daily Times, she was the first black woman to become the editor of Daily Times, guided all of us in the right direction. They told me that I won Miss Western Nigeria, because I walked gracefully. And that I was first runner up for Miss Nigeria contest because I did not walk like a queen, that I was walking like a soldier, marching. That was the critique I got as feedback; it means that I was not meant to be Miss Nigeria, so I took it by my stride.

You said you grew up in a strict environment, so how did you get to know about the beauty contest?

I had this friend who was formerly a teacher in the Convent School in Warri; she later became Major Rita Olupitan. I used to follow her around; I was looking for a job at the same time looking after my mother. We read the newspapers every day and we came across an advert on the newspaper asking people to send their pictures for Miss Nigeria competition and there was this very lovely picture of mine taken by one Jackie Phillips and she said that the picture looked nice. Both of us were invited for the contest and I thought she would win and if she did not win she would come second and I would be at the background. It was like an adventure going to Ibadan to take part in something like that. So we got someone to take us to Ibadan and we were both wearing the same outfit, she looked so elegant and I was on the plump side and I was surprised that I was won.

At that period you were engaged as a presenter, the Civil War was already brewing before its outburst in 1967; could you recall any pleasant encounter with military personnel?

Sometimes we would be invited as celebrities in Ibadan; that is where they have the second division. It was not only me, we would be excited to be reckoned with and they would be excited as well. And some of the officers would want to have a chat, I recall that one of them came to me and asked if I would love to come for a dinner to mark the Independence Day of 1965/66 and I had just returned from England. And this young officer drove in a Jeep to go for a dinner with me and I was properly dressed, I did not go with him because of the type of Jeep he drove; we had just been given brand new cars by the organisation. In fact, no-body would want to ride in the type of Jeep now, but if it were the types of Jeep we have now, yes we could ride in them. The Jeep is like the tricycle of these days. The back of the Jeep was open; it was the front of the Jeep that had seat.

How did you meet your husband, the late Mike Enahoro?

What attracted you to him? I had my first marriage at a very tender age, Michael would have been 60 next month (the interview was conducted in January 2019). I called my son Michael while I called the father Mike. Mike and I were mates in school, he attended St. Gregory College and I was at Holy Child, Obalende, but I don’t think that at that time we would have thought of speaking to each other for marriage. We were both presenting a programme, Lagos Scope. It was a magazine programme and I was single. Then, it was Nigerian Television, Service (NTS) before it became NBC/TV. We were married for nine years, he met somebody else who came to do holiday job in broadcasting; he found her attractive just the way he found me attractive too .

Did the Union produce any child?

Yes, Richard, that was the one that died in England, he was a sickle cell patient. Even after the death of our son we were still friends.

Mike knew that both of you were not going to have children that was why he remarried?

Yes Mike knew that both us were not going to have children.

And you did not remarry when Mike left you for another woman?

No, I did not remarry. Not that I did not have a relationship, I was just engrossed with the job and all the young men and women, who were my relatives, I had to look after them. Of course, there is no way that you will not relate with anybody.

You released three albums under E.M.I, what kind of music?

The first song was folk song sang in Itsekiri; my people sing the song when I am around, but the other songs are sort of flying in the air, but I tried to jazz them up.

A life book was presented to you in the UK; what does the book say about Julie Coker?

The book talks about my life just the way we are talking now. The whole idea of the book is what I have just talked about now.

At 79, do you feel fulfilled?

I feel much fulfilled; I think God gave me a talent at the early stage of my life and in that area alone I feel fulfilled. There is no area of broadcasting, radio or television, that I haven’t fulfilled in my own time. I have done all this to the best of my ability. I was able to blaze the trail particularly in the area of news casting, and I can say if you give me a script I can still perform as a newscaster at 79. That gives me satisfaction. It gives me satisfaction looking back at least for the people who employed me, if they are dead, and they wake up they would attest that I scored high.

If there is reincarnation, would you want to go through same process in your life?

Oh yes, I want to be a broadcaster again; I want to come from same place all over again but I have failed as a mother.

Why did you say that?

Because I had three children and they all died. One died as a toddler, I haven’t been able to get over it; that was about 50 years ago. The one that would have turned 60 this year died last year. Somebody looked at me and said how come you are mourning all your children. When I had them I offered them to God but He, in His infinite wisdom, He felt that this was how long He wanted them to live, so that they would not fall into sin and end up somewhere else. He has taken them to a place because I know that they all died as Christians in state of grace.