Ahead of the inaugural Birmingham Festival we caught up with host proud Brummie, broadcaster, producer, world record holder and so much more, Ayo Akinwolere
Images credit Natasha Pszenicki
Our chat with Ayo was lengthy – he talks a lot and at lightning pace. Brimming with energy and enthusiasm, much of it for Birmingham, he’s a doer with plans and a desire to make things better. He’s the embodiment of that wonderful Jack Lemmon quote, send the lift back down. Well, elevator, but you get the drift.
Ayo’s established in his career and has a foot in the broadcasting door, so through his production company he’s connecting young people starting out with the channels and professionals he has a relationship with. He’s keen to change the landscape of the industry giving more women and different ethnicities a leg up too. He tours British universities with his lecture Finding Your Voice inspiring students to be broadcasters or performers in the TV industry whatever their background. A good egg we’d say.
Ayo’s CV is massive and varied and too long to go into in detail here but it takes in Blue Peter, award-winning documentaries, sports presenting and reporting, podcasting, current affairs, writing for the likes of the Telegraph, Huffington Post and BBC Radio 4 as well as enjoying ambassadorial roles with charities Street Child United and Crisis. He also mentors young people in Birmingham through The Prince’s Trust. Phew.
Ayo arrived in Selly Oak from Nigeria in 1990 aged eight and remembers seeing snow for the first time. He recalls the city feeling richly multicultural which he took for granted. He says: “I studied in Sheffield which is also multicultural but nothing like here. Birmingham’s a different gravy.” The love for his hometown is strong so when Birmingham won the Commonwealth Games bid, Ayo pitched hard to be involved in the BBC’s coverage.
He recalls: “It’s very rare for a major sporting event to be in your home city, so yes, I pitched the head of sport at the BBC.” Little did he know the corporation’s head of sport had already earmarked plans for Ayo during the Games, not least his own BBC3 show. Ayo remembers the energy of London 2012 and wanting the same for Birmingham and says proudly: “That’s what we executed. We gave it the authenticity it deserved and the buzz in the city was insane. Normally we don’t shout loud enough but there was a pride in everyone’s eyes.” In terms of legacy, Ayo’s keen for local communities to benefit. He says: “Birmingham 2022 felt like a community Games. I used to run at Alexander Stadium as a child and to see it now is magic.”
Birmingham Festival is looking to harness the spirit of the Games to mark the one-year anniversary. The 10-day festival will be a celebration of the city, so naturally Ayo jumped at the chance to get involved. He will host the opening event, A Thousand Welcomes, on 28 July in Centenary Square. Ayo’s hoping the festival will showcase Birmingham through a Birmingham lens – a celebration of multiculturalism and a real party atmosphere. He says Games mascot, Perry the bull is due to make an appearance as well as potentially the real star of the Commonwealth Games, the mechanical bull who’s officially been named Ozzy in tribute to Brum’s iconic rocker Ozzy Osbourne.
It’s set to be a heck of a 10 days that will boldly showcase Birmingham’s talent and reputation as a world class destination for major events. Raidene Carter who was involved in the cultural events in the run up to the Games, is the festival’s creative director. She says: “I am immensely proud of the Festival. We have pulled together a programme that highlights the breadth of talent in the city. All that’s missing is the amazing Brummie turn-out – last year we saw that audiences in Birmingham are the best! They’re relaxed, up for fun and so welcoming to visitors from outside the city. The excitement is building and we hope the warm weather will hold so that people can really make the most of the creative and welcoming site.”
QUALITY OF LIFE
Of the city generally, Ayo’s full of enthusiasm for the way it’s changed in recent years. He says: “It’s starting to fulfil its potential.” He thinks the brain drain has reduced and the creative industries are thriving, so there’s little reason for young people to leave the city to pursue a career.
As well as career prospects, Ayo thinks the quality of life, the space and access to greenery all impact the decision to move and stay in Birmingham. “This city has it all,” he says. Amen.