Agatha Amata is Nigerian media’s most audacious gambler

Agatha Amata

In April last year, media personality and television host, Agatha Amata concluded plans to hand over hosting duties for her perennial television show, Inside-Out with Agatha after twenty years at the helm. The transition would start with The Search, a seven week reality television audition and interview process that would eventually culminate in the unveiling of a younger, brand new host.

After twenty years of staying front and center of the talk show which had become the longest running independent talk show on Nigerian television, Amata was ready to take a bow.

It is difficult getting data on viewer ratings for television programmes in Nigeria, and as such, hard to say exactly how many viewers Inside-Out was averaging per show in its later years but Amata had decided to leave while the ovation was still pretty much within audible decibels.

Twenty years is a lot of time and Inside-Out, which at some point in its remarkable run, used to be the most influential talk show on television, especially among young people, had since ceded some of its audience to higher profile gigs anchored by Funmi Iyanda, Mo Abudu and much later, Ebuka Obi-Uchendu.

Even when Inside-Out, which started its life in a classroom at the University of Lagos, didn’t quite have the formidable reach of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), or the glossy and elevated production values of DStv, or even the direct line to the youth demography, Amata found a way to keep it going, putting out content that spoke directly to its niche audience.

There were the occasional big ‘’gets,’’ as evidenced by exclusive sit downs with then governors, Babatunde Raji Fashola and Emmanuel Uduaghan of Lagos and Delta states but for the most part, Inside-Out stayed true to its socially conscious origins as Amata churned out episode after episode dealing with topical issues like women’s rights, gender- based violence and environmental protection.

To keep the engine running, there were private and corporate sponsors along the way, and Amata certainly wasn’t above using her connects to scare up commitment from big government. Even when people weren’t watching, the name recognition was a stamp of approval. From government offices to community advocacy spaces, everybody knew about Inside-Out with Agatha.

Not bad for a show that wasn’t quite conceptualized when it first went live on national television. Starting on the Africa Independent Television (AIT) network, Inside-Out with Agatha, which has been redubbed, The Inside Out show, now airs Sundays on Channels television with repeat episodes on RAVE TV and WAP TV. Amatha told Rubbin’ Minds Ebuka Obi-Uchendu in August 2017, “I was losing touch with what was happening and I wasn’t communicating well with the youth on their level, so I knew it was time to move on.’’

Moving on for Agatha Amatha does not involve going gently into the good night. She jokes when she refers to herself these days as a pensioner but her second act is very much in motion. In 2014, Amatha became only the second Nigerian woman, after EbonyLife’s Mo Abudu to launch a television network, when she commissioned the Lagos based RAVE TV, an interactive entertainment and lifestyle channel. In addition, there is the Asaba based TREND FM 100.9 radio station launched about a year later.

Humble beginnings

Born Agatha Nwakalor on 4, November 1969 as the first offspring to parents who were civil servants- her father was a tax officer, mum was a teacher- Amata had a pretty stable, well-adjusted childhood until her father passed away when she was in Form two. The responsibility fell on her mother to raise seven children and in Amata’s estimation, her mother did the best that she could to ensure all of them graduated University.

Amata and her mother did not always get along and in interviews, she details episodes- like jolting them up from bed with a splash of cold water at 4am, cleaning their faces on dusty surfaces- that would pass for abusive behavior in developed climes. But Amata says those practices have made her stronger.

Even when she showed aptitude for broadcasting, Amata was pushed to study sciences because for students who posted decent results, it was the fashionable thing to do. She secured admission into the University of Jos where she struggled with the course work. She once quipped in an interview, ‘’I studied Botany in school, but I don’t know any plant except roses.’’

While in school, Agatha met Fred Amata, a Theatre Arts student and scion of one of the biggest showbiz families to come out of Nigeria. They started out as friends, then grew apart, before a romance led to marriage in 1994. The union was gifted with two children, a male and a female.

After watching many chat and game shows on television, Amata decided she wanted to do something similar here in Nigeria. Without a background in the media or experience- she worked in finance for a spell-, she went about making extensive consultations and thanks to hubby Fred, was able to lean into experienced hands.

For the very first InsideOut shoot in the University of Lagos, Fred Amata reached out for support from a murder’s row of his colleagues. Chico Ejiro, Kingsley Ogoro, Tade Ogidan were some of the heavyweights on hand to direct the debut episode titled, ‘’Would you marry an artiste?’’

According to Amata, it was a multiple camera shoot and she was encouraged to ditch the traditional script as the task of engaging directly with an audience came naturally to her. Students were invited to serve as the studio audience and they had to record as much as six episodes at a go. After shooting, Amata would hit the road, searching for television stations interested in airing the content. The first episode of Inside-Out aired on 12, July 1997.

Sharing life issues

Gradually, as Inside-Out with Agatha began to find its audience, Amata began to find herself. Practically everything she has learned, about production and about the media business has been gleaned through direct experience and a willingness to learn. The media space in Nigeria is particularly rocky and there haven’t been many proper role models to look up to, but Amata has been able to sink her hooks in and carve a space for herself.

Inside-Out became the go to place for Nigerians searching to unburden their minds as Amata provided a welcoming space where all kinds of discussions could be played out. Amata welcomed prostitutes, widows, homeless kids and even the occasional criminal and gave them a chance to tell their truth without judgement. Okay, maybe with a little judgement.

In an interview marking Inside-Out’s fifteenth anniversary, Amata pointed out a particular episode, Show me the way home, about a Nigerian woman recently released from incarceration after spending fifteen years in a Thailand prison, as a personal favorite.

Inside-Out spawned an offshoot, Inside-Out Extra but it wasn’t enough for Amata and she began to look beyond independent producing, for other ways of creating content across various media. She produced her first home video, The Addict, as a follow up to an experience of substance abuse that was first shared on the show. Directed by Fred Amata, The Addict was a family affair as her younger brother, Tony Nwakalor was cast in the lead role, alongside a supporting turn from Kate Henshaw.

During the shoot for her second film, Widow, also an adaptation of an Inside-Out story, lead actress Stella Damasus lost her husband, Jaiye Aboderin suddenly. According to director, Kingsley Ogoro, Damasus on returning to filming, requested that some of her experiences be included in the final cut.

It took well over ten years for Amata to make a return to film and in 2018, she settled for Disguise, a dismal, no good, attempt at plumbing the minds of both sexes starring Nancy Isime and IK Ogbonna, with funding derived from the Bank of Industry.

With shows such as White House and Imoda, Amata has also ventured into curating content for television away from InsideOut. As Managing Director of Inside-Out Media Ltd, a media consultancy and production outfit, Amata counts among her client list, the Delta state government.

Standing alone

In 2005, the union between the Amatas had collapsed amidst accusations of infidelity on both parts. They went their separate ways and Agatha kept her ex-hubby’s last name. Because Fred was the showbiz exposed half of the union, it seemed for a spell that his departure would mark the end of Inside-Out. But Agatha had spent the last eight years in the trenches, directly getting involved with all aspects of the business. By the time her partner left, she was more than prepared to lead.

Amata poured herself into the work and InsideOut kept growing from strength to strength. Beyond her skill in front of the camera, she had learnt how to market herself and seize business opportunities. It helped that she was genuinely invested in the work and was enjoying every step of the way. Speaking with Tribune newspaper’s Tayo Gesinde last year, Amata observed, ‘’ Once I started it, I fell in love. It wasn’t work to me, there were times I sat on the floor and cried but it never crossed my mind to stop. I think the staying power is knowing there was no plan B.’’

Even though Amata had always had it in mind to own both television and radio stations, she did not quite have a plan as to how it was going to play out. However opportunity met preparation when the moment eventually came around and Amata was there to seize it.

While doing some consultation work in Delta state, Amata noticed a vacuum in radio programming. There was no private radio station in Asaba, the state capital and the reception from neighboring states like Anambra, shut down at 10pm. Having made an unsuccessful bid for a radio license in Lagos, Amata transferred her application to Delta state and this time, she was successful.

Amata also secured a digital national license and decided to host her TV station on a platform. Thus RAVE TV, an interactive television platform on DTT (transmitting on GOTV (CH113), Startimes (CH125), MYTV and Abuja DSO Free TV (CH 745) from Lagos, was born. At the official commissioning in 2014, Emmanuel Uduaghan, former Delta state Governor and one of Amata’s biggest benefactors, expressed his delight. “We are proud of Agatha, who has proven that Nigerians can influence the government by giving the public platforms to express their views on how they are governed.’’

Adebola Williams, a media entrepreneur and co-founder of RED media, speaking at the same event, observed that Amata, ‘’has been a friend, a mentor and aunty to us for over ten years. Her platform has not only given us life and given us hope, and helped us build what we have built today, but it has also done so for a lot of people…She inspires us daily.’’

She counts the lack of power as the most important challenge to businesses nationwide and recalls being frustrated by high diesel costs and unexpected power surges capable of destroying expensive equipment.

Letting go

Beyond its unprecedented staying power, if there is one thing that Amata is proudest the most about Inside-Out, it is the impact. Inside-Out has not only served as training ground for some of the country’s brightest media and entertainment talent, it has been able to create change in the lives of some people whose stories were shared.

Amata has tried to give back to society through the Foundation for Effective Socio-Economic Change In Africa (FESECA), a non-profit organization, as well as her multiple speaking engagements. At the office, Amata insisted on setting up a crèche to help relieve staff who are young mothers. For her, this was non-negotiable.

However one chooses to dice it, Amata is a genuine Nigerian success story and Inside Out Media is proof. She created an intellectual property out of nothing, built it into a successful, hydra headed business and was able to pass it on to a younger generation while moving on to bigger responsibilities. She certainly has a thing or two to teach younger business types.

Cynthia Eze, winner of The Search and present host of The Inside Out show, knows that she has big shoes to fill but she welcomes the challenge. In a Rubbin’ Minds interview, Eze expressed her preparedness to excel, “I believe in what Agatha has achieved and I strongly believe that if Agatha can do it then I can do it. Yes I feel pressure, and some other things but I strongly believe when you take the first step and the other, it gets better”.

As for Amata, running a television station is a different beast altogether and her predecessors, Mo Abudu and Oprah have both learnt the hard way, having gotten their hands burned at different times.

As both RAVE TV and TREND FM struggle to find their footing and voice in a media space that often feels crowded, Amata will need all the persistence, skill and determination that made InsideOut an enduring property, raised to a greater power.

The task is daunting, no doubt but if there is a short list of people who can get the job done, Agatha Amata is somewhere at the top.

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