When Hallam graduate Ayo Akinwolere isn’t breaking world swimming records and winning prestigious broadcasting awards against the odds, he’s encouraging diversity and improving the cultural intelligence of the nation.
This summer, Ayo hosted the Commonwealth Games in his hometown of Birmingham, where he’s been the face of the BBC’s TV coverage, presenting a daily show on BBC Three.
Having played in school sports days at the very stadium where the Commonwealth Games was held, it’s fitting that Ayo is the person to be showcasing the diverse and cultural nature of his city to the world.
Born in Nigeria in 1982, Ayo moved to Birmingham with his family when he was eight years old and was known then by his Christian name Andy. Despite loving the city he grew up in, he knew that he wanted something new and at the age of 18 he decided to move up north to study in Sheffield.
Graduating with a degree in Media Studies from Hallam, it was here that he laid the foundations for his career in broadcasting and began to develop the cultural awareness that would shape his values and work in the future.
“When I arrived at Hallam, it was the first time I’d ever been to Yorkshire, and I found myself slap bang in the middle of the Steel City,” he says.
“What the experience taught me was that I wanted to see more of the world than Birmingham. Dancing through the indie scene in Sheffield and going to The Leadmill every week with my friends was a whole new experience for me.
“It took a lot of navigating as there weren’t many people that looked like me at that time at university. It added to my cultural awareness of what Britain represents but what was also lacking within many institutions and spaces across the country. I’ve got a mad affinity towards Yorkshire for that though... Oh, and I love a good cup of Yorkshire tea now too!”
Since graduating, Ayo has gone on to have a successful and varied career in television. His first job was as a runner at the BBC in London and while out celebrating with colleagues one night, he was asked to audition for Blue Peter by one of the show’s producers and eventually offered the highly sought-after role.
“At first, I turned the job down. Blue Peter didn’t really resonate with me at the time and there had also been a lack of representation on the show.
“But then I thought about the opportunity to be the first black male presenter and to reshape how the public think about people of colour. It was a chance to be at the heart of young people’s homes and really show them that people of colour can do anything – including jumping out of aeroplanes, travelling around the world, and even breaking swimming world records.”
After five years on the show and three BAFTA nominations, Ayo was keen to broaden his broadcasting experience further, and after travelling for some time, went on to present a variety of shows, including Fort Boyard and Inside Out, for which he received a prestigious Royal Television Society Award for his documentary on extremism.
Having worked in a range of genres, including children’s, factual, entertainment and current affairs, Ayo decided to give his passion of sport a go. In 2018, he was a co-presenter on Channel 4's coverage of the European Rugby Champions Cup and hosted various rugby internationals for the broadcaster and in early 2022 he presented live coverage from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
Ayo now owns a production company, MilkFirst Productions, and works on the Golazo football show for CBS Sports in America, as well as the Premier League Daily show, and is into his second series for the well-received Why I Run podcast for Red Bull – but returning to his home city for the Commonwealth Games is one of his greatest achievements to date.
“In a TV sense, this is the highlight of my career. I want to work on the best programmes, with the best teams, and this happens to be just that. When I look around and see Gabby Logan, Clare Balding and Hazel Irvine, it feels like I’ve got to the level I want to be, but as ever so much to still improve on.
“My dream has always been to be one of the best broadcasters in this country and not by doing it necessarily the same way the old guard have done it. At the end of the day, I’m a Brummie, I’m working class, I love sport and broadcasting, and I want to have my own voice and tell my own story.”
And he is doing just that, using his profile to inspire young people of colour and encourage cultural diversity.
During his time on Blue Peter, Ayo became one of four people of colour with a swimming world record when he swam five miles across the 8,000-metre-deep Palau Trench in the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first person to swim across the deepest part of the trench and breaking the world record for the deepest location for an open water swim. Following this, in 2015, he created the Swim Challenge – a project looking to prove that people of colour can swim.
“The one thing I’ve always wanted to do in my career is flip stereotypes. I hate people telling me who I should be or how I should perform. After Blue Peter, where I was known as Andy, my middle name, I went back to my Nigerian name because, being both Nigerian and British, it’s important that duality and diversity be celebrated openly and confidently.
“That’s why Blue Peter was important, because it was about changing ideas and stereotypes and just putting that in the heart of kids’ homes during such formative times for their development and education.”
Alongside broadcasting, Ayo’s consultancy, Cultural Agility Sessions, which he co-founded with two friends he met on the Blue Peter set, has worked with companies such as Jamie Oliver Group and Spotify, offering insights into company culture and looking at how company cultures are shaped and how to encourage everyone to bring their authentic selves to work.
“This is a country that needs to understand its identity properly and needs to question this identity. Without this, we won’t be able to develop a modern idea of what being British is meant to be. I think conversation and discourse around this is what I want to encourage, so we can dig a bit deeper into where we are and accept everyone under this big banner that is the Union Jack.
“There’s no better place to have these discussions and ask these questions than at university level. My message to students would be to question everything. If something’s uncomfortable, ask why, if you need more, ask for more. We’re at a time where everyone deserves the best education possible, and you can only get that by both questioning it and by asking for it. You don’t have to believe what you’re told without first interrogating it yourself.”