One fateful day, the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) studios was chaotic when one of its presenters did not show up for work. Chief Abiodun Sanda, Director of Programmes, instructed his protégé to play records to ensure no transmission gaps.
The protégé, training to become a broadcaster, went beyond the brief. He did not just play records as instructed; he delivered a brilliant performance that became a reference point in broadcasting in southwest Nigeria. Chief Sanda was summoned by his superior, the art connoisseur par distinction, Adebayo Faleti, who demanded to know the new voice.
The new voice was Toba Opaleye.
Life for Toba Obaleye began with that August opportunity he seized. Armed with a Higher School Certificate, Toba Opaleye began his career at BCOS on that fateful day on the 1st of December, 1980.
Born Atobatele Okanlawon Opaleye to Christian parents on 13 July 1958, Toba was raised by Alhaji S.B Opaleye after his parent’s death. Described as brilliant and curious, he grew up as his uncle’s favourite in the polygamous ‘SB’ household. Alhaji SB and Toba were inseparable as he helped the Ibadan businessman with calculations and reading letters.
He attended St. Patrick’s Primary School and Islamic High School, Bashorun, Ibadan. His upbringing was at once privileged and tough. Having lost both parents as a child, he endured the intrigues and wiles of the polygamous SB household. He learnt to survive through sagacity and street smarts. The young Toba was involved in various skirmishes and fisticuffs in Abebi, interior Ibadan, notorious for crime and other vices. Mufu Oloosa Oko, a larger-than-life robbery kingpin, ruled the streets of Abebi when he was growing up. Many years later, Toba would regale his radio audience with the tale of Mufu Oloosa Oko. Those tales allegedly inspired the popular Odunlade Adekola film Mufu Oloosa Oko, an adaptation of the true tales of the armed robber. Other notable mythical figures populating many of his radio tales in those days were the Egun Oloolu, Alapasanpa and Ogbonkoko.
He presented programmes on BCOS for three years before transiting to Radio Nigeria Ibadan in 1983 and then to the Ogun State Broadcasting Corporation. Proficient in Yoruba and English, Toba smoothly wove between both languages to satisfy his often multilingual audience.
His ability impressed fellow broadcasters and drew comparisons to his friend, Gbenga Adeboye. While Toba was calculated and assertive, Gbenga was hurried and spontaneous. Between them, Yoruba language and broadcasting stepped to unprecedented heights that were aspirational for their cohort of broadcasters.
In the 1990s, names like Toba Opaleye, Gbenga Adeboye, Kola Olawuyi, Tunde Elegbede, Olusesan Ekisola (pioneer at Raypower FM), John Momoh (of Channels Television), Lola Fani-Kayode, Dele Alake (former commissioner in Lagos), Kenny Keke Ogungbe (of the Primetime fame), Peter Okoduwa, Segun ‘Shy Shy’ Shyllon and many others were on the rooster when you switched the OGBC dial, 90.45FM.
Olusesan Ekisola failed to convince Toba to join the Dokpesi-owned Raypower when it kicked off in 1996. At the prodding of Gbenga Adeboye, Toba resigned from OGBC in 1997 to become an independent broadcaster. They formed the Freelance and Independent Broadcasters Association of Nigeria (FIBAN), and today FIBAN has become the household association for broadcasters wanting to run multiple programmes across several stations.
Toba dazzled as an Independent Broadcaster, presenting programmes with well-researched content across several stations. Some of his famous programmes include Ayo and Toba on Oyo Radio; Toba Opaleye on FM on OGBC 2; Eko for Show on Eko FM; Ijeun Agba on Paramount FM; Lehin Igbeti on Star FM with Tony Tonero; Eto Baba Eto on Radio OYO. Of his programmes, the OGBC-run Toba Opaleye on FM took the crown. He was so popular with ‘on FM’ that his kids were nicknamed ‘on FM 1, 2 and 3’ at their primary school, Army Command Children’s School in Abeokuta! Little wonder his friend, Gbenga Adeboye, also called his programme Funwontan on FM!
A devoted writer with scores of stories to his credit, Toba published a book in 1986 titled Esu Eni Amule ti, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He also published Bawo Ni, a novel, in 1990 and a play titled Olurombi. At his creative peak, he ventured into movie production, music marketing and artiste management. He co-produced Olugbeja in the early 90s and much later wrote and produced Igbanladogi (an odyssey about a wayward woman) and its sequel, Abeni Onipangbe, Yemisi Owereke and Aso Esu Beleke. These feature films ruled the cinemas and home videos in the late 90s to early 2000s, cementing his reputation as a filmmaker. At his death, he had over 20 unpublished scripts, including Alimi Janganjangan, Itan Mufu Oloosa Oko, Yesufu, The Vacant Stool, Ojo Loko Agbado, Kekere Ori Ejo and many more.
While his broadcasting exploits gave him fame, his strength was in conceptualisation, scripting and bringing life to these, be it on radio or TV. His career was littered with well-scripted stories and programmes that endeared him to his audience. Despite being a reveller, Toba spent hours working on his scripts in the early mornings.
Toba was a creative genius to accomplished broadcaster and Toba’s protege, Yemi Sonde. Forever grateful for the impact the late Toba had on his career, Sonde tells anyone who cared to listen that Toba made him.
Sonde recently started his radio station in Ibadan, YES FM, the main studio was named the Toba Opaleye Studios in honour and memory of his long-departed boss and mentor. Chief Abiodun Sanda, the Oyo prince under whose tutelage Toba learnt the trade still uses Toba as an example of a natural broadcaster. With relish, he would tell tales of Toba’s genius and rascality as a young broadcaster.
Toba obtained a Diploma in Mass Communication at the University of Lagos and proceeded to the Nigerian Institute of Journalism for an Advanced Diploma in Mass Communication and a Postgraduate course in Marketing. At his graduation, he bagged the awards for the Overall Best Student and the revered Chief Dayo Duyile’s prize for the Best Student in Precision Journalism. He also obtained an MBA in Marketing from Ondo State University, now Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko.
Toba lived for the arts and he gave his all to creativity. As a music promoter and manager, he provided a platform for up-and-coming and established musicians on his programmes. Many would come from out of town and sleep in his home to attend his morning programmes. His son, Olusesi, recollects meeting the Fuji legend, Pasuma Wonder, for the first time in their home when he passed the night on their couch!
Like many of his peers, Toba loved life and savoured every bit. Perhaps this resulted from him losing his parents early in life or his well-documented social leanings. He was married to two women, Oyeyinka and Abiola, who he called Olori and Erelu, respectively, his romantic endearments for the two women who made his home.
Toba Opaleye died on April 30, 2006, aged 47, from a Kidney related ailment. He is survived by six children: Opeyemi, Olusesi, Oluwaseun (deceased), Omosalewa, Omowonuola and Omotinuola. Atobatele Okanlawon Opaleye may have transited to eternity, his works remain indelible in the pantheon of broadcasting.
Bankole Banjo, a communications expert with one of Africa’s leading financial services firms, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.