Not many young media practitioners can boast of having bagged an interview with a top international entertainer even before they entered the profession.
But for veteran broadcaster
Dr Allyson Leacock, it was an interview with Sir Elton John while he was visiting Barbados that marked the beginning of an unlikely career in broadcasting.
She had originally planned on pursuing a career in English, dance and drama.
“I had been asked when I was a student doing A levels at Combermere by my English teacher if I wanted to do this programme called Teensville.
During the programme you know I was a teenager feeling fireproof, and nothing was impossible, and I learnt that Elton John was on the island and they said where he was staying and I decided that I would go there and ring the doorbell and see if he would do an interview because I loved his music. And as fate would have it, Bernie Taupin [an English lyricist, poet and singer who collaborated with John] answered the door. I explained what programme I was hosting and then I got the interview,” she recalled.
“And I was really just doing Teensville because my English teacher at Combermere at the time was away for the summer.
And the powers that be at Rediffusion then heard it and tried to get me to get into broadcasting. I was still focused on doing my overseas studies but I did take the plunge because it helped me raise funds for my first year.”
Leacock pursued a joint honours programme in English and Education in Scotland and on completing her studies she returned to Rediffusion.
“I had the joy of working under Julian Rogers, who was our programme director at the time. And I met some wonderful people then who really shaped my professional development as a broadcaster: Linda Walrond, Alfred Pragnell…really top-shelf broadcasters.”
Leacock said she experienced sexism in the workplace very early in her career.
“I was one of the youngest in the business at the time, the youngest female in a male DJ kind of environment. I learnt a lot, and they learnt a lot about me then too, because it’s really easy to dismiss women, well girls—I was still very much a young girl at the time.
“And that was my first experience of the assumptions that are made of women in the workplace. Purely how we are perceived as women and perhaps how you yourself appear as opposed to what your substance or your character might be.”
Nevertheless, “there were quite a lot of males with whom I worked who looked out for me and taught me the ropes as well”.
It was around that time she was approached by the then Governor of the Central Bank Sir Courtney Blackman to run the Frank Collymore Hall.
“And I said to him I don’t know anything about management, you’ll have to train me. He did train me, so I learnt quite a lot. It was my first foray into management. I was 25 at time and it was a very structured environment at the Central Bank.
“Given my love of the arts, I got into the Hall and that also shaped me to realize that there is a very big difference between managing and leading. And I think the lessons that I learnt there served me very well in heading the two statutory corporations that I did, [the National Cultural Foundation and the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation], and subsequently in leading the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV, and now Live Up – the Caribbean Media Alliance.”
The latter, she said, has been her longest tenure in any job, because “the core really was an excellent blend of my experiences in that career trajectory”.
More importantly, she said, it was an opportunity to change behaviours and fundamental scenarios that we confront in the Caribbean.
“My mantra is if it’s not done to the best of my ability, it’s not done. And I hold myself perhaps to the highest standards of perfectionism . . . and I know there is no such thing as perfection but I certainly try . . . because you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes, or you’re very hard on yourself when you do, and you demand that from those who work with you.”
Leacock has held several influential positions locally, regionally and internationally. But it is the introduction of Regional Testing Day, which encourages individuals to know their HIV status, of which she is most proud.
Launched in 2008 in collaboration with Scotiabank and the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP), she describes it as “the most successful public-private partnership that has resulted in the reduction of stigma linked to getting an HIV test”.
Over the past decade, the initiative has tested more than 160,000 people in the region so they know their status.
As the Caribbean joins in the observance of International Women’s Day today, Leacock said she is disappointed that there has not been greater progress in the area of gender equality.
However, she is heartened by the work being done by young activists to address the issue.
“What is the biggest hope is that we have a generation that gets it. We have a generation that’s fearless . . . . So I’m happy to see that level of gusto, of fearlessness in our young people. I think they are far more comfortable in acknowledging women are equal in opportunities, in pay.”