Ashley Akunna is the even-toned host, and behind-the-scenes boss, of GrapeVine TV, a YouTube web show with a panel of black millennials discussing trending news topics. Ashley studied film at the University of the Arts. From a young age, she knew she wanted a career in media. At first, her interest was in acting, but she had an “aha moment” when her acting coach advised her to write her own scripts and stories in order to cast herself. “I never wanted to be at the mercy of a casting agent,” says Ashley. Our founder, Eyitemi Popo, linked up with Ashley for a chat about creating GrapeVine, investing in her career, and her plans for the GrapeVine’s future.
Did any of your previous work experience help you with the production of Grapevine TV?
After college I was the assistant to Bradford Young, a cinematographer who shot Selma and is currently working on the next Star Wars movie. Though I worked with him for a short time, he was definitely an influence in developing my production skills.
How does your Nigerian heritage inspire/influence your work?
I grew up in a non-traditional household. My parents are traditional with language and culture, but they are non-traditional in the sense that they aren’t strict. That’s what allowed me to study film. They never pressured us to do anything other than our best. I also actually came up with the idea for GrapeVine while watching news programs with them. I would watch different shows with them like Rachel Maddow, Chris O’Donnell, and think: “Why is there no millennial perspective on the news?”
What other women in media do you look up to?
I look up to Oprah Winfrey, aka Mama O. I grew up rushing home to watch her. I respect her journey so much and admire her tenacity. She also done an amazing job turning OWN around. She is also non-traditional in terms of her family life; not choosing to get married and have kids. Though I want a family, I like that she played on her own terms. Liz Hernandez is a millennial media personality I respect as well. She is a host on Access Hollywood.
What led you to hosting your own web TV series on YouTube? Did you always plan to host or were you more interested in shaping and telling the story from behind the scenes?
As I get older, I appreciate the people in the background making the money and cutting the checks, but I also realized I had the skills to execute and knew I had to be in the forefront at least to start. I couldn’t trust it in the hands of anyone else. I am not obsessed with fame or necessarily want that, but if it comes, it comes.
What do you think of YouTube as a platform? And, how do you deal with internet trolls in the comment section?
YouTube allows creators to monetize their content and reach people all over the globe. Vimeo is great, too, but it doesn’t get the same traffic, so YouTube was a no-brainer. As for the comment section…it takes self-restraint. We use the delete and block button quite often! But eventually you learn not to take things personally. For the most part though, we have critical and respectful viewers. We get a lot of useful critiques about sound, camera angles, panelists that shouldn’t come back…the shade. [Laughs.]
What’s your team like? How do you manage the production process?
Our team is four people at the moment. I am the host, executive producer, and producer. Amanda Scott produces and edits the show. Donovan Thompson is a panelist and assistant director, but also acts as producer and strategist. Then we have an intern named Tiffany. I also fund the production costs myself. At the end of the day, I am investing in myself and my career.
How do you select your round table guests? What’s the recipe for a passionate discussion?
Most of the panelist are acquaintances. First we come up with the topic and think of who would be on different sides of the debate and pray for passionate dialogue. Some are friends. I grew up with Doug. Met Uchechi through a friend. Donovan hired me. So yeah, it’s people I have met along the way. Some viewers have also become panelists.
How do you decide on a topic to discuss?
I have a good sense of what would get people heated. Also, things that have been trending on social media. We frame the question to be controversial. For example, the “Can you be pro-black and in an interracial relationship?”
How have you managed to keep the Grapevine going for so many episodes? What’s the key to your success?
Prayer. Hard work. Confidence knowing that we are doing something not on TV that is necessary. Also, knowing people appreciate the show helps; the social media messages are encouraging. Plus, I’ve invested so much now, I can’t stop. [Laughs.]
How do you measure success with the Grapevine?
Outside the metrics, viewer feedback lets us know the scale of our reach and impact. When panelists run into viewers and they show love it’s always a good sign.
What’s your ultimate goal with the show? What’s the dream?
My goal is to grow our viewer base to millions, while keeping creative control.
Next year we are starting a Grapevine Festival Guide where I will be going with three other hosts to music and film festivals around the world. We also plan on doing live shows and shooting some episodes internationally: Brazil, South Africa, Paris…you name it.
The dream is world domination.