Aliya-Jasmine Sovani grew up in Barrhaven, Ont., an Ottawa suburb, the daughter of East African refugees. As a child raised watching the news with her grandfather, Sovani always knew she wanted to be a journalist. In 2006, she broke out onto the scene with a sweet gig on MTV News as a segment producer and host. Ever since, the now 35-year-old has made it her mission to pitch and develop news stories that resonate with young people.
I remember watching Sovani on MTV and being absolutely enchanted. I had begged my parents to let me stay up late to watch her current events series Impact, and it felt like she was speaking directly to me. My small world opened up watching a woman like her seamlessly transition from talking about music to politics. I was in my early teens living in Bells Corners, a slice of blink-you’ll-miss-it suburbia not too far from where Sovani grew up.
With today’s news cycle seemingly defying logic, it’s more comforting than ever to know Sovani is still here reporting like it is. She’s since made the leap across the border into Trumpland, living in Santa Monica and working for NBC L.A., producing a new millennial-focused digital news show called The Cycle.
Twelve years after watching her rise on MTV, I got a chance to chat with Sovani about what it’s really like to be a Canadian newsmaker in the U.S. right now. Here, she talks to FLARE about what it takes to be a journalist today—and why we all need to give a shit.
Having grown up watching you on MTV—making documentaries and reporting with MTV news—I always admired how natural you came across. When did you first realize this is what you wanted to?
I grew up, like many children of refugees that live in Canada, with my grandparents. My grandfather’s idea of babysitting was watching the news at noon, at 6 p.m. and at 11 p.m. I remember wondering, Why would you not just watch the 11 o’clock news because there are other shows on all day. I couldn’t understand my grandfather’s obsession with the news, and I remember thinking how much I wish I understood what was happening on TV and how I wanted to do it so badly.
I knew a lot of people who wanted to work on Much Music or MTV because they wanted to interview pop stars and celebs—but you took a much different route. Why?
I knew I wanted to work in TV and that I wanted to be a journalist, but as I grew up and tried to find where I would fit into into the media world, I realized that a lot of what I wanted to do [was dominated by] old-school news journalists who were much older than me at the time. When I looked at channels like Much Music—MTV wasn’t around in Canada at the time—it was a lot more pop-culture focused. Then Much Music did this amazing, one-off special where they went to Afghanistan and were talking to young Afghan girls about the music that they listened to and asking if any American music reached them. I remember that striking me because these girls were my age and they were under a totally different regime, in a completely different part of the world. That’s when I realized that those were the stories I wanted to tell and that was how I wanted to do it.
And that’s exactly how you captured my attention as a teen—the way you merged pop culture and news, and made current events interesting to my age group.
My idea was to take world issues and gear them towards a younger audience—and part of that meant including pop culture. To me, if something was important in sports or music or movies, that could be applied to any massive world affair issue. We see this approach more and more now, and I started out doing stuff like that for MTV News for the show I did called Impact. We were doing that before there ever was a Vice. That was definitely my M.O. It was how do you shoot [the segments] and make them more more relatable to a younger audience, and tell it in a more authentic way, without having to use crazy hyperbole or inflate these issues or make them really high level, when the only people who were really educated in the issue can understand.
What I always found particularly inspiring about your career is how many topics you covered. Does having all this diverse experience give you an edge now that you’re working in America?
You know, it’s been amazing getting to communicate with my generation and the younger generation. But I actually realized in the last couple of years that I feel like it’s not a strength. I started out behind the camera as a producer and ended up being on air and rode that wave. I felt really, really lucky to be able to come [into the industry] as the daughter of refugees, and as a woman and a woman of colour. My philosophy into my 20s was always just don’t turn down any opportunity, be curious and learn about everything. So, when I started off at MTV and we were doing more pop culture I thought I loved that. Then when Discovery came to knock on my door and said, “Hey, would you want to do some environmental documentaries?” I said, “100 percent.” Then when I got the opportunity to cover social justice issues, I jumped on it, and then TSN came to me and asked if wanted to be a reporter for the NHL.
You’re really the true definition of a jack-of-all-trades.
I was able to be a jack-of-all-trades because I grew up on TV and grew up in front of my audience, with my audience. Everyone knew me and were coming along with me on my journey of curiosity and discovery. But when I moved to the States, what I realized was that nobody knew who I was. I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. It’s a much bigger country and there are a lot more people trying to do your job. With that comes a higher level of expectation and skill set that’s required. In Canada, it’s a lot more accepted to wear a lot of hats. I mean, I joke all the time here that when I was on air, at the height of my career, I would carry my own lighting gear to set. People here in America think that’s hilarious.
Well, you’re clearly doing well in the U.S. because now you’re at NBC and you’re producing for their newest digital show The Cycle. How are you making it accessible to younger viewers?
This is NBC L.A.’s first venture in a digital medium that has totally original content for digital. What NBC specifically has always done is—like a lot of network news stations—take their amazing content that airs on regular television, clip it, repurpose it and then push it out on social and try to get more views and drive back. But they wanted to come up with an idea for a show that was aimed at a younger audience, was completely produced and created every single day, and was produced for mobile consumption, knowing that the millennial audience will only watch it on their phones. Our show is maximum 10 minutes long. We know that for data reasons, people won’t watch for more than 10 minutes.
I guess our attention spans are short, but this generation really cares about social issues. Do you feel that young people really are more engaged now?
We’re kind of at that age where we have to start giving a shit. We’re also the loudest generation and we have the most capability of making change. We’re the digital generation; you see the impact we can make. We saw that in the election in Canada with Justin Trudeau, we saw that when Barack Obama got elected, and in this election when Donald Trump got elected. We’re seeing the younger generation and the power of digital media, and the power that we have to completely change public discourse and public dialogue. We have the power to control the digital media, and the executives working in digital media and in social media are our age. The owners of these multibillion dollar companies are literally our age, so why would we not take that and run with it?
So, what we’re seeing is a real shift in ownership. The younger generations are in charge and we get to decide what we see, rather than have someone dictating that.
That’s the cool thing about digital is that our generation is owning this platform and we have the ability to put out content that our generation cares about, like climate change and environmental issues, and not have old guys tell us, “Your daughters don’t care about that, your daughters just want to watch Laguna Beach all night.” No, your daughter’s going to watch Laguna Beach—and she wants the follow-up to be a half-hour documentary on climate change. Like, why are you telling us what we want to watch?
I was totally that daughter. We can like both! As a teen, I would’ve loved the chance to ask you this… But for our readers who want to do what you do, what advice do you have?
Be ready to hustle. If you talk to anyone who is successful, they had to work probably for free for the first year of their career if not more and really had to work their way up. Don’t go into it for the glamour. The most important thing is to find your audience. Don’t just take any job and learn how to say no. Take me as a great example: I did it all and I feel like now in my 30s I look back and I think, If I had just stuck with one thing, where would I be in my career now? Not that I regret anything that I’ve done, but I do feel like if I could give advice to a younger person I would say to do what you love, 100 percent. Really learn from your mentors because your connections and network in the world of journalism are really important as you grow in your career. Live and breathe your niche.
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