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Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
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Oct. 19, 2023, 2:41 p.m.
Audience & Social

Wait, wait, don’t tell me how this Canadian radio show became a TikTok hit

CBC’s Because News spent seven years making content for Instagram and YouTube. They got more views on TikTok within two months.

Ira Glass, host and creator of This American Life, was speaking about excellence and innovation in public radio at the 2023 Content Conference late last month.

“A puzzle for a lot of public radio is how to do TikTok well — and get a real audience,” Glass said. His team had solicited submissions. “The only strong example that we could find was a CBC show called Because News.”

The weekly news quiz show has 34 million views on TikTok. The show entered its ninth season as a radio show as well as a weekly event with a live audience and an extended podcast. But for the past year, executive producer Elizabeth Bowie said, its focus has been on running a successful TikTok channel.

“That pivot has been intentional, and it’s paying off,” Bowie said. “We’re reaching a new audience that would never find us on public radio.”

Bowie has worked in radio for more than two decades years. She has seen that public media needs to get creative, especially if it wants to attract new and younger audiences.

“It’s no longer about radio, and it’s no longer about audio. It’s all about audience and meeting them where they are,” she said. “There’s two things that got me thinking like that. The first is I’ve worked in radio for 23 years, and I don’t own a radio. The other thing is my mom — who is in her mid 70s and a devoted public radio listener, a devoted CBC listener — her radio broke last summer and she didn’t replace it. She listens online.”

Bowie said the news quiz show has been making content for Instagram and YouTube for seven years. But nothing has connected with audiences like the TikTok account. In just their first two months on TikTok, their success there “blew away our years and years of other video views.”

This is how Bowie explained Because News to this American: It’s like NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, but with much more Justin Trudeau. The mustached host Gavin Crawford quizzes stand-up comedians and other celebrities on news headlines. The result is a lot of riffing and wrong answers and laughs.

Though the show is Canadian satire made for Canadian public radio with mainly Canadian comedians, roughly half of its TikTok audience is American. (About 40% of its audience is Canadian.) Some of the show’s most popular videos, like this one about the U.S. Space Force unveiling an “official song,” have found their way to TikTok users in the U.S.

@cbcbecausenews Replying to @Milo Jones This is now a #JanCaruana fan page ❤️🫶 #BecauseNews #Fyp #canadiancomedy #newsquiz #Podcast #cbccomedy #canadatiktok #toronto #femalecomedian #miguelrivas #thebeaverton #tonyho #prettyhardcases #netflix #cbcgem #brandonashmohammed #lolcanada #spaceforce #donaldtrump #trump #theflintstones #alteredlyrics #songparody ♬ original sound – CBC: Because News


In addition to Bowie, CBC producer and filmmaker Philip Leung has helped transform the radio show to be TikTok-ready. (The show doesn’t hire audio producers anymore, Bowie noted.) Both pointed to associate producer Jess Klimowski, who manages the TikTok account, as being at the heart of the account’s success.

Klimowski, now 26, started as an intern at CBC before coming on full-time. Bowie, Leung, and the team at Because News had wanted to try TikTok and tasked Klimowski to review their existing social media content (on Instagram, YouTube, etc.) and make suggestions. The first thing she proposed? Recutting clips into bite-sized portions, going from posting a full quiz round to sharing one joke, one riff, or one monologue at a time.

“I really highlighted: Your product is good, but the way that it’s being distributed is not the way that audiences want to take it in,” Klimowski said. “No one wants to send a 10-minute video and be like, ‘Oh, this joke at timecode 5 minutes, 27 seconds is really funny.'”

Bowie finds herself using the word “cadence” a lot more nowadays and has seen that posting regularly (the team aims for once per day) is critical on TikTok. Internally, the Because News team also prioritizes “strong in’s.” Instead of over-explaining or adding context for jokes, their cuts jump right in and expect the viewer can keep up.

“This is where my legacy media instincts are being challenged because public radio is all about context,” Bowie acknowledged. “Public radio really loves to explain stuff. But that does not work for TikTok. It has got to be super strong off the top because, if you flip [through the app] like I do, they have less than a second and a half to catch me before I swipe to the next thing.”

The team has found success slicing up content and targeting hyperlocal audiences. The panel went on a tear about Brampton, Ontario the other day and simply by hashtagging the clip #Brampton, it appeared on the “for you” pages of local users. (“Never as a public radio producer have I been able to deliver material so directly to a specific audience,” Bowie said.)

One thing that Because News has found doesn’t work? Trying to jump on TikTok trends. “Our content that we’re already putting effort into and recording and editing is already so strong. The bonus content that follows shallow TikTok trends doesn’t show any individuality. It really does fall flat,” Klimowski noted.

The comments section of Because News is active, with Klimowski regularly wading in to banter with commenters and encourage them when they make their own jokes. The tone is irreverent, light, and informed — just the right mix for the voice of a news quiz. (Under the Ira Glass recommendation, Klimowski posted “i’m gonna use Ira Glass as a job reference now.”) Most posts and comments are well-punctuated with emojis.

“I have to have a voice. It’s not enough just to post a video and be like, ‘Okay, watch our show!’ with each video,” Klimowski said. “There’s a different tone in each video. So, for example, if we post about Taylor Swift, in those comments, I’m a diehard Swiftie, because that’s the energy that’s reflective of the 10-second video.”

“We were making Facebook and Instagram videos for seven years,” Bowie noted. “We have videos that never got 2,000 views, and yet her comment is getting 2,000 likes. That parasocial interaction — which is just a fancy way to say building relationships in the comments — has been so important.”

Klimowski also does some light moderating. (“I delete comments that are racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, fat-phobic — anything that really targets people,” she explained. “You can say ‘this show isn’t funny’ or ‘this show is cringe’ and I’ll leave them up.”) She often leaves comments on other comedy and CBC TikTok accounts.

Some of the comments Klimowski leaves aren’t connected to Because News or CBC at all. They’re just funny. (One of the things Klimowski loves about her job is that she can pitch jokes alongside professional comedians and make posts blending news and comedy without ever having to get on a stage to perform.) On a TikTok dedicated to Steve Harrington from Stranger Things she left a comment along the lines of “please don’t tell my boss this is what our For You page looks like.”

“Because, like, what is the news, business-y, corporate account doing on this silly fan edit?” Klimowski explained. “It has nothing to do with the show. But people see it and they think it’s funny, and they get intrigued. Then they go back to our page, and they’re like, ‘hey, this page has a lot of funny stuff.’ I feel like that’s really what builds our audience.”

The new emphasis on TikTok has shaped story selection at Because News. Some typical “public radio bait” doesn’t cut it on the platform.

“I don’t know about in the U.S. but in Canada, public radio loves to talk about the monarchy. And it’s just not an interesting topic to younger people,” Bowie said. “Now if someone’s like, ‘Let’s do something on Prince William coming to Canada’ and somebody else says, ‘Let’s do the fact that Yung Gravy is being sued by Rick Astley for sampling,’ we’re going to take Yung Gravy.”

Sorry, Willie.

Photo illustration by Laurin Steffens.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Oct. 19, 2023, 2:41 p.m.
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