KCRW’s ‘newest’ music host mines rap lyrics for comedy on TikTok

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As mixed-format stations continue to search for ways to expand their reach on social media, KCRW’s newest host, Concordia Schwarma McGraw, is racking up millions of hits. Her close reads of early-aughts rap and hip-hop songs have passed 10 million views on TikTok, she’s hosted a one-hour live show based on her videos, and she conducts regular interviews at the station’s Santa Monica studios.

All of that is made more impressive considering McGraw only exists online.

Played by actor, writer and comedian Katherine Ellis, McGraw is a smooth-voiced amalgam of NPR’s founding mothers with sincere attention to verbiage. Inspired less by any one host and more by a childhood in the backseat being forced to listen to public radio, McGraw “could be anyone,” says 32-year-old Ellis.

Public radio personalities are “so careful and gentle with their words — you gotta be really soft,” she says.

While the delivery in the videos is certainly public radio, the content is very online. First posted on Ellis’ TikTok and Instagram channels in October, the skits are presented as NPR segments in the far future where Ellis, using the McGraw persona, delves into predominantly risque songs as if they were era-defining classics. 

Katherine Ellis in KCRW's studios.
Ellis in KCRW’s studios.

“That was ‘Thong Song’ by the artist Cisqo in the key of B minor,” begins a video with more than 380,000 views — on the relative low end compared to some of the more viral clips. “A life-altering ballad about women wearing a garment of clothing, generally positioned under one’s pants, with a string separating the buttocks cheeks,” Ellis says. Close reads of other songs like “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz (1.3 million views) and Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” (2.2 million views) include even more salacious lyrics.

“The most intimate thing the Beatles sang about was ‘I want to hold your hand,’ and now we’re in a state of Cardi B’s ‘Wet-Ass P—,’” Ellis says. “So I imagined, what would people look back on this sort of genre of really graphic music and think?”

The McGraw character tackles that question with a combination of unwavering confidence and comic ignorance, always in under 90 seconds. Ellis had some previous hits with content about her mom, though the success of the NPR spoof videos was novel, increasing her follower count and getting comments from well-known rappers.

“I certainly didn’t expect to have such a big growth in following and attention,” Ellis says, “but I think that’s it’s just a funny character that’s relatable to a lot of people.” 

‘Can you create a buzz?’

The videos were so relatable that fans were using tags and hashtags for NPR and individual stations in comments. After a fan mentioned Anne Litt, KCRW’s program director of music, on Instagram, KCRW staff entered the fray in a very social-first way: by commenting on one of her posts using the eyes emoji. The online exchange culminated with “we sense a collab coming” — something station staffers had actually been sensing for a while. 

Ellis’ videos “had definitely been something that was circulating in the office and in little chats,” says Growth Marketing Director Adam Serrano, who has led the collaboration from the station’s side. “Like ‘Oh, look at this funny public media skit!’”

Serrano has been working at KCRW for under six months. Brought on from outside the public media sphere to continue some of the influencer and social work he had been doing for the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team, he’s not unfamiliar with public media’s social efforts.

“I think that Planet Money [on TikTok] is a great example of something that — even when I was in the sports world — I used as kind of a North Star,” Serrano says. “Admittedly, I knew it as a TikTok, and I didn’t realize it was a real show.”

After dealing with logistics, the station gave Ellis access to a recording studio and essentially left her to shoot. The result has been a handful of collaborative posts, including an interview with a fake version of rapper Nelly (“Hot in Herre”) that netted 14,000-plus likes on Instagram. 

If there had been any concern about the risque lyrics and subject matter that Ellis might bring up, Serrano was unfazed. “When it comes to content creators like [Ellis], it’s always going to be a case-by-case basis,” Serrano says. “You have to be willing to take the risk, and KCRW does that. I mean, if you look at our marketing campaign right now, it’s called ‘Get LA’d.’”

Despite the open approach to experimentation, Serrano says he also has a vision of what success looks like — even if it “really is kind of a vibe, at the moment.” 

“Can you create a buzz, can you create people talking, can you create something that is engaging? When you’re first starting out, you kind of have to try shit,” says Serrano. “That can be tough, because it’s not an empirical metric. … My metric for success is a little more qualitative than quantitative.” 

For Ellis, her success led to a new live show at a Los Angeles theater where Concordia Schwarma McGraw hosted an hourlong version of her TikTok videos with help from various comedians. Although McGraw has never been on KCRW’s airwaves, and her videos still live exclusively on social media, both Ellis and Serrano have alluded to ongoing future work, though details are unconfirmed.

As to how content creators and stations can reach more youthful consumers, Ellis offers the following: “I think it’s just figuring out what content is going to read more with that younger audience,” she says. “They’re not sitting listening to an hourlong broadcast, but they would watch a two-minute TikTok on a story that was interesting.”

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