Jack Lepiarz is a reporter and news anchor for WBUR. Outside of that, however, he is also a trained circus performer — and something of an online sensation. As Jack the Whipper, he cracks both jokes and whips at Renaissance fairs during his time off, and videos of his whip shows have earned him 2.1 million followers on TikTok.
The Daily Californian senior staff writer Lee Xuan sat down with him to discuss the duality of his work in radio and at Renaissance fairs, as well as his perspective on the changing forms of media we consume and how to keep young audiences engaged. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Californian: Why don’t we start with a bit of a self-introduction? Tell me about yourself.
Jack Lepiarz: My name is Jack Lepiarz. I am the midday anchor at 90.9 WBUR in Boston, the NPR station in Boston, and I think how most people nowadays know me — which has been a shift over the past year — is I also perform under the stage name (in a French accent) Jacques Ze Whipper or Jack The Whipper, depending on whether I decided to be French that day or not.
DC: How did you get into radio? And then, how did you get into TikTok?
JL: I got into radio pretty early. I had a teacher in high school who was like, “You know, you got a good radio voice. You should look into that.” I was going to Emerson College in Boston, which has one of the best college radio stations in the country, so I started working there, day one, basically, my freshman year. (I) worked there all four years; I was the news director the last two years, which meant I was basically living there.
And radio just kind of clicked with me — I tried print, I tried TV, and radio seemed like a middle-point between the two where I felt like you could still do some good journalism but still have that broadcast performance aspect. I wanted some kind of performance, having grown up in the circus. And so I interned at the station I’m at now, WBUR, when I was (in) spring semester my senior year, was able to parlay that into a freelance job … And now I’ve been there for 13 years, doing radio, moving up from full-time writer, reporting, and now up to the midday anchor.
As far as TikTok, TikTok was just really this — serendipitous thing. My wife had been telling me, “You should make an Instagram!,” for years. And I was like, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t like social media all that much.” And someone made a TikTok of me — a couple people made TikToks of me that went really viral, a million views plus, and I was like, “Okay. All right. Apparently people like this stuff, so I guess I’ll try and post a couple of little videos.”
And it helped (that) my wife is a videographer, photographer, so she had a ton of old footage of the show. And so once a week, she would edit together a really nice-looking video of a whip song I did, and that was how we started to go viral, started getting more views, et cetera et cetera, and here we are a year later.
DC: You work both in radio news and you also have 2.1 million followers on TikTok; do you think the way you connect with audiences on both differs across platforms?
JL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s almost like two different, complete opposite ends of my personality spectrum. The way I deliver the news, one, is very serious. The news itself these days is increasingly not something to joke about, so the radio delivery is this very, kind of, calm — (pained laughter) I try to be as calming as I can with the news. There is very little room for any kind of humor or frivolity as far as I’m concerned when I’m delivering the news, even (to) the point where I am uncomfortable even sounding friendly and familiar to the listener, which I think some people would criticize.
But, as far as performing is concerned — I mean, everything is a joke there. I mean, not everything, obviously, there are limits; not everything is funny. But I’m always trying to make people laugh, make people have a good time and make people forget the things that I told them about during the week. That’s the way I’m approaching it anytime I’m on stage.
DC: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What about similarities? What connections do you see between those two fields of work?
JL: There’s a lot of thinking on the fly. A lot of radio is scripted; newscasts are all scripted. But sometimes things happen suddenly, you have to improvise, and I think my history of performing has helped a lot in that regard — of being comfortable talking when I don’t have a script in front of me.
DC: In that same vein, as someone who works with both traditional and new media, social media, I think you have a pretty unique understanding of both — generally people are in one or the other. How do you view the way in which we consume media as having changed —
JL: Oh boy.
DC: — and how do you see that evolving into the future?
JL: Oh, God. Unfortunately, I am so pessimistic. I think the problem has become: We consume media in bite-sized samples and there’s no room for context anymore, which is why I am such a supporter of public radio and what they do. Look, I was not a public radio listener until I worked for public radio. And there’s a reason I stayed in public radio for 13 years … Unfortunately, I think the interest in that kind of news delivery or information delivery is declining, unless it’s in a niche form like a YouTube channel … But the videos are still only 15 minutes long. So I’m very pessimistic, unfortunately. And I think the success of TikTok, where most videos are under 60 seconds, and now YouTube Shorts as well, is not an encouraging sign.
DC: On that high note, what are your thoughts on keeping (a) younger audience interested in older forms of media and entertainment, be it the radio or, I did see on your website, whipping? How have you done that?
JL: That’s the $10 million question in radio right now, which is “How do you get younger people in?”, and I’m not sure I have the answer to that. There’s a reporter in Boston who I went to college with named Matt Shearer who does these silly stories on TikTok — I was literally just watching one of them. He does great stuff, he gets a ton of views, and it’s all part of WBZ News Radio, the classic CBS radio station up in Boston. I’ve honestly been shocked that they’ve allowed him to do this. But I’m also really encouraged. Now, I don’t know what that’s done for their listenership, whether it’s bringing those younger people in, but I think that’s what you gotta do. You gotta go get the listeners there, even though what he’s doing — and I say this with all love for Matt — what he’s doing is fluff pieces, for the most part. But if you can use that to then drive eyeballs to your more important journalism, then I’m in full support of it. It almost feels like a circus, like an old “carni trick,” you know, like, “All right, just get the butts in the seats.” It’s like clickbait, almost.
As far as getting people interested in terms of older stuff like whipping, I don’t know that I ever really thought about it as, like, a “How am I going to target this demographic or this demographic?” I’ve been performing Jacques Ze Whipper since I was 20, so I think it’s just my youth that has come through, and I’ve always tried to, like, “OK. What’s the meme that’s hot right now?” When I first started, it was Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” followed by “What Does the Fox Say?” and then “Gangnam Style.”
You know, so it’s all of these old internet memes that are, like, a decade old now, they got cycled into the show and then they got cycled out of the show. And it’s actually (an) interesting thing where you can almost see it over the course of a season, how quickly something comes in and out of the public consciousness.
DC: How do you balance having a job and, if you would call it that, a passion project?
JL: How do I balance it? It’s a lot of caffeine. I am blessed — BUR has very good benefits, including a lot of vacation time. This trip I’m doing right now in Louisiana — (I) flew down yesterday, which was the 10th, I’ll fly back the 21st, I’ll go back to work on the 23rd, just to give myself a day off there … I’m using seven days of vacation — a week and a half of vacation time — to come down and do this. I get paid to do it, but, yeah, of the time I’m down here, I only have three days off where I’m not traveling or performing. So it’s that kind of thing.
Caffeine comes into play a lot, and I do a reset every year after the circus season just to reset my caffeine tolerance. And then it’s really just making sure I take care of myself. I’m really strict about my sleep schedule, really strict about making sure (I’m) not necessarily eating right, but eating properly. By which I mean what I ate yesterday, no dietician would tell you to eat. It was Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts, a Hungry Man frozen dinner, but if you look at: Did I get enough protein? Did I get enough carbs? Did I get enough fat? I made sure I met all of those macros.
DC: Between your work at WBUR and your work at Renaissance fairs, is there one that you like more than the other?
JL: They both have their real-life perks. The good thing about performing: Performing is fun. Performing is exciting; every day is different. All of my shows have that aspect of improv in them, so the show’s going to always be different. And you only work two days a week, so that’s really nice; you have to rehearse during the week, but it’s not as bad.
What’s really nice about BUR is you can feel like you’re making a difference and you’re doing some good in the world, even when the news is not good. I can point you to multiple stories that BUR has put out in the last year where they’ve made a tangible difference in regular people’s lives, and it’s nice to be a part of that. On a more base level, it’s more stable, there are better benefits because we’re owned by a university. There’s a lot that I like about both sides of it.
And it’s the kind of thing where I think if I get too far into either one of them, I’d feel a little uncomfortable. Going back to growing up in the circus, you know, (my) mother was a college professor with a doctorate, and my dad was a circus performer. I’ve never occupied just one world or the other; it’s always been both. And so it’s this kind of thing where (I’m) not fully comfortable going fully into either or.
“As far as looking to the future, there are so many possibilities that it’s hard to say,” wrote Lepiarz in a follow-up email. Popular culture and the media landscape continue evolving ever-rapidly, and so much of what is to come is uncertain. Perhaps, however, this is precisely what makes it all the more thrilling.