November 30, 2023

On this episode of What happened to…? Erica Vella speaks with the voices behind TikTok’s text-to-speech feature. She learns about the journey to finding the voice that is now known and loved by millions.

TikTok is one of the most popular social media applications with more than 1 billion people around the world using it each month.

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In 2020, Bev Standing was surprised when she heard her voice circulating on TikTok.

“Everyone in my family and friends were going, ‘Hey, that’s you.’,” Standing said. “And I went, ‘this is cool, I’m the text-to-speech voice.’ ”

Standing originally provided her voice for a translation app, which TikTok then used for transcription purposes. Standing said TikTok wasn’t her client, and therefore, wasn’t licensed to use her voice.

In Spring 2021, Standing took legal action against TikTok.

“Either make me your client or take my voice down, was kind of where my head went,” she said. “The bottom line is you can’t use my voice.”

By the end of that year, Standing’s voice was removed from the app. It was quickly replaced with a new voice, dubbed “Jessie,” belonging to former radio host Kat Callaghan.

Callaghan’s voice was quickly recognized after she revealed her identity on TikTok.

“I had a good mish-mash of people who knew me that jumped on it right away because it came up on their feed, too,” Callaghan said. “I realized, I have to do a follow-up video because this is getting insane.”

Emily Dreyfuss, journalist and co-lead of the Harvard Shorenstein Center News Leaders Program, said TikTok’s feature improves accessibility and allows for consistency between videos.

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“There’s a universalization in some way, because actually, we’re so different, but we sound the same,” Dreyfuss said. “Remove some of the bias that listeners and readers approach people with, when they are very aware of their gender or their race or their ethnicity.”

Callaghan said the role has created opportunities she never thought were possible.

“I never thought that I’d be on Ryan Seacrest interviews, and I still have some interviews lined up,” Callaghan said. “I’ve done some really cool things, so it’s changed my life.”

On this episode of What happened to…? Erica Vella speaks to Bev Standing, the original voice behind TikTok’s text-to-speech feature. She also speaks with Kat Callaghan, the woman behind TikTok’s current text-to-speech character “Jessie.” She learns about the adoption and evolution of the feature, and how it changed the way users create and interpret TikTok videos.

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