Under the Spotlight
Why are Ryan Kalei Tsuji and Yunji de Nies smiling so much these days? Probably because their triweekly streaming show ‘Spotlight Hawai‘i’ just earned them two Telly Awards.
From the comfort of their home offices, Yunji de Nies and Ryan Kalei Tsuji broadcast Spotlight Hawai‘i, a live, digital news program that airs at 10:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Facebook page.
There are no studio lights or high-tech cameras. There’s no producer, director or teleprompter operator, either. It’s just de Nies and Tsuji delivering quality local news content, from their homes to yours.
One can imagine how incredible the feat is, then, to operate a statewide streaming news service as a two-person crew. Between de Nies and Tsuji, they serve as the booking agent, hair and makeup artist, IT department, sound engineer, researcher and more. Not to mention, they’re the hosts of the show, too.
What’s perhaps even more impressive, Spotlight Hawai‘i recently won two Telly Awards, an international recognition that honors video and television across all screens.
A “low production, high information” program, as de Nies describes it, Spotlight Hawai‘i was in the company of colossal networks like CBS, which won for 60 Minutes, and MSNBC (Afghanistan: The War at Home) this year.
“They have more people making their graphics than who’s on our whole team,” says de Nies with a laugh.
In fact, the show — which is widely applauded for its ability to ask guests questions from viewers right then and there — won a Telly two years in a row (in 2021, it received an award for an episode featuring then-mayoral candidates Rick Blangiardi and Keith Amemiya), which serves as a testament to de Nies and Tsuji’s drive, hard work and inherent talent, especially considering that the show was only established a little more than two years ago.
“We were really surprised that we won the year before and we were even more surprised that we won twice this year,” says de Nies, smiling. “You kind of just submit it and then forget about it because it seems like such a long shot, especially this particular award because we’re competing with such high-level programs.”
Tsuji adds, “It’s always just mind-blowing to me because the Tellys are a very respected award on an international stage. It’s hard to believe that we’re filming this from our homes and that we’re competing with some of the big names on the big networks, so it’s extremely humbling, flattering and honoring to be mentioned in the same breath as those wonderful news magazines and programs, and to be able to bring that home to Hawai‘i is always such a blessing and honor.”
One of the award-winning episodes featured Lt. Gov. Josh Green (it premiered Aug. 20), who expounded on the delta surge, which was, at the time, sweeping the nation. Also earning a nod was a Dec. 10 show, during which Board of Water Supply’s chief engineer, Ernest “Ernie” Lau, offered information about the Red Hill water crisis.
Both episodes, like everything that de Nies and Tsuji touch, contained a wealth of information, heartfelt sincerity and, at times, a hint of humor when it was appropriate.
“At the end of the day, we’re just having a conversation, trying to bring the audience along with us,” shares de Nies. “Because you’re on for 30 minutes with no commercials, it’s just like you’re having a conversation in the way you would if you invited the lieutenant governor or Ernie Lau to your house to answer questions for you and your friends. You wouldn’t be serious the entire time. That, to me, just feels like you’re playing news person. This is just us in our homes tackling serious topics.
“But at the same time, we live here, too,” she continues. “We have the same concerns that they do — Ryan is a small-business owner in his other job, and I have two children … so, we are very much with the audience.”
In the episode with Lau, specifically, he had to momentarily pause after getting choked up in the midst of speaking about the water crisis that has affected thousands of local residents.
“He was so sad about what happened to our water resources, and you just felt his emotion and his passion,” says de Nies. “After that interview, I remember thinking that we should enter this (for a Telly Award) because it was exactly the kind of content that we want to be bringing to people. You have a public official who is very passionate about what they’re doing, and we had the full 30 minutes with him, so he really got to get into the details about what — as far as he knew — had happened at Red Hill, what it meant for our community and why he was so upset about it. You could feel the emotion and he was moved to tears, so I thought for sure we had to give that some recognition because it was such a moving interview.”
In addition to the show’s uninterrupted run time, de Nies and Tsuji explain how Spotlight Hawai‘i’s virtual facet is an immense part as to why their guests feel comfortable enough to share their unhindered and authentic emotions about the state’s most momentous issues.
“These people are doing their broadcasts from their own homes or in places where they feel comfortable in as well, so we often get a different side of them in their responses and how they want to project themselves and the messaging that comes across,” explains Tsuji.
“Oftentimes, when you’re in an environment where you have 10 cameras on you and there’s a microphone, it can be intimidating,” he continues. “I think being able to have that comfort level with us … it really can lead to deeper discussions that may not be available on other platforms.”
Tsuji and de Nies both know very well what it’s like to have a daunting number of cameras on them. They met at KITV, where de Nies and Tsuji anchored the evening and morning shows, respectively. While they were on opposite schedules, the newscasters bonded over the fact that they’re Big Island kids (de Nies is from the Kona side, while Tsuji is from Hilo), which led to a solid friendship-turned-partnership in the years to come.
“I just love and respect Ryan so much,” enthuses de Nies. “He’s an ideas guy. He is so smart and innovative and he’s a very hard worker … but beyond that, he’s really fun to work with.
“If you ever need anything, work or not work, you will call Ryan and he will figure out how to get it for you. He’s just ‘that guy’ — the guy you can always call in a crisis and someone you can always have on your team.”
And for Tsuji, the feeling is mutual.
“Yunji has so much experience and is so incredible at what she does,” he says. “We both have this desire and the same commitment to being involved. We both really love news and love being informed and being able to use our skill sets and things we’ve learned to get that out there to the community.
“Having a lot of those commonalities and those experiences of working together has made this partnership very easy,” he adds. “We understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well and are able to play off of that when needed.”
Before they met, the pair walked down quite different paths that would, however, become incredibly beneficial once their journeys did, in fact, intertwine.
A Yale and University of California, Berkeley graduate, de Nies was a reporter for mainland TV stations before she was picked up by ABC News. She worked her way up to becoming the White House correspondent for Good Morning America, and lucky for her, former President Barrack Obama is also a Hawai‘i native, so she was able to come home for an extended period of time whenever he did.
On one of those trips, de Nies made a connection with KITV, and when an anchoring position opened up, there was no question whether or not she would take it. It was time to come home. She worked at the station for a few years until she decided to move on when her keiki were born.
Tsuji, meanwhile, moved from Hilo to Honolulu after high school to attend University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He claims he is “wired differently,” likes to have his hand in just about everything (he teases that his next venture is in the food and beverage industry) and thrives in fast-paced environments, so it was no surprise that the vibrant city life called his name.
In college, he discovered a passion for coaching volleyball (and did so for about eight years, working his way up to becoming assistant coach of the Rainbow Wāhine volleyball team), until he fell in love with a new pursuit: being on TV. He was asked to fill in as a sports commentator, then progressed to becoming a sports reporter for Hawai‘i News Now and eventually anchored at KITV.
He left the station to help run Gov. David Ige’s campaign in 2014 (he interned for Ige in college when he was a senator) and worked in his administration for the following two years.
With his mind constantly swirling about his next move (it falls in line with him being “wired differently,” he says), Tsuji noticed there was a gap in the industry for digital platform creation and marketing, so, in 2016, he departed from the political sphere and founded RKT Media, which won an Emmy Award this month.
“Spotlight Hawai‘i really is an amalgamation of all these different things that I’ve been exposed to and these different careers I’ve had,” he says. “It’s allowed me to utilize what I’ve learned in the various jobs and roles that I’ve done, and the experience that I gained — understanding the legislative process, knowing the players that are involved and their background.”
The dynamic duo joined forces in 2017 for Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Digital Billboard Network, a one-minute newscast that featured top headlines at dozens of kiosks around the state.
Beyond that, the concept of a live virtual show with an emphasis on audience engagement was on the docket for de Nies and Tsuji, though it was slated to be centered around the 2020 election. But when news of a catastrophic virus came to Hawai‘i’s shores — and everyone had a million and one questions to ask — de Nies and Tsuji got to work. Spotlight Hawai‘i hit the ground running on March 25, 2020, the first day of Hawai‘i’s first lockdown, and hasn’t stopped since.
From elected officials to leaders in the tourism, education and health care sectors, guests joined “the Spotlight Hawai‘i stage” to share updates about their areas of expertise. And while Spotlight Hawai‘i still discusses the pandemic today, it’s evolved to now feature everyone from local actors and nonprofit founders to political analysts and contenders for the upcoming election. (Coming up on June 29, de Nies and Tsuji will have a conversation with the leading gubernatorial Democratic candidates: U.S. Rep. Kaiali‘i Kahele, Vicky Cayetano and Green.)
While Hawai‘i’s state of affairs is ever-changing, one thing is for certain: de Nies and Tsuji’s commitment to providing reliable and relevant information, from their homes to yours.
Check out the guest speakers’ schedule at staradvertiser.com