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Interview: Beth Willon

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Beth Willon
Beth Willon (Christina Z White)

After reporting all day and into the wee hours of the morning on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, then contributing to a Forum broadcast on the subject, Beth Willon, senior editor/reporter for KQED’s Silicon Valley Desk, needed some sleep. Instead, she was kind enough to take time to talk about her career and the stories she’s working on for KQED.

When did you start at KQED, and where were you working before
I just celebrated my one-year anniversary. Before KQED, I was at KGO Radio. I was a general assignment reporter with a lot of emphasis on politics and the courts. I also reported from Pakistan with the East-West Journalism Center for almost a month.

What drew you to the job at KQED?
I worked for Oregon Public Broadcasting years ago and am a big fan of public radio, and I have strong personal ties to Silicon Valley. I lived in San Jose for almost 19 years — working and raising my three children. Then I lived in Sacramento and commuted to San Francisco every day for about two years. I listened to KQED quite a bit then and always appreciated the depth and the scope of the stories. Working for KQED in Silicon Valley brings me full circle.

Is KQED’s Silicon Valley Desk focusing on particular kinds of stories?
We place a lot of emphasis on covering Silicon Valley’s diverse community. Santa Clara County is arguably the most diverse part of the Bay Area. San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population of any city outside Vietnam. There’s a huge and thriving Latino population and an enormous Indian population. We’ve made a big push to shine a light on communities that have not previously received much attention, with stories on immigration, jobs and services.

Most recently we covered the monumental visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The last time an Indian prime minister came to California was 33 years ago. There are 300,000 Indian Americans in Northern California, and about 150,000 of them live in the Bay Area. So, as you might imagine, there was a lot of pride associated with his visit — as well as protests.


Is there anything from your reporting of his visit that sticks with you?
Modi’s vision of transforming India into "digital India" was significant, but what stuck with me was how much he was trying to appeal to Indian Americans who have been in Silicon Valley a long time. He wants them to invest in India. He called them not a brain drain, but a brain gain, a deposit that he can cash in on. He made it clear that opportunities are growing in India and that he wants them to open offices in India or come back to live. India is one of the fastest-growing economies; that was at the heart of his message. He also wants startups to bring their manufacturing to India, so he spent a lot of time with Indian American startup founders. It’s not just the big companies. He’s looking at the whole ecosystem.

Can you share some stories you have in the pipeline?
We’ll be looking at Silicon Valley gearing up to enter Cuba. We are also working on stories about surveillance; Homeland Security and the CIA are moving into Silicon Valley, opening offices here to get a piece of the startup action. And, of course, we’ll look at the economics of the Super Bowl. It’s really interesting: Silicon Valley essentially hijacked a lot of the Super Bowl activities from San Francisco, which nobody was expecting. The teams are staying in Silicon Valley and are going to practice at Stanford and San Jose State. And the big, nationally televised media night will be at SAP Center [in San Jose] the week before the Super Bowl. Nobody in their wildest dreams expected San Jose and Santa Clara County to get this much attention!

Well end things on a light note. Do you have a guilty pleasure?
My guilty pleasure is going to Santa Cruz on Sunday mornings and boogie boarding. It makes me feel like a kid, and it's very relaxing.

Im wondering where the guilt comes from. Do you feel like you should be doing something else instead? Or that its not something you should do as an adult?
Well, you don’t see that many adults boogie boarding. I’m out there with the 10-year-olds!

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