Suzanne Joe Kai was among the first Asian American female news broadcasters to “break the glass ceiling.” She was an on-camera TV news reporter and program host for KRON-TV (NBC-SF), and also worked at KCBS News, KTVU-TV and KGO-TV. Suzanne is writing and directing a documentary in development: “Like a Rolling Stone – The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” which is a recipient of a 2012 ITVS grant. She is the publisher and co-founder of AsianConnections.com. Suzanne earned a master’s in communication from Stanford University. She is married and has a son.
What advice would you give for up-and-coming journalists?
It can be very hard work, so really LOVE it! Surround yourself with a strong support group of smart people. Always be ethical and truthful. Know that you have the potential to make a positive impact on our world. Furthermore, the skill sets you learn as a journalist will serve you well in almost any type of work.
Don’t wait for a company to hand you a job. With technology so inexpensive today, just go out and do stories. Volunteer. Publish them on your own website or blog. Make short films. Some media outlets have scouts, so chances are if they like what they see online, they will chase you down and want to hire you.
Embrace all media formats – print, broadcast, online, mobile and beyond. And stay on top of what’s next. I was asked to help pioneer the launch of original content for video channels for two major mobile carriers. When I started, the mobile delivery technology wasn’t even ready yet, but I had an advantage of knowing it was in the works, so we were able to hit the ground running when the technology was ready.
Describe your involvement with AAJA over the years.
Suzanne Joe Kai is a board member of AAJA-LA. Within a small committee created by AAJA National, she initiated AAJA’s first Pioneers Honor Roll to recognize Asian American pioneer journalists as a group. She recruited fellow pioneer journalist and co-researcher Christopher Chow, AAJA-LA’s board and members to host the pioneers at AAJA’s Founders and Pioneers reception during the 21st annual AAJA National Convention, in Los Angeles in 2010. It was the largest gathering of its kind in history; more than half of all living pioneer journalists attended. The AAJA Honor Roll serves as a living document, intended to be expanded as more pioneers are discovered. The Pioneers Honor Roll is at AAJA-LA.org.
Why did you decide to become a journalist? What inspired you?
When I was 10, I experienced the power of communication. I worked for the Berkeley Unified School District to read textbooks onto tape for blind students. One day, at school recess, a blind student recognized my voice and put her hands on my face. She wanted to know me and thank me for making her textbooks come alive. I wasn’t just reading into an inert tape machine. I was speaking directly to a living audience.
Years later, I was a pre-law freshman in college and a DJ at our radio station. One day, Asian American activists called me and asked if I could cross their picket lines and go into KCBS News in San Francisco and ask for a job. They were fighting to get the first Asian Americans hired into mainstream media operations.
Fortunately, I failed the typing test at KCBS and couldn’t make it as a stenographer. I was redirected to a different department. As I walked down that hallway, it was getting noisier. It turned out to be the newsroom. The din of the teletype machines was hypnotizing. I started as a desk assistant ripping wire copy for editors and answering the telephone. Everyone starts somewhere!
By the time I graduated from college, I had already worked several years at KCBS News and worked my way up to associate news producer and editor and was being loaned out for guest appearances at KGO-TV and KTVU-TV. Throughout college I had wanted to become a lawyer and here I was admitted to law school, but after working in news media, I decided to postpone law school and continue with my life as a journalist. I was hired as a full-time news reporter and program host at KRON-TV the NBC affiliate becoming the first Asian American female staff on-camera broadcast journalist in the SF Bay Area. I covered everything from the Patty Hearst case to soldiers coming home from the Vietnam War, to the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore.
My documentaries on Chinatown were among the first ever produced by a mainstream news operation. Two of my programs won Emmy nominations.
Today, I am writing and directing documentaries. My latest film in development is a very special one for me called “Like a Rolling Stone – The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres.”
Are there any interesting facts/trivia about you?
In 2011, Suzanne honored her family ancestors who emigrated from China to America at a large family ceremony at Angel Island’s Centennial Commemoration. The first family member to emigrate to America was 12-year-old Lim Lip Hong who escaped war and famine by joining five others aboard a small wooden sailboat. In 1855, he arrived to the coast of the San Francisco Bay Area. One of his sons, Suzanne’s grand uncle, Arthur Lym became one of America’s early aviators in 1913.
Learn more about other AAJA members profiled for AAPI Month.