He's worked in law, business, journalism and government, most recently as the deputy chief of the Federal Communication Commission's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. But Yul Kwon is best known as the winner of "Survivor: Cook Islands," and he returns to the TV spotlight April 11 as host of the four-part PBS series "America Revealed," which investigates American systems, how they operate — sometimes smoothly and sometimes not so much.
"The idea is to look at things from an interdisciplinary and macro-level point of view, using an aerial perspective where you see large patterns," says Kwon, whose varied and eclectic background, interests, and education (his symbolic systems college major combined computer science, linguistics and philosophy) has trained him to observe the world in that same way.
The premiere episode, "Food Machine," includes segments on pesticide use, bee truckers dealing with colony collapse disorder, urban farming in a former inner city "food desert," as well as fun things like a tomato-tossing fight in Reno. "We provide food every single day to 300 million Americans and the amount of time and energy to make that happen is gargantuan. We have an overabundance of food. But where does it all come from? What are some of the challenges and innovations that have allowed us to create this food machine?" Kwon posits.
The "Nation on the Move" transportation episode explores everything from rails to roads, air traffic control, school bus routes, commuting patterns and traffic jams, including how Las Vegas adjusts its traffic signals to maximize traffic flow. "We look at different approaches that people are taking," says Kwon. The "Electric Nation" episode examines the pros and cons of different sources of energy, and some of the new technologies that individuals, groups and companies have adopted in an effort toward establishing a sustainable future. "We cover solar power, with a Washington, D.C., church with solar panels on the roof, wind power, cow manure power, how NASCAR switched to ethanol and is recycling cars," notes Kwon.
The final "Made in the USA" episode refutes the notion that manufacturing is on the decline in America. "While it's true that we're importing a lot of low-value goods and services, we're making a lot of services like social networks, leveraging intellectual property," points out Kwon, who visits a shipyard, robot, guitar and car factories, and even Facebook headquarters — a particular kick. But he experienced scary moments as well, "I was more terrified on this show than I ever was on 'Survivor,'" says Kwon, confessing a fear of heights. "The highest thing I had to climb on 'Survivor' was a coconut tree. On this show, they pushed me out of airplanes — with a parachute — and rappelled down a giant wind turbine." He also flew in a crop duster biplane and a helicopter with technicians fixing a live power line. "Survivor" only marginally prepared him for any of it.
"'Survivor' was very adventurous and you're thrown into these chaotic situations. This is very similar. But on 'Survivor' you're on an island. This is more adventurous, like 'Amazing Race.' And you're learning all this stuff so it engages you physically and intellectually," compares Kwon, who learned from the experience "that there's a huge amount of stuff that we just take for granted, that we don't even see but is absolutely critical to the way that we live." He hopes to make more episodes, as he believes, "If you can use TV to engage people with fun stuff and get them to think, that's the sweet spot."
Also involved with hosting a weekly news show for Link Asia, a nonprofit TV network that covers Asia in English from an international perspective, Kwon is happy to be back on camera. "It's a lot more fun than going to work every day in a suit and tie," he says. At home, he recycles, uses energy-efficient light bulbs, and was planning to buy a Prius. And he thinks a lot about the kind of world he wants to leave for his daughter, who was born last October.
"You start thinking about what kind of world do we live in, what are some of the challenges, how do I want to change it? We take it for granted that this country is one of the best countries on the planet and it has been for decades, but we have major problems — the deficit issue, global competition, education, we're falling behind. I don't want my daughter to grow up in a country that didn't give her the same opportunities that it gave to me. My parents came here as immigrants and I've made something of myself. I don't want that to disappear for the future generations. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do this series; I think we need to wake up and think about these issues."
He's proud of "America Revealed" for another reason, too. "I'm hoping when my daughter gets older I can show her why daddy was gone, and I'm happy to show her this. "I'd rather be the smart guy on PBS than the half naked guy on 'Survivor.'"