“My goal here was to provide opportunities for students to have professional experiences so they could gain the confidence to pursue their dreams,” said Professor Sam Swan, as he explained why Dean Don Hileman hired him 37 years ago to build the Department of Broadcasting at what was then the College of Communications at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
As far as purposes go, Swan has fulfilled his, and exponentially more. In his time at what is now the College of Communication and Information (CCI), his efforts have elevated the college, the School of Journalism and Electronic Media (JEM), and thousands of students. With an impressive legacy in place, Swan recently announced he will retire this December.
A Champion for Students
“Looking back is interesting. I’ve been here 37 years and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve worked with every single dean since the college was founded…Over the years, I’ve directed 18 doctoral dissertations and 60 or 70 master’s theses, and projects and that’s been a rewarding experience. And of course, I’ve had thousands of undergraduate students, which I’ve really enjoyed,” Swan said.
Those who have worked with him or learned from him all say the same thing: Swan does everything he can to ensure students leave CCI with a bright career future. CCI Dean Joseph Mazer, who stepped into his current role in July 2021, saw almost immediately upon arriving at CCI how Swan has made a lasting and monumental imprint on the College over the years.
“Dr. Swan’s legacy has shaped what CCI is today. He laid the foundation for thousands of students to have successful careers by implementing new, innovative programs in our college. The passion for his work is truly remarkable. He will be greatly missed by me and countless others he has impacted over his incredible career,” Mazer said.
Here’s a few of the ways he’s done that:
- Ensured broadcasting students have access to a professional color studio with equipment that they would be using in the real world.
- Launched a sports broadcasting class that produced alumni such as Courtney Lyle, a play-by-play commentator for ESPN, and many more.
- Established a 30-minute student-produced television program, UT Today, for WBIR-TV in Knoxville, that allows students to gain valuable hands-on experience in a professional environment.
- Led the first international study abroad program for CCI in 2000, which evolved into what is now called Global Programs. In 2019, 116 students participated in international programs, placing CCI as the second leading college on campus for student involvement in study abroad programs.
Perhaps some of his most impactful work isn’t so quantifiable, and that’s his mentorship of students even beyond their time at CCI. Emmy-award winning WVLT News anchor Brittany Tarwater said Swan continued being a motivating guide for her after she graduated from CCI with her master’s in journalism in 2011.
“He truly put me in a position to be successful every step of the way. We were not done when I finished a semester or graduated—it was the next job, how to get a better job at the station I was at, how to craft stories to stand out, how to be a better anchor,” Tarwater said. “I go to him every time I have a question or when I need advice, he’s my first turn still.”
Tarwater said that, at their first meeting, Swan turned her down when she asked him to be her advisor. This, Tarwater said, was a fair assessment on his part – she had no idea what she was doing nor a serious understanding of what her goals were. But she persisted, he eventually relented, and Tarwater said Swan got her on track – in the end, not only did he play an integral part in her success today, but she considers him such a good friend that he attended her wedding.
JEM Director Catherine Luther said Swan has been an excellent colleague and asset to the school, but it will always be his love of teaching and ensuring student success that made him stand out. She said his enthusiasm for broadcasting and relaying knowledge to students is evident when he leads a class.
“It is so easy to actually assign him a class because, no matter what the class is, I know he’s going to give his 100-percent, and that’s simply because he cares about educating our students and he really does have a passion for teaching. I’ve always been impressed by the amount of service he’s done, and it’s always revolved around our students,” she said.
Swan has conducted more than 150 workshops in more than 50 countries, teaching journalists and managers around the world how to excel in broadcasting. The first country he taught such a workshop in was Angola, in 1996, and after that his international workshops took off. He’s been to Latvia several times – a country he had to look up on a map before ever visiting it – but Croatia quickly became his favorite country to visit and Prague his favorite city. He’s been the primary news trainer for News Corp owned stations s in Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, Serbia and Turkey.
While his international travels and scholarship are impressive, it becomes even more so when one learns that Swan grew up in a tiny Missouri town with a population of 100. He knew he wanted to go to college after he saw his older sisters attend the University of Missouri.
It was during his undergraduate years at Southeast Missouri State University that he began working at the leading radio station in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The station was co-owned with KFVS-TV and Swan quickly became a reporter and anchor. His broadcasting experiences led to a 50-year career in broadcasting and broadcast education.
“I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I loved being on television, I hosted a morning show, and I did all of that while in school, he said.”
He went on to teach at the University of Missouri, where he received his Ph.D. The University of Minnesota, and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.. At each academic position he held, he produced many radio and television programs aired by stations in Missouri, Minnesota, and Illinois.
But it was a program exchange he did after his years at SEMO, at age 22, that formed Swan’s international interests. He went to Sri-Lanka for six months and lived with different local families, working with farmers, giving presentations, and soaking in how another culture both varied from his own, but also resembled it.
“When you live in another culture for six months you realize how much alike we are, that we all have hopes and dreams. That did change my life,” he said.
Swan wanted to give his students a similar life-changing experience, an opportunity to not only broaden their worldviews but to gain skills and insight into how they would approach future careers. In 2000 he led the first such international trip, and in 2006 he was named CCI’s Director of Global Programs and Outreach. His international work has been widely recognized at UT—as recounted in this article from the Center for Global Engagement—and far beyond the borders of Tennessee and the United States.
Here’s just a glimpse of what has been done over the last 21 years with international study abroad programs:
- Helped develop five study abroad programs.
- Developed a semester long CCI Global Communications Scholars Program in Sydney, Australia which includes an internship for students that has proven to be a shining addition to many resumes.
- Received a $1.6 million grant from IREX and USAID to strengthen journalism education in Jordan.
- Received two grants from the US State Department to develop exchange programs with the University of Zagreb in Croatia.
- Received another grant in 2020 from the US State Department to develop university partnerships with three universities in Serbia, including the exchange of faculty and students with the University of Tennessee.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on travel for students and faculty in recent months, that hasn’t stopped Swan from planning more opportunities for future students. He has helped develop a new semester-long program for this spring, which will be in Spain for the very first time.
“It’s another level for the students to have internships in another country, and it has served them well. Their feedback is that has made a difference in being able to secure a position at a company,” he said.
Even before the global programs, Swan knew that getting students out of their comfort zone and into the wider world of broadcasting was important. He started in 1987 with trips to New York, where they’d tour the networks and shows including The Tonight Show, Anderson Cooper, the Late Show with Letterman, the Today Show, and more.
Alumna Heather Haley, chief meteorologist for WVLT in Knoxville, said the interactions with alumni around the country made an impact on her. Today, she’s one of those alumni Swan brings back to talk to students.
“I went to New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, and that helped me to branch out and see more sides of broadcasting at the network level, and to meet alumni. His reach to former students has always been beneficial to everyone in the program,” she said. “I feel blessed that he invites me back every year to speak with students.”
What’s Next for Swan
In addition to establishing global programs and conducting international workshops, Swan also wrote, “Broadcast Management for Eastern Europe,” which was published by the International Broadcasting Bureau in Prague. He plans to continue his writing with his next book, “Media Training In Transition Countries: A Media Trainer’s Perspective,” which will be published in spring 2022 by Routledge.
He also regularly pens columns for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which is one task he said he’ll continue doing in retirement. He’ll also continue writing on matters related to international broadcasting, consulting with radio and TV stations here and abroad, and developing a Podcast related to issues in global media.
While Swan plans to initially rest right after his retirement, he knows himself too well for that to last.
“For about three months I don’t want to launch anything new, no deadlines, no zoom meetings, just nothing. But then I think I’ll get bored,” he said.
He’s actively involved in the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, which awarded him the Distinguished Member Award this last year, and he plans to continue working with broadcasters across the state in that capacity.
While he also knows many broadcasters around the world, Swan said his days of international travel will be limited. But he still enjoys teaching and conducting workshops, so there may be an opportunity to pursue that passion virtually.
If all of that doesn’t keep Swan busy during his retirement, then mentoring requests from past students just might keep him on his toes.
“Even though he’s retiring, he’s going to have to change his phone number if he doesn’t want me to call him,” Tarwater said with a chuckle.
Benny Smith, general manager and program director of CCI’s radio station WUTK Volunteer Radio, said he was a student of Swan, but is also now a personal friend of the professor. Smith said he knows Swan will take some time to relax and enjoy being around his family in retirement, but there’s one thing in particular Smith wants his friend and former teacher to do after he leaves CCI: “I hope he gets to go to every home St. Louis Cardinals baseball game that he can, that’s what I hope he does. We both love baseball and he loves his Cardinals. But I also hope he realizes how he touched so many lives and how he put so many students on a pathway of success for their careers and for what they have a passion to do.”
Regardless of what Swan does in his retirement, one thing is certain: he will be missed by faculty and students alike.
“Dr. Sam Swan is the heart the Journalism & Electronic Media (JEM) program. By that, I mean that in the last 37 years he has singularly done more to help our students with their education and with their careers than all the rest of the faculty members put together. His retirement leaves a big hole in JEM,” said JEM Professor Barbara Kaye.
That said, Swan likely won’t be leaving JEM completely in his rearview mirror—if Luther has her way, he’ll come back as a guest speaker or possibly even to teach a course.
“I hope to still have him teach on occasion for us because I think future students could continue to benefit from his great knowledge base and experiences,” she said.