caroline sawyer

Breakthrough Star: Caroline Sawyer

USC Beaufort communication studies professor turns ‘experiment’ into successful SCETV show

Caroline Sawyer has a lot on her plate, but she isn’t complaining. The University of South Carolina Beaufort assistant professor of Communication Studies put most of it there herself. “When someone gives me a ‘yes,’ I take that as six ‘yesses’ and move forward,” she says with a laugh.

For a case study, look no further than By the River, the literary interview program she produces in collaboration with SCETV. Since its debut in 2018, the program has served as an experiential learning classroom for her students, a community outreach program for USCB and an all-encompassing passion project for Sawyer.

By the River is my love letter to the world,” she says. “It is every part of my creativity and passion put into a single creative scholarship project.”

The program started as “an experiment,” she says — something she pitched during a 2017 conversation with Don Godish, SCETV’s director of national content/regional operations. The university and SCETV had just formalized a new partnership agreement that would include, among other things, internship opportunities for students. But Sawyer was already thinking “what if?”

“I said, ‘You know what I would love to do is a show with Low Country authors. There’s something magical about this area that seems to inspire outstanding writing.’ He told me they previously had a show called “The Writers Circle” that had a long run and he would love to see something like that again.

“I said, well, OK, that’s a yes.”

From there, it was a matter of building out the plan, cultivating additional partnerships — and racking up more yesses. As part of the Pat Conroy Literary Festival team, poet and USCB English professor Ellen Malphrus provided a conduit for finding authors for the new program. Holly Jackson, ETV Lowcountry’s new director of operations and content, became Sawyer’s producing partner and the show’s host.

Working on this show, students see that even while they’re learning, they have value. They don’t have to wait until they have their degree to start contributing to the community. They can add value and expertise while they’re earning their degree. That’s an important lesson.

Carolina Sawyer

Sawyer worked with SCETV to shoot the first episode in spring of 2018. The rest of the first season was produced by Sawyer, SCETV and 12 USCB students during a Maymester course. Associate producer, technical director, promotions/digital content, lead production assistant — the students’ names scroll by in the credits.

“I had the students read the books, they wrote the questions, and I would write the scripts,” she says.

The show also included a unique ending with the Poet’s Corner. “The studio is on the Beaufort River, so at the end of each episode there is a performative poetry reading playing to beautiful video of the river,” says Sawyer. “While we had some technical limitations that first season, the content was amazing.”

And it would only get better. In addition to a new $30,000 set constructed for season 2, they were now able to shoot the show in HD. For the Poet’s Corner, they added illustrations from local artists, and they also began to reach beyond the Lowcountry, bringing in writers from other states around the southeast.

“There’s still a heavy South Carolina feel — typically, over 50 percent of the authors, poets, and artists are from South Carolina,” she says. “But we wanted to expand the content enough that it would have a broader appeal across the Southeast.”

Of course, students are involved at every step, from pre-production to post-production.

“Students love production, and they love the planning, but they don’t always know what to do with what they produce,” says Sawyer. “One of things I’ve really focused on is telling them, ‘Yeah, you’ve done this great video content, but it needs to have this format, and it needs to look this certain way, and this is how you deliver it to a television station.' They learn all of those different processes.”

They also get a dose of real-world, beyond-the-classroom experience and the satisfaction of producing something that benefits the larger community.

“Working on this show, students see that even while they’re learning, they have value,” says Sawyer. “They don’t have to wait until they have their degree to start contributing to the community. They can add value and expertise while they’re earning their degree. That’s an important lesson.”

Meanwhile, Sawyer is out there looking for more yesses. Among the related projects she is pursuing is the Sand Shark Center for Innovative Media, “a multifaceted production house” on the USCB campus that she hopes will host an internet radio station, a campus TV station and a student “playroom,” or makerspace, for content creation.

By the River has already been brought into the Sand Shark family and Sawyer plans for other projects to follow. She has even established a “contract arm” through which local nonprofits and small businesses pay for production services, providing income for students and funding for other projects. In the end, though, it’s all part of Sawyer’s larger experiential learning approach.

“I don’t want students to walk away from my class and just say, ‘Yeah, I learned a bunch of stuff,’ Sawyer explains. “I want them to say, ‘I learned a bunch of stuff, and here’s what I did, and I get to graduate with experience on my resume and an excellent degree.’ ”

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