Swift, 63, says the late CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt “paved the road on which I would embark.” For those of you old enough to remember Kuralt, who died in 1997, the storytelling similarities are striking.
Swift is listed on the KXAN website as a reporter/photographer. When he began at KTVV (now KXAN) in 1977, the station had no photographers. Swift and another reporter/photographer would go out together, first shooting a story with Swift running camera and the other reporting, then on to another location where they switched roles.
“When I moved to TV from KOKE radio, they taught me how to shoot film,” Swift said. “When they did finally hire photographers, I insisted on continuing to shoot the “B” roll pictures, while the photographer shot the interviews and stand-ups. I didn’t want to have to look at someone else’s video. The camera is an extension of myself. The viewer gets to see what I see.”
Fairly early in his career, Swift starting moving more toward the feature stories for which he is now famous. He says with Austin being such a small town, breaking news was not always available. Swift asked for a car and a camera and simply started driving around until he found something or someone interesting, who he then quizzed about what they were doing.
“This was a lot more fun than covering wrecks and county commissioners,” Swift said. “People seemed to respond to it, so after a few years, news management suggested I do only these kinds of stories. Except for one year when management changed and I went back to hard news, I’ve always done features, which we now call ‘in-depth.’”
The station used to end the 10 p.m. news with Swift’s features. KXAN’s news consultants wanted him to give the segment a name. He rejected their suggestion, “The Swift Kick,” pointing out the obvious conflict that would occur when he did a serious or sad feature story. Instead, he suggested, “On the Porch,” in a tribute to Kuralt’s “On the Road.”
“In those early days, everyone used to go out on the porch, talk to neighbors and tell stories, so it fit,” Swift said.
Later, management dropped the label and moved Swift to a daily mixed beat with an emphasis on South Austin, where the majority of his stories were still features.
“Our present general manager and news director, Eric Lassberg and Michael Fabac, are much more amenable to my arguments,” Swift said. “Now, my features can run on any show.”
Swift used to turn out five feature stories a week. Fabac asks for just three, but also has Swift repackaging his stories for Sunday news shows and for the station’s website.
“I objected at first, but then I realized it’s more exposure for my work,” Swift said.
The Georgetown native and Southwestern University graduate says his story ideas come from many sources, but most from viewers and others outside the station. Swift claims he has become more “topical” in his story selection, tying into the news and trends of the day.
“I’m much more attuned to the assignment desk and they to me,” Swift said.
Around the station, you are likely to hear Swift called “Jake,” rather than his given name. And, he’s just as likely to call you Jake. He says it all goes back many years to an Austin TV type who used to say, “Let me get as much out of life as I can while simultaneously contributing as little as possible.” Over the years, Swift says, it became a term for anyone who was loafing, then morphed into a term of endearment, rather than a slur.
You might expect a 34-year veteran to long for the good old days, but that is not the case with Swift. He says local TV news is “incalculably better now” than it was when he started.
“We were pretty green and nobody came with training,” Swift said. “We were professional, but not as thorough as we are today.”
Swift points to the arrival of the Internet and the presence of the station on the Web as important advancements. Now, he says, he writes a longer web story, takes still pictures in the field for the web, and engages on Twitter and Facebook, all in the same eight hours he used to use for TV stories.
“I resisted furiously, but now I realize it’s fantastic,” Swift said. “There is so much more material to use after I cut my two-and-a-half minute TV story, so I put the extra footage on the Web with no time limit. It’s challenging, it’s more intense and there’s no time for lollygagging, but it’s fun.”
Swift lives with his third wife, artist Katy Nail, in the Cuernavaca neighborhood southwest of Austin. They’ve been married for six years and live in what Swift calls an “incredible house—four green concrete structures that resemble upside down bowls.”
“It’s great, a large lot on top of a hill among live oaks, a gorgeous garden, full of food all the time, chickens,” Swift said.
Swift has two children from his first marriage, Marine Corps Major Nathan Swift, now serving in Afghanistan after four tours in Iraq and daughter Shayla, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska.
Swift’s current plan is to retire when his present contract expires at the end of September 2013 when he will be 65.
“The economy has things up in the air, and the powers that be said I don’t have to retire at 65,” Swift said. “We’ll just have to see.”
After 34 years of watching Swift’s unique story-telling abilities, Austin news viewers will be the poorer when he finally decides to fade from the TV scene.