Jim Morton ’91 grew up spending time in the Alabama woods with his dad, forestry major James Morton ’61, never knowing it would prepare him for his future career as a producer of hit reality show “Naked and Afraid.”
Morton says he was Auburn-bound from birth — “Ever since I was a little kid, Auburn was the place. I wanted to go there; it was home.”
Bouncing around between majors throughout his time at Auburn, Morton finally found his calling in radio and TV production classes. “I’m a storyteller at heart, and from that moment on, I was like, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and minors in psychology and business, Morton completed an internship at CNN. He worked his way up the ladder in the video journalist program, doing everything from tape editing to producing – and even sports casting.
Taking place at the outbreak of the first Gulf War, his experience in the control room during those tense times convinced Morton he’d made the right career choice.
“I fell in love with fast-paced, live TV. Talk about an adrenaline rush — you have to learn everything you can in 30 seconds, which is a lot more than you think.”
After his internship, Morton moved to L.A. and began his career as a freelance producer. His first job was with production company Renegade83, never anticipating it would lead him to the biggest show in his career: “Naked and Afraid.”
Life as a freelance producer landed Morton producing shows of all kinds, toughing through some duds simply for the paycheck, but also getting to do shows he loved, like “The Benefactor” with Mark Cuban and “Only in America” with Larry the Cable Guy. He worked hard and travelled often so much that, once, he had to call the front desk at his hotel to ask what city he was in.
One day Renegade83 approached Morton about producing “Naked and Afraid,” and although still unsure, he gave it a shot.
After rushing a contestant on the brink of death to the hospital, eyes rolling in the back of her head, he told his wife, “if I do three seasons of this, it’ll be a miracle.” Yet he is still here, several years later, getting ready for another season.
Although surrounded by nudity for weeks at a time, Morton and his crew find it easy to stay professional to keep contestants comfortable. “To me, they might as well be wearing a flesh-colored jumpsuit,” he said, “We notice the bug bites more than anything.” Ironically, Morton say the weirdest part for him is actually seeing what the cast members where in real life after the show ends.
Years on the show have taken Morton to beautiful places across the globe like Brazil, Ecuador, Belize and Panama. He even filmed a season on his family’s land in Alabama. Morton’s favorite location — also the most desolate — was Guyana, where the crew stayed in a ranch in one room without hot water or power. “It was the most remote place I’ve ever been, and it was pretty miserable, but we had a ball – we loved it.”
During his travels, Morton has seen cast and crew members with deadly bug and snake bites, and was himself once bitten by a scorpion in his sleep.
He’s also eaten some unusual things – termites and ants that taste like lemons, grub worms, even iguana — a delicacy in Guyana.
He’s also met some incredible people with amazing stories, like Diego, a local expert who escaped imprisonment from rebel soldiers while in the Colombian Army and dedicated his life to jungle survival. “The people you meet are what make it really special,” he said.
Much of what Morton does isn’t in the typical job description of a producer, like testing safe evacuation routes for the cast by hiking miles and pedaling across treacherous waters. Just getting to and from the set every day is a workout; he loses an average of 20 pounds per season.
The hardest part of his job isn’t the tiresome hiking or constant heat and bugs, Morton said. It’s watching contestants make mistakes, like drinking questionable water, and not being able to help them. The one thing he can do is take on the role of coach and cheerleader, “I can’t see them, or give them water, but I can give them encouragement and make the believe that they’re going to make it.” Morton finds inspiration from the book “Lone Survivor” to tell them to make it through the day or the hour rather than looking ahead to the pain.
“The highs are super high, and the lows are super low, but I remind them they’ll get a little victory eventually.”
While his job is difficult at times, the crew makes every second of it worth it. “The people that work on the show are like a big family – we love working together and everybody gets along, because you have to in such a weird situation. It’s such an incredible group of people, and they’re really dedicated to what they do.”
Throughout his travels, Morton gained a newfound appreciation for the little things in life like air conditioning and fresh water, but most of all – not having to eat rice on a daily basis. “My wife will ask me what I want to eat, and I always say, ‘Anything but rice. No rice,’” he said. The crew eats so much rice, they even joked about making a t-shirt with “Hope you like rice” on the back.
More than happy with where he is now, Morton certainly didn’t expect to be where he is today facing the dangers of nature. “Being in the woods with my dad my whole life kind of prepared me for it. Everywhere we go is hot and humid like Alabama in the summertime, with bugs and venomous snakes.”
His love for Alabama brought him all the way back home to Auburn last January. “L.A. just wasn’t for me; I’m a guy from Alabama, you know,” he laughed. Morton enjoys walking around downtown Auburn with his wife by his side and taking in the town he holds so many memories of.
With little time to relax, Morton is already filming for the next season of “Naked and Afraid” in Africa. “This is my first time [going to Africa] and I’m so excited,” he said. While the specific location can’t be disclosed until after filming, Morton said that there will be armed rangers to protect them from the wild animals of Africa.
Morton always wears some Auburn clothing or hat while filming and gets “War Eagle” from people across the globe, like Colombia and Panama. With his crew by his side, the challenges of the wild won’t stop him from filming anytime soon.
“There are times when its absolutely miserable – but you have your friends, you’re all suffering together, and you make the most out of it.”