Jim Morton ’91: Out in the Wild with “Naked & Afraid”

Jim Morton ’91: Out in the Wild with “Naked & Afraid”

A TV producer gets down and dirty following contestants into the jungle

Jim Morton 91

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.

Jim Morton 91 on set
Morton on the set of “Naked and Afraid”

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.”

JIM MORTON ’91: OUT IN THE WILD WITH “NAKED & AFRAID” Alumni profile for magazine ex 3

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.”

“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.”

Kelsey Davis ’14: Uncovering Corruption, Achieving a Dream

Kelsey Davis ’14: Uncovering Corruption, Achieving a Dream

Holding educators and policy-makers accountable is a lifelong dream come true

Kelsey Davis 14

When Kelsey Davis ’14 was editor of The Plainsman, she and a friend who was the editor at the student newspaper at Ole Miss would talk ad nauseam about how badly Alabama and Mississippi needed a Texas Tribune-like news source to rigorously cover public policy in a way the states needed and deserved.

“At that time, it was a total pie-in-the-sky fantasy,” said Davis.

A few years later, that pie-in-the-sky fantasy became a reality in the form of Mississippi Today. Since joining the non-profit news source, Davis has covered education policy and the severe teacher shortage in the Mississippi Delta, which she likened to the Alabama Black Belt because of its racial and socioeconomic demographics.

“I’m not just saying this because they employ me, it’s really awesome. We don’t have a print product, we’re all online. It’s a huge shift in how journalism has been done and taught because journalism has been so deadline driven, you can become such a deadline junkie.”

Much different than any reporting gig she’s had in the past, Davis has a more flexible schedule to do deeply analytical investigative reporting on the Mississippi education system, including a three-part series on the teacher shortage that took a year to complete. Of course, Davis worked on other stories during that year, but she said it feels extremely fulfilling to shed light on a teacher shortage that left some students without an English teacher for all of high school.

In retrospect, journalism seems to be a natural fit for Davis, but she really didn’t understand what journalism was when she picked a major at Camp War Eagle.

“I remember sitting on the front porch of Cater Hall; they gave everyone a form and told us to check what we wanted our major to be. It was like ‘okay, check the box and decide the trajectory of your life.’”

She had no interest in studying English or going into teaching, so journalism seemed like one of the only ways to turn her passion for writing into a career. But it never really clicked for Davis until she had to write a paper on “The Elements of Journalism.”

“I stayed up all night reading the book and writing the paper, and then I was like, ‘oh, that’s what this is about.’ The whole way it was explained to me made me fall in love with it.”

From there, Davis started working in the intrigue section at The Plainsman, essentially giving her the license to write about whatever “intrigued” her any given week. But when she became editor-in-chief, her interests shifted to hard news and investigative journalism.

“I was like a full-on addict and never really wanted to do anything else. Once I got introduce to it and figured out what it was, it just felt like the right fit for me. Working for and being editor of The Plainsman is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done so far.”

Davis has a great deal of respect for daily reporters, but it’s just not for her. She still can churn out two or three stories a day like she was doing at The Montgomery Advertiser, but her best work comes when she has the time to deeply investigate issues.

The atypical work schedule at Mississippi Today also affords Davis and her reporting partner the time to implement innovative projects, such as “Public Newsroom,” where reporters host members of the public to bring different perspectives to their coverage.

“Journalism has a history of unfairly covering communities, sometimes a very malicious way, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. We have this phrase in journalism that you need to give voice to the voiceless, but the problem is those people were never voiceless, we just quit listening to them. It’s more about us learning to re-listen.”

From discovering her calling to making life-long friends, The Plainsman in many ways defined Davis’ college experience. It was incredibly difficult for her to step away because of how much the student newspaper had become a part of her identity, and the first few years were difficult to find her niche in the field of journalism.But working at Mississippi Today has fed that passion that she developed as a young student journalist.

“I feel like the ideal version of journalism is taught in universities, and we’re pretty close to that here. I’m getting to do the ideal job with journalistic integrity, caliber and quality of work.”

“I feel like the ideal version of journalism is taught in universities, and we’re pretty close to that here. I’m getting to do the ideal job with journalistic integrity, caliber and quality of work.”

Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

A veteran uses his retirement to bridge to further the West’s understanding of Islam 

Jason Howk '00

When Jason Howk ’00 retired from the military, all he wanted to do was go fishing.

But when he was asked to speak at a local library about his two tours in Afghanistan, all 30 minutes of the question-and-answer segment centered around his understanding of Islam. He was asked to come speak at the library again, this time just about the religion. Then he was asked to speak by another group. Then another. And another.

Shortly after retirement, Howk became one of the most notable Christian-American experts on Islam and the Quran in the world. Since, he’s taught college-level courses, written an award-winning book and even tempered the rhetoric in a speech President Donald Trump gave to a collection of 55 Muslim-majority nations.

Prior to attending Auburn, Howk spent time in the United Arab Emirates training with special forces. But his understanding of Islamic culture and history didn’t come until he was recruited by Gen. Karl Eikenberry to serve in Afghanistan after 9/11. Essentially, they were assisting the Afghani government in building an army from scratch.

“It makes you think of the time of George Washington at Valley Forge,” Howk said. “There was no army, there was no infrastructure – there was nothing. That was a fascinating assignment. I got to learn more in that year than I ever did in my whole life.”

Working with the president of Afghanistan, generals, diplomats and representatives from the United Nations, the year was extremely transformative for Howk. Totally immersed, he lived with Muslims, ate their food and gained an intimate understanding of the culture.

“As a Baptist kid from Vermont and Florida, that wasn’t something that was normal. You don’t just run into somebody who’s Muslim. That really helped me to learn a lot about the religion and culture – the similarities, the differences. You walk away from it with a better understanding of it and a lot of friends in Afghanistan.”

After leaving in 2003, Howk went to graduate school to study Arabic and Farsi. He earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies and South Asia studies before Gen. Stanley McChrystal recruited Howk back to Afghanistan for a year to initiate a reintegration process for a peace plan and help form a review for President Barack Obama.

“I’m considered a ‘half-ghan,’ he said with a laugh. “It’s when you’re not really from Afghanistan, but you’re kind of immersed in the life.”

By this time, Howk had a deep understanding of reconciliation, forgiveness and what the Quran actually says. He finished out his career in the intelligence community, and that’s when “phase two” of his life began. As his number of speaking engagements increased, Howk realized that he had to require a healthy atmosphere conducive to open exchange of understanding amongst people of all faiths. Speaking to Muslim and non-Muslim groups, he tells his audiences to not take the conversation personally or politically.

Additionally, Howk believes in a different approach to interfaith work. Typically, a Christian explains Christianity, a Jew explains Judaism, a Muslim explains Islam and so on. He’s flipped that formula on its head – and it’s worked.

“Most audiences will actually listen to me and take a moment to think about it like, ‘wait a minute. This guy lived in that culture, and he’s giving us facts. He’s not just giving us opinions or making up things. This is just what he experienced.’”

Howk carried the philosophy into the book “The Quran: A Chronological Modern English Interpretation.” Originally meant to be a PDF for friends in the military to better understand the places they were serving, a publisher approached Howk and said it needed to be made available to the public. Since then, it has won an award for excellence in writing from the Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest and received the Gold Medal from the National Indie Excellence Awards.

“I made it readable English. If I had to move a verse up a couple lines or move a verse down so that it flowed in English grammar and it made a paragraph that you can read, then I did that.” Howk changed the order of particular sermons to read chronologically in order to make the book easy to understand and a quick read for English speakers, as opposed to versions written by translators not as familiar with English.

Writing the book after a number of years giving talks, Howk anticipated the questions a typical American would have after reading the text. He’s even started the podcast “We’re Just Talking About It” to continue the dialogue between faith leaders to translate the understanding to members of all religions. Recently, Howk was asked to lunch with the president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the continent. At one point in the more than three-hour lunch, Howk explained his background. The president said it was no mistake that Howk is doing what he’s doing.

“He told me, ‘God really chose you for this plan. I mean, you’re a Baptist military officer, and you wander around America explaining Islam to non-Muslims. That doesn’t happen by accident.’ He was very appreciative that I am trying to increase tolerance between religions and just get people to be nicer to each other in general.”

Regardless of a person’s religious view, Howk didn’t choose the past few years of his journey – the journey chose him. Although he assumed he would’ve gone fishing more than the two trips he’s been on in retirement, Howk finds fulfillment in his own niche approach to interfaith work.

“I don’t think this happened by chance. I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of. This is not what I thought I’d be doing in retirement. It’s really taken on a life of its own.”

I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of.

Julia Murphy ’18: From Graduating to Emmy-Winning

Julia Murphy ’18: From Graduating to Emmy-Winning

Some wait a lifetime to win an Emmy. Others only need a year.

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New York born-and-raised, Julia Murphy ’18 came down south in hopes of joining Auburn’s Equestrian team, but once she set foot on campus, there was no going back – recruited or not.

“I had visited several other schools and I hadn’t had ‘the feeling,’” she said, “I just loved Auburn so much that I couldn’t leave.”

The Equestrian team did recruit her, but she moved on to focus on school after her freshman year. Like many Auburn students, Murphy changed her major multiple times between her freshman and sophomore year, ultimately deciding on political science. Now an Emmy-winner and associate producer at DailyMailTV, many people ask her how she went from a political science major to where she is today. “I had this feeling that I wanted to do TV, but I wanted to lean towards the political side of things,” Murphy explained.

While Murphy was considering a career as a political correspondent, she was searching for a way to dip her toe into the broadcast television side of things. One of her Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters, Ellie McCoy, told her about Eagle Eye, Auburn’s student-run television station. After popping in one day and observing the studio, Murphy decided to become a part of something that would change her life forever.

During her time at Eagle Eye, she went from working as an anchor to learning the ins and outs of TV production, gaining experience in directing, producing, writing, graphic design and much more.

“It’s an incredible organization and I don’t think that anything could’ve prepared me better for working in the TV industry.”

With Eagle Eye on her resume, Murphy scored an internship at Entertainment Tonight the summer before her senior year. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten that internship had I not had Eagle Eye on my resume,” she said.

The woman that hired her at Entertainment Tonight left halfway through Murphy’s internship to work on season one of the entertainment news startup, DailyMailTV. Soon after Murphy graduated, she got a call from the same woman about a job opportunity to work on season at DailyMailTV. Murphy submitted her resume and cover letter to interview for an executive assistant position. She certainly didn’t expect the email she received about the job. “I was actually confused,” she laughed, “I thought it was a mistake.”

DailyMailTV had reviewed her resume and offered her the position of associate producer. “My experience at Eagle Eye boosted me up to a position that takes people years to get to.”

As associate producer, Murphy holds the responsibility of gathering and creating all of the visual elements and effects seen on each segment. This includes taking pictures, shooting videos and developing graphics.

Working closely with the editor and the graphics team, Murphy thrives on bringing each piece to life by 2 p.m. EST every day. “We’re on a huge time crunch in the mornings,” she said. “Everything is so fast-moving, the pace keeps me alive.”

Her favorite part of her job, though, is producing her own daily show for GlobalMail. GlobalMail has correspondents in five major cities, and are assigned one of those locations to produce a story on from start to finish. “That’s my piece; that’s my favorite part. It’s something that I get to be really proud of.” One of her most recent segments was an exclusive on Meghan Markle called, “The Duchess of Sussex.”

That’s not the only thing Murphy should be proud of. Nearly just a year after graduating from Auburn, DailyMailTV won an Emmy for Outstanding Entertainment News Program, something most people in the TV industry only dream of.

“I kid you not, I think my jaw hit the floor,” she said, “For us, a show that’s only in our second season, to win an Emmy was just the most incredible thing.”

Holding the Emmy was surreal for the team, and especially for Murphy. “It’s something that has always been on my mind, to win an Emmy one day — but to have won an Emmy one year after graduating was not something that I had on my radar.” With one Emmy under her belt, Murphy couldn’t be more thankful for her experiences at Auburn. This includes the advice she received from people like Billy Farris, her advisor at Eagle Eye. “He knew what I wanted to do in my career and he helped me get there,” she said, “Eagle Eye and Billy Ferris, they were the two biggest factors that helped me get to where I am today.”

Murphy certainly loves her current job producing at DailyMailTV, but isn’t limiting herself to the possibilities of other positions she explored during her time at Eagle Eye and producing her own segments at DailyMailTV. “I have always wanted to do on-air talent,” she said, “I think that, in my heart, I would really like to get back to that.” She would also love to become an executive producer and create her own bigger segments one day. While the fast pace of New York continues to motivate her, Murphy sometimes misses the slower pace of Auburn. “In Auburn, everyone takes the time to be kind to each other, you just feel this sense of togetherness with everyone in the Auburn Family.”

A slow pace like Auburn’s is unlikely for Murphy, though, as she strives to climb up the ladder as one of the youngest associate producers in the entertainment industry.

Raven McCutchen ’10: Spreading Her Wings From the Nest

Raven McCutchen ’10: Spreading Her Wings From the Nest

Sometimes life itself can be a work of art 

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For Raven Roxanne McCutchen ’10, there was never a question that she was going to be an artist. McCutchen grew up lending a hand in her parents’ craft gallery, The Zoo Gallery, in Grayton Beach, Fla.

“My joke is that my first words were, ‘Hi, how can I help you?”

Today, McCutchen is helping children and art lovers through her work. She is a painter first, but is also creative director and co-founder of children’s publishing house Lil Bit Lit. McCutchen graduated from Auburn University with a BFA in painting. With Auburn graduates Roxie Wilson ’75 and Chris Wilson ’77 for parents — her dad was the Auburn placekicker in the legendary “Punt Bama Punt” game — this was no surprise.

While family tradition may have brought McCutchen to Auburn, Auburn brought great memories and inspiration to McCutchen through the many friends she made and people she encountered. It didn’t hurt to have her brother, Baxter Wilson ’08, by her side in the art department, either.

“What I loved most about Auburn was that it gave a lot of space to discover yourself. You had all of these different people to pull inspiration from.”

Nearly four years after graduating, she started painting professionally. McCutchen draws her inspiration from personal experiences and finds beauty in the imperfection of all aspects of life, including nature and love.

She moved from one coastal city to another, now living in artistic Charleston, S.C. with her husband, Thomas, and their rescue dog, Willie.

Brainstorming ideas for her and Thomas’s wedding announcements after getting engaged, McCutchen came up with the idea behind the “Nest” Series.

“I started drawings these bird nests, and I liked that it was messy and imperfect because I felt like that was kind of our story.”

Raven McCutchen 10

The “Nest” series has been just one of McCutchen’s projects for the last five years. In the beginning, she would go into the studio every day, pick three colors she felt drawn to and get to work. “The afternoon is when I primarily paint most,” she said, “It’s a sacred space for me.”

Soon after releasing the “Nest Series,” McCutchen began receiving photos from parents of their children drawing the nests. Those unexpected photos sparked the idea to create her 2019 children’s book, “A Raven’s Nest.”

“My book was about connecting yourself to emotions and creating a safe space.”

McCutchen’s ultimate hope for “A Raven’s Nest” was to provide a productive way for children to address, feel and work through different emotions. She certainly didn’t expect to embark on a book tour with home decor brand Serena & Lily, but she welcomed the challenge. During the book tour, McCutchen got to sit down and connect with children by drawing with them and doing an art project based on “A Raven’s Nest.” “The kids just got it, which was such a breath of fresh air,” she said.

Along with writing her book, McCutchen and a few local Charleston moms co-founded Lil Bit Lit, an art-forward children’s publishing house with a mission to inspire connectedness through books.

“I was aware that this market was hard to find,” said McCutchen. “Having these beautiful books made by artists that I really admire just sounded like a really fun and interesting project to work on. There are so many artists that I find fascinating and I would love for my child to be imprinted by them.”

Lil Bit Lit is very excited to find new artists with beautiful ideas for children, and hopes to grow their library in an authentic way, much like McCutchen has with her own work.

“I paint what I know, and the thing I know most is myself.” Another success in McCutchen’s career has been her Instagram, where she shares the intimate stories behind her work with her 31,000 loyal followers.

“Growing up in the gallery, what I learned was that people want a story. That’s the greatest tool of Instagram, giving the artist the voice to connect to people that are interested in what they’re making.”

McCutchen thinks of her success with Instagram as a mix between luck and timing. “I really just try to be honest about my work and conscious of the story I’m telling,” she said.

Her new series, the “Bird Series,” will be released on her website June 27, 2019. This series was inspired by the significance of birds in her life, and focuses on relationships. For once in her life, McCutchen doesn’t have a plan for the immediate future. Right now, she is simply giving herself space to discover what’s next. But one space she still misses is Auburn, with the wisdom of the professors and kindness of its students.

“In a way, it’s like a little nest — there’s so much security and warmth at Auburn.”

Raven McCutchen 10 at book reading

“In a way, it’s like a little nest — there’s so much security and warmth at Auburn.”