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

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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.”

Shannon Ray ’12: Digitizing the World of Life Insurance

Shannon Ray ’12: Digitizing the World of Life Insurance

Making the complicated seem easy is all in a day’s work 

Shannon Ray

Shannon Ray ’12 is serving others by digitizing the outdated world of life insurance as a senior product designer at start-up Bestow Inc. in Dallas, Texas. She gained experience as a design assistant for the Alumni Association before graduating from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. Ray broadened her skillset by working as a designer for various start-up companies throughout her career.

Auburn Magazine: What made you choose Auburn?

Shannon Ray: My parents, one of my siblings and my grandparents went to Auburn. They were big proponents of singing the praises of Auburn and selling me on how great of a community it was. I was looking at graphic design, we had interviewed with the professors there, I was looking to go into the marching band, and Auburn has a great marching band, so all of these boxes kept checking off — it was pretty much a no-brainer for me.

AM: Did you always know you wanted to get into graphic design?

SR: At the time, I had applied to two schools for college. For Auburn, I was going to go into graphic design, and for the other school, I was looking into astronomy or some science field. I had strong leanings toward graphic design and lot of that was based off of a class I took in high school, learning tools on the computer and recognizing that I could do it for hours.

I latched onto the idea of doing art for the purpose of somebody else, as a service to somebody else’s idea or company. You learn about how you can impact something’s importance based on how it’s visually presented. All of those things were leading up to graphic design as a career.

AM: What interested you in product design?

SR: In school, I recognized that I enjoyed interactive design. I had classes where we designed a website, apps and a digital magazine and I got fascinated with the idea that how you present information and lead somebody changes how they perceive it. When I graduated, I had to decide between a branding-focused career versus web design.

I kept exploring and ultimately ended up in product design, because I knew that was an emerging and challenging field. I’m not just designing a website; I’m designing how a user will enroll in a program or engage in a game or something. It’s incredibly fascinating, and I’m so happy I’m in this field.

AM: In what ways did your experience as a design assistant at Auburn Magazine help prepare you for your current position?

SR: Having that opportunity to work in those programs in a real business setting and see how that all comes together was really beneficial. It was a great opportunity to get my toes wet, and it was a really safe environment to get started. The other thing about Auburn Magazine, and Auburn in general, is that everybody is really earnest, good-natured and collaborative. The nature of Auburn and its community is very supportive and that’s a great place to be at the beginning.

AM: In what ways did your experience as a design assistant at Auburn Magazine help prepare you for your current position?

SR: Having that opportunity to work in those programs in a real business setting and see how that all comes together was really beneficial. It was a great opportunity to get my toes wet, and it was a really safe environment to get started. The other thing about Auburn Magazine, and Auburn in general, is that everybody is really earnest, good-natured and collaborative. The nature of Auburn and its community is very supportive and that’s a great place to be at the beginning.

AM: What was your first job after graduation?

SR: My first job after graduation was Carbon House – doing websites for music venues, performing arts centers and any sort of event space. We created “the experience” for people visiting the websites. They had a good setup for a young designer – they had their own product content managing system and website service. They have a huge client list and a hold on that niche market so it was a great opportunity to touch larger brands.

I got that job because one of my cohorts in my graduating class met one of the heads of that company and recognized there was an open position. It wasn’t advertised anywhere, so having this good friend in the same program got me that interview, and my portfolio pushed it over the top and landed me that job. Especially with design, a lot of these fields are about making relationships.

AM: How did you end up working with life insurance for Bestow, Inc.?

SR: A mix of life events. I ended up moving to Dallas to be with my husband and I got the job because I worked hard on my portfolio and tried to make it visually attractive. I interviewed with one company that didn’t have a role for me but knew of another startup in their kind of company. They sent my resume over, I got interviewed and landed that job. Somebody I had interviewed with at the original company split off and started Bestow. When I was ready to leave my previous job, I had an interview with him and they had a great position for me.

AM: What kind of product design do you do?

SR: I’ve worked a lot on startups, especially young startups. If you join a young startup, you have to be able to handle a lot of different areas. I’ve done graphic design, web design, web development, email design and the actual product design. When you only have one or two designers and a lot of needs for the business, you cover everything.

As Bestow and other companies have grown, I’ve been able to focus more on product design. Right now, I’m working on a business-to-consumer product that’s focused on how the everyday person will interact with an application that will complete a task for the business – in this case, selling life insurance. I’m starting to focus on more complex products that will solve bigger issues.

AM: What project are you most proud of?

SR: Working now for Bestow, for sure. The life-insurance world is very archaic; everything’s on paper, you use an agent, there’s a lot of overhead in order to maintain those models. What this startup is trying to do is make it all digital. I like it because it’s a mission-based company, life insurance is a general good for people, that’s attractive to me.

That’s also challenging with regulations and special cases you have to account for. I actually enjoy that – it’s like tackling a challenge and being able to overcome it and start selling policies. It’s been a great experience working here and seeing my work come to life knowing that I had a big hand in it.

AM: Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’re especially excited about?

SR: I have a couple freelance efforts that I do with some friends, one of which is picking up. It sounds kind of crazy, but it involves “World of Warcraft.” I don’t play, but my friend is super into it and built an entire community around stats and ratings. They’ve gotten connections to Blizzard, the producer of the game, and they have special access to some of their data. I’m getting to work with him on some new features. That’s been really good to mix it up a little.

Having those side projects keeps the creative juices flowing. From nonprofits to friends’ projects to illustration, you just keep trying to round out your skills and keep growing.

AM: What’s the number one thing you love about your job?

SR: I really enjoy working with my coworkers. They have a driven, optimistic nature, and I think we really value that here. They’re willing to go that extra mile, which really jives with what I want, too; I want to be able to do really good work with good people. I enjoy that people appreciate that I’m trying to deliver quality and they’re expected to do that, as well. I’ve gotten some really awesome experiences just by being close with my coworkers.

AM: What is one thing you miss about Auburn?

SR: One of the things I obviously miss is the friends that I had there, and so many great people in one place. Auburn is definitely beautiful, but I would say the people I had there during my time. You can’t keep them forever, we’ve all scattered various places, it’s harder to get back together, but I still definitely miss that. I also miss being able to go to Toomer’s Coffee, I don’t even think it’s open anymore, but to work quietly there, drink coffee and walk the campus in the early morning.

AM: Do you have any specific goals for the future?

SR: I’m happy with where I am right now, but of course there’s things I want to grow. I want to be able to have more speaking opportunities within the company or local design community. A big thing people talk about is being prepared for the next exciting opportunity that comes so you’ll be ready to jump on it, maybe that’s in Bestow, maybe that’s a side project. I want to keep building my portfolio because, the more work you do, the more opportunities you’ll have.

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.

Julia Murphy 18

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.