Jonathan Murray, ‘father of reality television,’ still finding new ways to tell stories half a century into illustrious career

Jonathan Murray

By Austin Fitzgerald

When MTV’s “The Real World” featured Pedro Zamora in its third season, the result was a watershed moment. As an openly gay man who was also HIV positive, his presence brought attention to seminal cultural issues, and former president Bill Clinton credited Zamora with putting “a human face” on the AIDS epidemic.

“When I was growing up as a child watching television, it was all white, middle-class people whose stories where being told,” Murray said, himself a gay man whose projects have often centered people in diverse and marginalized communities. “The breadwinners were always the men, women were always the housewives. There was no such thing as someone who was gay or part of the LGBTQ universe, so it’s been very satisfying for me to help bring peoples’ stories into television that weren’t being told.”

COLUMBIA, Mo. (May 2, 2024) — True to the Missouri Method of hands-on learning that he practiced at the School nearly five decades ago, Jonathan Murray, BJ ’77, is armed to the teeth with lessons earned from extensive real-world experience — some of it quite recent. And like a graduating student, he is in the midst of a transitional period.

After a career in which he launched the genre of reality television with MTV’s “The Real World” in 1992, followed by a string of further successes over the decades with “The Simple Life,” “Project Runway,’ “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and many others — all produced by Bunim-Murray productions, the company he founded with business partner Mary-Ellis Bunim — he has absconded to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to develop stage productions.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Murray said. “It’s a different way of telling stories, certainly when you are doing a musical because you have songs to help you tell the story. I’m really enjoying it.”

It’s not the first time he has made a pivot in his professional life. He spent the late ‘70s and much of the ‘80s producing local television newscasts. But he dreamed of something bigger.

“Going back to my youth, I was fascinated by television,” Murray said. “I used to write to TV Guide each week, and they would send me the ratings for the networks. I had a big blackboard where I would look at the fall schedule and come up with my own — what I thought were better — ideas about how the networks should be scheduled.”

He climbed the ladder of television news, which ultimately bridged into a TV programming job in New York, where he finally saw a clear path to Hollywood. By 1987, 10 years after graduating from the School of Journalism, he was producing a pilot in Tinseltown.

He thinks there is a lesson in there for current students.

“It’s important for students to be open to the possibilities and follow the instincts they have, because they might be someone who pioneers a new form of storytelling,” Murray said. “A lot of my work ended up being for cable television, which is something that hadn’t even existed when I was at the School of Journalism.”

He credits the School with giving him opportunities to build skills that weren’t exclusive to a single medium or style, enabling him to follow his passions. He still recalls the professors who helped him find his path, especially Walkerman David Dugan, who taught broadcast journalism at the School for 15 years and served as the first general manager of KBIA-FM, the Missouri News Network’s NPR-member radio station.

It’s important for students to be open to the possibilities and follow the instincts they have, because they might be someone who pioneers a new form of storytelling.

Jonathan Murray

“He saw some kind of spark or promise in me, and he was like, ‘Oh, Jon, you don’t want to waste your time being on camera — you’re a producer. You’re someone who wants to control things,’” Murray said. “He really pushed me toward the producing aspect.”

But just as vital in his development was his love for storytelling in all its forms, which gave him the drive to find his way to Hollywood when broadcast news turned out to be a less than perfect fit. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that his namesake at the School — the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, which he established with a $6.7 million gift in 2014 — has become something of a haven for students who find themselves looking for a different artistic outlet. Students at the center can make films covering a wide range of subject matter as part of their coursework, from short subjects to feature-length documentaries, which are finding increasing success at film festivals locally and around the country.

The synergy between the center’s unique positioning at the School and Murray’s own story didn’t necessarily happen on purpose — Murray attributes its resonance with students to the vision of founding director Stacey Woelfel, now retired, and to Filmmaker-in-chief Robert Greene, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who has called the center the School’s “island of misfit toys.” But coincidence or not, Murray’s distinctive stamp on the center is unmistakable.

“It’s grounded in the ethics of the School of Journalism and all those wonderful things that the School can offer, but at the same time, it’s sort of like the pirate radio station,” Murray said. “It wants to help each person find their own path. I’m really pleased that it’s become what it has because in a way, it very much reflects my own career.”

Now, as he throws himself into developing stage plays, he is yet again demonstrating that the skills of a storyteller need not be confined into any one medium. But while segueing from reality television to theatre might seem like a significant shift, Murray has no difficulty identifying the through-line that has persisted throughout his career.

“I’ve been fortunate that my work has taken me into such interesting areas, and that I’ve been able to use that work to hopefully advance our understanding of each other,” Murray said. “That’s something else I want to talk to students about; in your work, you have an opportunity to not only tell a story, but hopefully to create empathy and understanding.”

Murray will deliver the Missouri School of Journalism’s spring commencement address on Friday, May 10, at Mizzou Arena.

Updated: May 6, 2024