As a child, John Morris fell in love with the craft. It all started out by taking apart and piecing back together radios on his front porch in Torrington, Connecticut.
He even taught himself how to transmit a signal from that same porch to sell advertisements to local businesses as a teenager. Although he and others thought it ingenious, the FCC saw it differently and shut him down.
Fast forward to 2017, and the broadcasting pioneer had left his mark in just about everything before passing on Sept. 28, 2017 at 91 years old. Morris’ career in broadcasting spanned six decades, years where he served in the armed forces abroad, interviewed celebrities and future presidents, and helped shape the Trenton-area media scene by launching WPST 97.5 FM and later owning WIMG 1300 AM.
The Hamilton resident’s family described him as a “firecracker,” but he had quite humble beginnings in Connecticut. Raised by his immigrant grandparents, Morris had to learn how to communicate himself since his grandparents didn’t know much English.
Radio was something he became enamored with at an early age. In fact, his first job was sweeping the floors at a local Connecticut radio station.
“He found it exciting and fascinating and it was just something that he dreamt about and he figured he would somehow try and make a way,” said his daughter Maggie.
At that same radio station he met his future wife, Louise. Soon after high school graduation he began working in the control room at WNBC radio in New York City. But his career was put on hold in 1954 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
While all of the members in his platoon were sent to Korea, he somehow talked his way into being sent to Germany. He often wondered if, maybe, that was because the Armed Forces Network was there.
While stationed in Heidelberg, Germany for two years, Morris worked at the studio both on-air and off-air producing stories for AFN. When those two years were up, he stayed on as a civilian working for the network covering stories throughout Europe and interviewing celebrities and politicians including Lyndon B. Johnson and Elvis Presley.
Morris, Louise and his three children—Melissa, Mathew and Michael, all born during their time in Germany—returned to the States in 1963 after the stint in Europe. The family located to New Jersey where Morris hoped he could go back to working in the New York City market he left nine years before.
But life was quite difficult, and Morris struggled to get any job. He ended up selling the encyclopedia Britannica in order to help raise his family.
‘He had such a generous spirit and he would help anyone. It didn’t matter who they were or where they were from—he’d help.’
In 1964, Morris got to go back into radio—sort of.
Herb Hobler, the owner of WHWH 1350 AM in Princeton, offered him a job as the sales manager for the station. While there, he helped launch WPST 97.5 FM as co-president, played a key role in the development of Nassau Broadcasting Company and eventually became president of the company. During this time, in 1966, Morris and Louise welcomed their fourth child, daughter Maggie.
“I say he can sell ice to Eskimos,” Maggie said. “He was a phenomenal sales person.”
After almost three decades at Nassau Broadcasting Company, Morris left and began Morris Broadcasting Company of New Jersey, Inc. In 1993, Morris, Louise, Maggie and his son Michael acquired Trenton-based gospel station WIMG 1300 AM.
“Everybody thought, ‘Oh jeeze we have this new owner, he’s going to change the format,’ “ Maggie said. “We got so many calls asking us to not change the format, and we just kept saying, ‘No, no, we have no intention of changing the format, so just relax and enjoy it.’”
Morris wanted to make the station better, not overhaul the foundation. Maggie recalled how her father always talked about how WIMG 1300 AM was a station the city of Trenton needed.
Since his passing, various people mentored throughout his life have reached out to the family sharing stories of how Morris changed their life.
He was well-known for giving people the opportunity to grow in the business. Many started like he did working in sales for the station and proved to him that they should be put on-air. Mark Zumoff, the voice of the Philadelphia 76ers, is one of those people that reached out, Maggie said. He told her that he was able to get to do what he does now all because of Morris.
While working at WHWH, Morris gave Zumoff the chance to transition from news to sports.
“My dad had a knack for seeing that little spark in people,” Maggie said. “He needed that one chance from Herb and this was his way of paying it forward.”
Morris was “the true rag to riches king of guy,” as Maggie puts it. He dedicated the later part of his life to philanthropy.
“It was his way of saying you know I was once there, too and I want to help you,” Maggie said.
Seemingly every weekend Morris was working somewhere giving back to the local community. His even chaired quite a few organizations, including New Jersey Broadcaster’s Association, Mercer County Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton YMCA and the Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton to name a few. He also supported and contributed to community-based initiatives, like the Hamilton Elks, American Heart Association, the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce, Trenton Makes a bridge and the Trenton War Memorial, etc.
“He had such a generous spirit and he would help anyone. It didn’t matter who they were or where they were from—he’d help,” Maggie said.
Maggie said Morris could be a little tough to get along with, but softened in his old age as he became Poppy to his four grandchildren.
And to honor him, Maggie asks that everyone pays it forward.
“Even if you can’t donate money, you can donate time,” Maggie said. “Do something charitable to best honor him. And when they do it say, ‘This is for you Johnny Morris.’”
In Morris’ eulogy, it was pointed out that Morris was born in 1926, the same year NBC radio launched.
It could be more than a coincident because Johnny Morris seemed to be born to make radio.
Donations may be made to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen either via mail: P.O. Box 872, Trenton, NJ 08605 or online: trentonsoupkitchen.org “In Memory of Johnny Morris.”