Airtime with Walker Morris
Reflecting on his early radio days in Chapel Hill to his humanitarian work around the world
By Ray Owen
The Sandhills has been blessed by the contributions of remarkable individuals throughout its history. No one shines brighter among them than Walker Morris, president of Muirfield Broadcasting. Since 1983, he has owned and operated two of the state’s leading independently owned radio stations, WIOZ-FM (Star 102.5) and WIOZ 550 AM, and his humanitarian work spans the globe. Below is some of his story in his own words.
I was working for a company in Chapel Hill that owned radio stations and got interested in buying and operating a station myself. Originally, it was going to be a one-year job while my wife finished school, but the combination of business and creativity made it a good fit for me.
I started looking around for stations that were available for sale. I liked the Southern Pines area, the two stations, and it became an easy decision to move there. It was such a desirable place to live and raise a family. We came down in 1984 and lived there until three or four
When we first arrived, it was primarily a retirement and resort community built around Pinehurst. Those two pieces haven’t changed much and it’s still kept a lot of the qualities that made it so appealing — a small-town environment with a level of sophistication that attracts people. The growth of First Health has also been a driver, because folks want good health care.
One of the biggest changes has been the shift to a younger population. People in their 20s, 30s and 40s are coming because they like the lifestyle and opportunities in their business or profession. The influx has been fueled by the proximity to Fort Bragg and all of the Special Forces headquarters there.
Our FM station was playing easy listening when I started — a lot of instrumentals and strings — things we thought the older population wanted. But as baby boomers became retirees they didn’t suddenly start listening to that kind of music. They liked songs they grew up with, so on that end of the spectrum our music has changed along with
We talked with our advertisers and determined that while retirees were an attractive market, the most sought-after consumer group was people in their late 20s to mid-40s. They are the ones starting families, buying furniture, houses and cars. Their numbers are increasing and our programming is much more targeted at that demographic.
In terms of Southern Pines with Star 102.5 and 550 AM, our community wants to have its own stations. They like to keep up with the local news and certainly want to know about matters that impact their lives such as weather delays in schools, public meetings and political issues.
Contrast this with the options we now have, what I would consider ‘quasi radio,’ such as Pandora, Spotify and Sirius Satellite Radio. If our offerings continue to be meaningful to the listeners, with local information, content and personalities, there is a bright future for regional stations such as ours.
The medium lends itself to our modern lifestyles; people can listen anywhere. We direct a lot of attention to our online efforts, because we know people are streaming audio from their computers, whether it’s in the office or at home.
An opportunity everybody’s coming to grips with is the receiving device that’s changing over time. We need to be accessible on smartphones, tablets and whatever new generation of apparatus we might encounter.
Radio has thrived over the years by being receptive to new technology. It also has flexibility that frankly, newspapers, magazines and television lack. It’s a challenge for radio, but we’re in a much stronger position going forward than other traditional media.
One of the beauties of the Sandhills is that it supports and encourages volunteer service, whether it’s at church, school, Red Cross, or wherever it might be. I can’t think of a community where more people give unpaid time to worthy causes. I was lucky to be recruited into that by those who welcomed us when we moved to Southern Pines.
I was able to be closely involved with the hospital as it grew from a community facility to the First Health we know today. I was also able to help in early stages of the Boys and Girls Club, a terrific program that continues to be one of the signature organizations.
While I love the work at the station, serving the community is a big part of our operating DNA. We do a lot of public service events to help groups raise money or awareness. The line between my volunteer activity and professional life was always blurred and I was fortunate in that way.
For 10 years, I worked for the Clinton Foundation and it was a great experience. I served in Africa and also spent a lot of time in Haiti. It’s a great organization that’s doing remarkable work in tough places. One of the lessons I learned from President Clinton was how interconnected the world is.
We have a responsibility to improve the human condition beyond our borders and try to be of some help to those less blessed than we have been. That was really the nature of our work, to assist others to become more self-sufficient economically.
There is a great desire all over the world to emulate the success Americans have achieved. There is a strong work ethic in the areas where I served even though the basic resources were much more limited. What helps is providing training and technical expertise that Americans have at their disposal that is not as widespread around the world.
It’s remarkable how innovative the African people were with the bare minimum of assistance we were able to give. I really felt like I got a lot more out than I put into it. The work we did and what is still being done not only makes a positive impact on people whose baseline is so much lower than ours, it builds admiration for Americans and our approach to solving problems.