Beginning in the early 1960s, Seattle-area radio listeners enjoyed the company of the amiable Jack Morton at home, in their cars, and at the beach on transistor radios. Disc jockeys were celebrities and Morton was one of the biggest. When he made personal appearances and when he engaged in wacky public stunts, listeners were happy to come see him in person. During his decades-long career, radio broadcasting saw a lot of changes, and Morton navigated them with grace, charm, and wit.
Son of a Radio Man
John Archibald Morton was born in Seattle on February 13, 1935. His father Archie was a Puget Sound broadcasting executive. His mother, Clara Huggins Morton, was the granddaughter of a British Hudson's Bay Company fur trader who in 1849 arrived in what would later become Washington state. From 1941 to 1947, young Jack lived in California when the elder Morton worked for CBS there. Returning to Seattle with his family, Jack went to Garfield High School, where he played on the golf team. He went on to the University of Washington and was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. The only job he was known to have had before his radio career began was as a young man, loading frozen peas onto a refrigerated car at a Walla Walla cannery. He shared the job with two friends. Each of them worked a separate shift, allowing them to sleep in rotation at the local motel where they were staying (Evans, "Early Beginnings ...").
In 1955, he was drafted and served for two years at Fort Bliss, Texas. In 1958 he returned to Washington and enrolled at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, where he also hosted a jazz show at KMO, a local station owned by his father. He later said, "Dad never pushed me into radio. I just went into it naturally" (Remington). Morton had been behind the mic at KMO for about a month when he got a phone call from announcer Jim French, a big name in Seattle radio. A mutual friend had asked French to give the kid a listen. Morton was thrilled when French phoned him at the station and told him he had a chance to make it in Seattle radio someday.
In 1963, now 28, Morton and his wife, the former Nita Rowland, and their children Chari and David moved to the Seattle area and started house hunting. After Nita had prompted Morton to approach Seattle radio station KVI about a job, they had offered him one. (The marriage later ended in divorce.) KVI was a broadcasting powerhouse owned by Golden West Broadcasting, a successful national chain owned by singing cowboy movie star Gene Autry. In 1964 Morton became the station's evening man and soon won over listeners with his witty banter. His job title was "radio personality" as well as disc jockey. KVI was a successful MOR station, which stood for middle of the road. Besides playing records, personalities spent a lot of air-time talking about traffic, news, and weather as well as cracking jokes and providing listeners with friendly companionship. Morton's relaxed style – he was known to occasionally mutter and talk to himself on the air in an endearing way – and his delight in making people laugh made him an audience favorite.
Radio personalities were expected to participate in promotions and make personal appearances. In 1966, Morton, alongside celebrity movie star and stage actress Eartha Kitt, was the winner of a Puyallup River rubber-boat race of KVI personalities. He was also part of a team of Seattle disc jockeys who traveled around the world to ostensibly capture and then escort animals to the new Seattle Children's Zoo with the battle cry 'Bring 'Em Back Alive.' Appearing at grand openings of advertisers' businesses and other public events was also part of his job.
During the 1960s, the now teenaged baby boomers were becoming an important target market for advertisers. Their parents, not so much. And, by the late 1970s, people were no longer interested in listening to music on AM stations. Whether it was MOR, rock, classical, country, jazz, or the "beautiful music" format, people now wanted to hear it on an FM station. Radio stations had to be nimble to keep up with these changes. A frank 1976 interview with KVI Program Director Don Hoffman in the trade publication Broadcast Programming & Production provides some insight into what KVI was trying to do to stay successful. They called their format "Personality MOR." Their target audience was 18-49 years old, but they knew their listeners skewed older. KVI played only six songs an hour, usually from the previous decade or so, and Hoffman explained that younger listeners were less appreciative of the music on offer than older people.
Older listeners were more interested in spending quality time with familiar personalities. They thought of longtime disc jockeys as old friends. Morton had been on the air at KVI for 13 years at that point, and Hoffman, clearly a fan, said "his whole bag is humor, very low key subtle humor, totally spontaneous and very uncontrived" (Hoffman interview).
Morton was as adventurous as he was fun. During his long career, he would race in the Victoria to Maui sailboat race, fly with the Navy's Blue Angels, and compete in Mexico's grueling Baja 500 off-road race. Morton loved cruising the San Juan Islands and Canada's Desolation Sound in the Salish Sea on his 36-foot powerboat the Mortini. His father, Archie Morton, came up with the Mortini name, and Jack is said to have loved the name but regretted not having come up with it himself. While serving as Master of Ceremonies at a Seattle Yacht Club Opening Day event, he met a widow named Charlene Ruggles. They were married on October 6, 1977, and their union would last for 37 years.
More Changes at KVI
By the late 1970s KVI was slipping in the ratings and the station thought beefing up sports coverage might save it. They offered play-by-play coverage of Seattle Mariners baseball and Washington State University Cougars basketball as well as local high school football. The station was already filling in some evening slots with recycled old radio shows featuring comics from the 1940s and 1950s such as Red Skelton and Abbott and Costello
In 1979, when Seattle Times columnist Walt Evans interviewed Morton, the headline read "'Aging' Jockey Still Cracks a Mean Quip." Morton acknowledged in his good-natured, self-deprecating way that at 41, he was kind of old for radio. He said he had expected to have moved on to ad sales by now, a traditional path for a lot of on-air talent. But he wasn't ready to give up the microphone. He told Evans, "I plan to go on doing what I'm doing as long as I can -- as long as the listeners want me" ("'Aging' Jockey ...).
Morton's show included short features and interviews. In the 1970s he welcomed Dr. Paul Johnson every weekday to trade jokes and give listeners medical information. A jingle introduced the segment: "Hernias, hemorrhoids and broken bones/Post-nasal drip and kidney stones/Menstrual cramps and constipation too/These things in life can make you blue/So come with your medical questions now/To Morton and Dr. Paul" (Bach). Morton said using humor gave listeners valuable health information in a non-threatening way. His visits with Johnson were so popular that The Boeing Company asked the station to run the 15-minute show earlier because too many employees were sitting in their parked cars to listen to the whole segment before starting their shift.
Like many radio personalities, Morton subscribed to a service that provided jokes, but said he seldom used the material, as he came up with humor quiet naturally. Walt Evans's column reported that a bunch of regulars sitting around the bar at a local watering hole, Franco's Hidden Harbor, had decided that Morton was the wittiest man in Seattle. While confident on air, Morton claimed, not entirely convincingly, that he was shy in person. He said he limited his personal appearances to six a year because of stage fright. When he had to face a large concert audience and introduce trumpeter and Tijuana Brass bandleader Herb Alpert, he was convinced his pants were unzipped during the whole introduction, but he plowed through it in agony, only to discover afterward that because of nerves, he had imagined his embarrassing state of dress.
In July 1979 Morton did his afternoon show from a hot-air balloon tethered near the Kingdome to celebrate Seattle's hosting the Major League All-Star Game. And he continued soldiering on with personal appearances for civic events as well as for station promotions. Later that year he served as honorary Grand Marshall of the Seafair Christmas Parade of Boats, hosted a salute to Broadway at the 5th Avenue Theatre to celebrate the arrival of the new musical Annie, and emceed the black-tie PONCHO auction, raising money for the arts. Morton also visited classrooms, gave talks at libraries, and hosted charity events. One of his favorites was the annual Special People's Christmas cruise on Lake Washington.
News-Talk Takes Hold
By February 1980, KVI had toppled from its once lofty summit. KIRO was now the market's top-rated radio station with a news-talk format that included listeners calling in to share their opinions. Country KAYO, where announcers had once sported Stetsons and cowboy boots, was also switching to news-talk, and KOMO-AM was beefing up its news. KVI announced in February 1981 that it too was changing its format to news-talk radio. The station ran a newspaper ad with a big headline in all caps announcing "KVI CHALLENGES KIRO AND KOMO HEAD ON." They were offering $70,000 worth of prizes to listeners of the rival stations, who were encouraged to send in an entry form and listen to KVI to see if it was as good or better than its rivals. If they heard their name announced on KVI, they could call the station and win anything from a bicycle to a trip to Puerto Vallarta.
The ad explained that the new format would include controversial issues as well as "a touch of Morton mania." A national news feed from Mutual Broadcasting would run every half hour. Cultural anthropologist Jennifer James, a University of Washington assistant professor in the psychology department, would give advice to listeners calling in with personal problems, and Larry King's national interview and phone-in show would come on at night.
Within a month, KVI's biggest star, Bob Hardwick, quit, walking off during his morning-drive shift. He had been at KVI since 1959 and was unhappy with the new format. Morton took on both morning and afternoon drive time, working double and split shifts while the station scrambled to find new talent. By April things had calmed down. Morton was now back to one shift, covering morning drive time, which had been Hardwick's slot for decades. KVI put together a promotional campaign to help listeners adjust. They ran big newspaper ads with a sophisticated looking caricature of Morton. The copy promised "all news, a little banter, and all kinds of things to smile about."
By July, Gayle Delaney, a dream analyst, had been added to the on-air staff. Listeners called in live to describe their dreams to her, and she'd interpret them during afternoon drive time. This addition to the talk aspect of the new format seemed to be a bridge too far for many commuters. Morton, who by then had been handling only morning drive time, was brought back in to replace her in order to improve afternoon ratings. Less than a year later, Seattle Times columnist Eric Lacitis wrote about "shocker ratings near the bottom of the heap" for KVI and KAYO, both of which had switched to the trendy news-talk format. He concluded that "apparently Seattle didn't want to talk" ("Radio Ratings: Broadcasters Must ...").
Although Morton at KVI and Hardwick, who after walking away from KVI had landed at KAYO, now worked at separate stations, the public remembered them as a duo. A big newspaper ad showed a photograph of the former colleagues at a table at Bellevue's Benjamin's restaurant above the headline "Morton and Hardwick together again at Benjamin's." Morton is leaning back laughing while Hardwick is clearly telling him a joke. The copy refers to them as "zany adventurers" and "co-emcees at hundreds of events" (Benjamin's advertisement).
In May 1984, two years after the change to news-talk, KVI's overall ratings still hadn't improved. A new vice-president announced he was "making a change in the batting order to ensure a winning team," and moved Morton from afternoon drive time, where he'd been for 15 years, to a midday shift. Morton was never temperamental and always polite. All he would say publicly about his demotion was, "It's the first time I've had the midday shift since 1967" (Stredicke, "Morton is Shuffled").
Into the Firing Line
By July 1984, KVI had changed more than the batting order, with new personalities and a jingle announcing "the New KVI" aimed at listeners from 25-40 and featuring rock hits from the 1960s and early 1970s. Station manager Shannon Sweate said paradoxically that the idea behind the new KVI was to recreate "the spirit of the old KVI" but without an estimated 14 employees who were fired -- including Morton, who had been there since 1963, and Hardwick, who had returned to KVI after his angry exit two years before.
Hardwick said he might return to broadcasting as an owner. Morton told the media he'd take a month's vacation then come back to Seattle and start looking for a new job. He said "Times pass, eras end," adding, "I have good feelings about the 21 years I've been here" (Henderson). When asked if he'd seek work in another market, he said "I've lived here all my life. I couldn't stand to part with slugs" (Henderson).
By March 1985 Morton had landed another job. KRPM in Tacoma called itself a country-personality station. Morton was slated to host the 3 to 7 afternoon drive segment. By October, however, management had swapped his shift with that of a team of two announcers, and by March 1986 Morton was let go. Eight months later, at a reunion of former KVI employees billed as a 'family' get-together, Morton spotted an old co-worker, Bill Jenson, who had just lost his job as manager of KQIN. He shouted across the room, "It's not too bad on the streets, Bill" (Stredicke, "KVI 'Family' ...").
"You Have to Scratch to Hang On"
In 1987 Morton picked up some seasonal work as a marine reporter during yachting season. His show on KIRO was called "Morton Cavortin' Around the Sound" and ran on weekends during the summer for several years. In 1988 he added freelance feature reporting on KIRO to his boating show. For a 1989 feature he signed on as a guest trainee with the Mariners baseball team, attending practices and getting lessons in everything from sliding to contract negotiations, as well as "spitting, chewing and scratching" (Stredicke, "Morton Tries Out ..."). Before uniform fitting, he said he was angling for the number 86, a number he said he avoided in bars. In 1990, he also hosted KIRO's Mystery Playhouse.
In the summer of 1992, Morton's old KVI co-worker Hardwick committed suicide, shooting himself on a lonely mountain road because his career seemed to have come to an end. Morton said, "They don't come any bigger or better than Robert. I'll always remember his laugh." He added, "He'd always mention that we were getting older. The business is getting younger. You have to scratch to hang on" (Guillen and Boss).
Morton kept scratching. He and his wife Charlene were always happy to travel, and he found work as a radio personality host leading travel tours. The couple enjoyed many trips to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America, the British Isles, Ireland, Japan, and in 1993, the South Pacific, aboard Princess Cruises where Morton served as a celebrity historian. He also gave talks about his travels.
In 1994, he was back on the air as a freelancer at KOMO, where he worked weekends and covered for vacationing staffers. And in 1996, an ad appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer promoting an apparently short-lived business called Marina Yacht Sales, with Morton now a yacht broker doing business from an office on Westlake Avenue. The ad said he'd sold the Mortini, adding "I won't get mad ... I'll get even!" It was characteristic of Morton to joke about his own misfortune.
In the summer of 2003, Morton was back on radio. KIXI-AM, a nostalgia station featuring music from decades past, hired him as host of its weekday 7 p.m. to midnight and Sunday evening shifts. (Jim French, the radio personality who had given Morton encouragement back in 1958, had found a home there too, as a writer, producer and host of Imagination Theatre, which successfully revived radio drama in the twenty-first century.)
Morton was now involved in promotional activity aimed at an older crowd. He made personal appearances at the Emerald Queen Casino's Martini Lounge in Tacoma, featuring Elvis impersonators and an homage to Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack. In 2004, he presided over a Saturday morning event at Macy's called "Better With Time." Billed as "celebrating women over 50," it provided a "delicious brunch," introduced winners of a senior modeling contest, and offered a seminar about aging, as well as fashion and beauty advice. The department store partnered with Virginia Mason Hospital, which brought the audience up to date on its offerings for older women, including Botox, microdermabrasion, and laser surgery, with tips on long-term care insurance as well.
In 2006, however, KIXI-AM fired Morton and all of its other announcers and hosts with the exception of one man, who was possibly kept at the station in person to comply with regulatory requirements. The fired announcers were all replaced with a nationally syndicated service called "Music of Your Life." The station's owners, Sandusky Broadcasting, said their decision was based on a desire to boost sagging ratings, but its immediate result would surely be to reduce overhead. KIXI-AM had a 2 percent share of the Seattle-Tacoma market, putting the station at 22nd in listenership. The new playlist wasn't too different; it featured artists such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Nat King Cole. The hosts were of a similar vintage – Pat Boone, Wink Martindale, Peter Marshall, and Gary Owens.
For decades, Morton's friendly, casual banter had made him seem like a friend and neighbor to Seattle-area listeners. After KIXI-AM went to canned programming, an irate listener sent an e-mail to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "It's getting harder and harder to find a decent radio station with on-air personalities ... I believe that those of us who are just past 60 are looking not only for the old music, but also for the radio format that we knew when we were growing up, with real people on the air" (Virgin, "KIXI's Switch ...")
Jack Morton died peacefully in Bellevue on June 1, 2016, from complications of a stroke. He was 81. He was remembered as a polite and thoughtful man who loved dogs and cats, boats and being on the water, travel and adventure, and laughing and making people laugh.