In her series highlighting Black leaders in business, Jessica Abo sits down with the executive producer of the daytime talk show Sherri. Jawn Murray discusses his career path, the role networking has played in his success, and how you can build better relationships in any business.
The Power of Television
Executive Producing Sherri is Jawn Murray’s fourth act in the entertainment business. Before deciding to join Sherri Shepherd’s team, Murray was known for being a TV host, commentator, emcee, media trainer, and more. But the Virginia native didn’t start out with a blueprint for success in the media industry. His father worked as Marvin Gaye’s road manager and his mother taught cosmetology. “There wasn’t a blueprint or anyone who could show me how to break into the television business,” he says. “And Warrenton was a town where there weren’t a lot of opportunities for young Black men. Unfortunately, my father made a bad choice in an effort to survive and became a drug dealer. His lifestyle ultimately landed him in prison, where he was from the time that I was three until I was 20.”
Murray’s mother worked hard to give her son a bright future. They moved from Warrenton to a historically black neighborhood right outside of Washington, D.C. called Bailey’s Crossroads. Watching television became his escape. “As a latchkey kid, after school talk show hosts were my babysitters. I’d come home from school and watch Ricki Lake, Rolonda, Montel Williams, and Sally Jesse Raphael, among others.” He loved daytime television and everyone he watched, but set his eyes on becoming the first Black Regis Philbin. “I would dream and envision myself doing a lot of the things I’m doing now and feel in a constant state of déjà vu.”
When he was in high school, Murray’s marketing teacher Gayle Smith took a group of students to New York to sit in the audience of the daytime talk show Rolonda. “Fast forward, I got to college and I’m working for the school newspaper and I decided I wanted to interview Rolonda Watts. So I found her information online, faxed a formal letter over, and she got on the telephone and did a phone interview with me.”
Murray says long before there was sliding into someone’s direct messages on social media, there was a lot of cold-calling and just “showing up”. “We all had to learn how to do that elevator pitch and make quick encounters matter,” he says. Two years later when he was studying Broadcasting at Norfolk University he saw how hard it was to break into television and he took his professor’s advice to pursue his love of writing. Murray started his own online email newsletter and called it Garek News (Garek is his middle name) and it took off. He changed the name to Jawn’s Juice for the then-radio newswire Electronic Urban Report (EURweb.com), before ultimately landing a job at AOL, where he wrote a column for the Black Voices division. His work continued to catch the attention of news outlets, marketing agencies, and celebrities, including Sherri Shepherd.
Murray and Shepherd met for the first time around 2002 at the bi-annual Dr. Bobby Jones International Artist Retreat in Las Vegas, a convention for music artists, celebrities and industry personnel who identified as Christian to come network and be enriched with industry knowledge. “Sherri came up to me in the hallway and said, ‘I know you don’t know me, but I’m a big fan of your work.’ I replied: ‘you’re the little Black actress on all the big white sitcoms, of course I know who you are,’” he recalls. And that’s when their friendship began.
During his years as a media personality, one of Murray’s multiple streams of income was helping music artists and celebrities with media coaching and talent development services. At times, he even felt like he was a counselor to the stars. “Before the days of Dr. Phil and Iyanla Fix My Life, I was playing Mr. Olivia Pope to a lot of boldfaced names,” he says. Shepherd was a person that leaned on Murray for those services, especially during her time as a co-host on The View. “At the time, I didn’t realize how my work with media coaching and talent development was really a form of producing. It has served me well in my new capacity.”
Murray eventually stopped being a full-time writer and radio personality and made the pivot into television. A fixture on cable news that hosted series for Travel Channel and NFL Network, he also started taking consulting producer opportunities on various award shows and documentary series like TV One’s Uncensored. Then, Shepherd called to have him be her personal producer during her initial guest-hosting stint for The Wendy Williams Show.
Around the time Shepherd was filling in for Williams, Murray was entertaining an opportunity at a major TV network and was in talks to launch a podcast with a production company. “After the initial week of guest hosting, Sherri asked me what would it take for me to leave the opportunities being presented to me and come on this journey with her. Her talk show ratings were strong and the response to our content was overwhelmingly-positive and so Sherri was clear that she would only do the talk show if I said yes. And I did,’ he recalls.
Once deciding to join Shepherd as one of her Executive Producers, he made four calls to people that he wanted to lean on: Heather Gray formerly of The Talk, Stephen “Twitch” Boss formerly of Ellen, Catherine McKenzie the current Executive Producer of GMA3: What You Need to Know and lastly, Bill Geddie, the co-creator and Executive Producer of The View.
“I did what so many had done with me throughout the years, I leaned on people I knew that could help me. And they all supported and encouraged me. Bill, in particular, shared so much insight on his expertise as an Executive Producer, but having changed Sherri’s life by casting her on The View, he knew some of the specific things I needed to keep in mind while producing her as well.”
Being Open to a Different Path
While Murray saw himself becoming the first Black Regis, he laughs when he says, “Now I’m the Black Michael Gellman!” The way he sees it, being Sherri’s EP, the way Gellman was the EP for Regis, he has the ability to shape the content of every episode and find underutilized talent and say, “you’re no longer on the bench. I want to put you in the game.” That part for him he finds one of the most rewarding parts.
Today, Murray spends a lot of time mentoring the next generation of entertainment professionals and is inspired by their goals. “I’m happy to see that there’s so many millennial and Gen Z talent that are driven beyond just becoming a TikTok or a YouTube star.” He’s gone back to Norfolk State University for both a Communications Masterclass and as part of the HBCU First Look Film Festival to inspire students who want to go into show business no matter the position. “I believe that anybody who has a passion, and knows that they have a purpose —no matter what their circumstances are or what their background is — can find a pathway to get there if they are driven enough to try to figure it out.”
Murray does have concern about some of the younger generation’s inability to network and believes social media has hurt their ability to communicate well. “I say all of the time, networking and a good reputation will take you further than your talent ever will. But in order to network well, you have to be able to talk to people in an engaging way and be intentional about building authentic relationships with people and not just be transactional. That takes time. And it rarely happens just by sliding in someone’s DM.”
He emphasizes that always being prepared, well-informed and being kind to people are attributes that can help you get yourself in the door. And once you’re in the door, work to build those relationships.
As we closed out the interview, Murray read a viewer email from a viewer of Sherri who is on dialysis. She wrote to thank them for being her escape. Then he shared another story about an 81-year-old woman who visited the show before starting a new round of cancer treatments and told them that she needed to experience “this joy in person before I have my next procedures.” They are messages you can tell would mean so much to that pre-teen boy watching TV in that two-bedroom apartment in Bailey’s Crossroads.
“It is so rewarding to know that what we’re doing is having that level of impact on people’s lives. I just didn’t realize that this daytime talk show would at times feel like we’re doing ministry work. The Ministry of Joy and Happiness. It’s something I couldn’t have ever really processed before doing it, but my heart smiles every time I realize we are.”