The Miami-based REAL Change Project is funding classrooms and helping teachers one crayon at a time, with a little help from Hollywood.

Real Change Project
Pitbull embracing his former high school teacher Hope Martinez during an emotional moment while visiting Mater Academy in Miami, his old school, on The REAL Change Project, Season 1.

It was 2013 when Miami producer Liam Murphy was in Los Angeles, backstage at The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno. There working on another client’s production, he spotted Billy Crystal, with whom he shares the hometown of Long Beach, New York.

“Mr. Crystal,” Murphy remembers saying, “your brother Joel Crystal was my art teacher—I remember him fondly.”

While Murphy, 36, drew on his personal past in starting that conversation, the concept of connecting teachers and celebrities is seemingly his professional calling. A former sales executive at CBS, Murphy today produces from Miami the national television special The REAL Change Project—Artists for Education (airing annually on CBS), during which celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Jason Mraz, and Matthew Morrison visit their hometowns to offer gratitude to a teacher who provided great inspiration or influence. 

In producing the show, Murphy partnered with the Miami-based charity AdoptAClassroom, which nationally matches registered teachers with school supply donors—and the show’s first airing helped the organization raise more than $1 million. While REAL Change debuted in April 2013—two weeks before Teacher Appreciation Week—its second production will air this September, in time for the back-to-school season that motivates both kids and broadcast advertisers.

real change project
Miley Cyrus made a surprise visit to J.T. Moore Middle School in Nashville, Tennessee, for The REAL Change Project.

“I wanted to create a show that can educate, entertain, and inspire people at the same time,” says Murphy, the son of two public school teachers. “I want to produce what will be considered a Super Bowl for teachers. Every show has a first year—the Academy Awards had a first year—and I want this to be something teachers look forward to watching 75 years from now.”

Murphy got the idea for REAL Change—the acronym stands for Recognize, Explore, Adapt, and Live—while working in sales at CBS. He’d started his career in Manhattan but had since moved to the network’s Miami office, where he acknowledged the need for programming with three components: attract advertisers, foster corporate responsibility, and champion education. Murphy started producing the show in 2007 while still working at his CBS sales job, continuing to hit revenue targets and en route to becoming a national manager, but found himself increasingly focused on REAL Change. Just eight months before the show aired in 2013, he left the network—not to mention a “strong six-figure salary”—to produce television full time.

“It was all or nothing,” he says now, from his office on Biscayne Boulevard, where in addition to REAL Change he produces televised media for a variety of corporate and celebrity clients, including the project that got him backstage at The Tonight Show.

real change project
REAL Change Productions’ Liam Murphy (right) with founder of AdoptAClassroom James Rosenberg, Sandy Altman, and Ludacris at Banneker High School (the star’s alma mater) in Atlanta.

He wouldn’t have to go it alone for long. He had a partner after teaming up with Dr. Sanford Altman, a Miami Beach interventional radiologist who is 16 years his senior—and enough private equity funding to finish production. He inked a broadcast deal with his former network and secured corporate giant Boca Raton-based Office Depot as the title sponsor. But as for television production? That was on-the-job training.

“I was so excited because our first interview was with Quincy Jones,” recalls Murphy. “I was asking him questions and everything he said was perfect, so I’d interact with him, agreeing with his answers, and the camera guy would under his breath try to stop me, saying, ‘You’re stepping on him,’ because I didn’t realize my voice was being recorded as well.”

Murphy secured a bevy of international celebrities and filmed them returning to their childhood schools, but went further when it came to Miami’s appearance on the show, he says. That’s because Pitbull, who attended Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, attributes his entire career to a teacher demanding he rap for an MTV executive, who later signed him and launched his career. For the cameras, Murphy’s team brought the teacher out of retirement and organized for Pitbull to perform in the school gym.

“Any producer will tell you that when you’re on set, magical things will just happen,” says Murphy. “This Miami-born-and-bred kid coming back to his school was one of them.”

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