COLUMBIA — Dan Claxton's phone rings during the lunchtime bustle at the Heidelberg. "Hang on, this might be opportunity," he says.
Claxton's cell phone has been ringing a fair amount since Oct. 23, when he was laid off from his job as news director at KFRU/1400 AM, a job he had aspired to for a long time.
Claxton first heard KFRU, which has served the area since 1925, when he moved to Columbia in 1980 to attend MU.
"It became my dream to become news director for KFRU," he said. "That’s all I ever wanted to do, and I had the wonderful opportunity to be able to do that for seven years — great job."
Claxton's firing made news because KFRU is so widely known in the Columbia area, and on the previous day, morning talk show host Fred Parry had been let go. As Claxton reflected on his years at the local news-talk station, he recalled work that has meant a lot to him, as well as the bug that got him into the business in the first place.
"When I was in grade school, I tried to publish a school paper on notebook paper," Claxton recalled. "I’ve always had a passion."
That shows when he speaks about journalism. Claxton, who's not afraid to use large expressions when he talks, leans in a bit.
"It's about covering human beings and trying to express the human condition," he said, "keeping government honest and being a voice for the voiceless."
Doing those things isn't easy, but it is necessary, he said. “Once you get into it, it gets under your skin," he said. "You just can't seem to quit.”
Claxton got his first radio gig in 1983, working as a receptionist for the community radio station KOPN/89.5 FM.
“A friend of mine and I were walking around town, washing windows for people, and we happened upon a social service agency and asked them if they would like us to wash their windows," he recalled. "They said, 'No, we can't pay you to wash our windows.' They did say they had a book of jobs for eligible young poor people, which we were, and one of the jobs was as a receptionist at KOPN — and that’s how I got into radio."
He's been hooked since then, covering city government, crime, weather, politics and all manner of civic life.
"I'd have to think hard to come up with a radio station in this town that I haven’t been on in one form or another," Claxton said.
He kept up on his studies, more or less, while cutting his teeth at local stations.
"I went to school a lot, part-time," he said. "I was working and putting myself though school and finally got enough credit hours to get a degree."
In 1991, Claxton graduated with a degree in radio/TV/film communication from MU, on what he calls "the 11-year plan."
In 2001, Claxton was hired at KFRU. In his time there, he was at the front of several major stories.
"The local ties to terrorism, al-Qaida and Hamas, that we were able to uncover shortly after 9/11, that’s the work I’m most proud of," he said. "It resulted in a raid on the (Islamic American Relief Agency) and investigations into the local mosque."
Another event that will stand out in Claxton's mind is when a house exploded in East Campus last year. A man and, later, his wife died as a result of the explosion, and Claxton recalls pulling over to let the ambulance by on his way to the scene.
He later learned that people in the neighborhood were listening to KFRU to see what was happening on their own street.
"TV can't do that, newspaper can't," he said. "In radio, we can tell people what’s going on in their neighborhood right now."
Claxton says you can't teach someone how to cover a house explosion.
"I like telling students the academic world is wonderful, but that world's insulated from the real world," he said.
Claxton has taught a beginning journalism course at MU as an adjunct instructor since the fall of 2006.
"I love teaching; it’s a great passion of mine," he said. "I like passing along what journalism is and why journalism’s valuable."
He says he got into journalism to make a difference, calling that the "meat and potatoes" of his job. He says all you have to do to make a difference is care. Claxton says he truly cares and knows he's made a difference.
The beauty of journalism in this country, he says, is that a little guy with little money and no background can make a difference.
"I'm just a poor guy from Springfield — I didn't go to Yale or Harvard — but I'm able to change things for the better," Claxton said. "You can make a difference with a pen."
However, Claxton is troubled by corporate ownership of local media.
"People in Atlanta," he said, referring to the home base of KFRU owner Cumulus Broadcasting, "cannot and do not understand the importance of a local station like KFRU to its community."
"Local radio has been and will continue to be very important to local news consumers. Radio's not going away."
Claxton isn't sure what the future holds for him, but he's sure he'll still be around Columbia, a town he calls "the journalism center of the universe." He'd had multiple calls about future employment just 24 hours after his being let go.
"The Grateful Dead said, 'What a long, strange trip it's been,'" he said. "Well, it's been a long strange trip for me, and it's still going to be a long strange trip — and I'm enjoying every minute of it."