If this is a dream, Rick Dayton hopes he never wakes up. The 1989 College of Wooster graduate recently became the morning news anchor on KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, about an hour south of his hometown in Grove City, Pa., and he still can’t believe it.
“I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that there’s been some kind of mistake,” said Dayton, who chose Wooster because of its emphasis on independent learning as well as the opportunity to gain experience at its student-run radio station. “I can’t believe I’m working at one of the nation’s most storied television stations.”
Dayton, whose career in broadcast media began at a small radio station in his hometown when he was just 15 years old, thought briefly about going to a large university like Ohio State, but he was concerned that he might not be able to get involved with the radio station until he was a junior or senior. “In coming to Wooster, I knew I would have immediate access, and that appealed to me,” he said. Not only did Dayton get on the air, but he also took an active role in management, first as sports director and then as general manager.
“I was able to do just about everything I wanted to at the station,” said Dayton, who also did play-by-play with fellow student Davis Houck, now a professor of rhetorical communication at Florida State University. “Dr. (Amos) Kiewe was my advisor and the advisor to the station,” said Dayton. “We had a great relationship. The experience at the station helped me to determine for sure that this was what I wanted to do.” Wooster was also where Dayton met the woman who would become his wife. Jenny Smith, a chemistry major who was one year older, and according to Dayton, “20 times smarter.”
Dayton and Smith got engaged on the day she graduated in 1988, married a year later, and relocated to Michigan where she was working on her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Dayton knew he wanted to pursue his interest in media, but he also knew that he had bills to pay. He took a job selling office equipment and computer systems.
A few years later, they had an opportunity to relocate to Chapel Hill, N.C., and Dayton took a job in sales at WCHL, the flagship station for University of North Carolina sports. When a turnover in management a year later left him without a job, Dayton called Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh, which owned WRAL-TV, the local CBS affiliate. They hired him to produce and anchor a golf program and syndicate it nationally to stations across the country. It combined his background in sales with his love of being on the air.
With his foot in the door, Dayton was hired to broadcast women’s basketball games and baseball for Duke and N.C. State, thanks in part to the experience he gained doing play-by-play at Wooster. He averaged about a dozen men's basketball games in the ACC and Conference USA each year. He covered the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and anchored pregame and intermission programs for the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. “Once your name gets out there, you’re in,” he said. “It was a sports guy’s dream.”
Then in 2002, the North Carolina News Network shut down its sports department in favor of having news anchors read the sports headlines. Once again, Dayton was looking for work. “I call it the ‘seven-year switch,’” he said. “It seems like every seven years I am looking for a new job.”
This time, the general manager of WRAL-TV suggested a move to news. Dayton had never done TV news, but in the spirit of liberal arts learning, the former communication major reinvented himself. He produced an audition tape and started applying for jobs. The management team at WOWK-TV in Charleston, W.Va., liked what it saw and offered Dayton a weekend anchor position. Three years later he became the primary weeknight anchor, and his face was plastered on billboards across the Mountain State, but a few years later (seven years after he started), following a national trend, WOWK moved to a single-anchor format.
The good news was that he was once again free to pursue other opportunities, and this time, there was an opening at KDKA. “My agent made contact with them, and in August I got a call saying they offered me the job,” he said. “It was quite a thrill; the thought of sitting in the same studio where so many of the people I watched and idolized growing up once sat. I felt like saying, ‘are you sure you have the right number?’”
Indeed they did. In fact, they hired Dayton without an on-air audition. “It’s pretty remarkable,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”
In addition to news, Dayton has been called on to cover Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s weekly press conference. A story he did in late October featured Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, one of Dayton's boyhood idols from the Steel Curtain Super Bowl teams.
Dayton credits his undergraduate experience with helping him to land his dream job. “Wooster gave me a multidisciplinary model for life,” he said. “I learned a lot from my experience in the classroom, at the radio station, and in my job as a student worker in the Office of Sports Information. That’s when I really became passionate about journalism.”
As Rick and Jenny their three sons settle into their new life in Pittsburgh, they are looking forward to an extended stay.
“For me, KDKA is a destination,” Dayton said. “This is as good as it gets. The people of Pittsburgh have welcomed us like we never left. This is where we want to be. This is where we want to stay.”
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