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Making radio waves: John Cigna went from caustic to cuddly during his run on KDKA

Larry Richert of KDKA-TV returns to radio roots in replacing Cigna

Thursday, September 06, 2001

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Not many radio guys go out at No. 1. Plenty leave the field, but not from the lofty perch John Cigna has enjoyed for nearly two decades as morning host at KDKA-AM (1020).

Cigna's departure -- from the morning slot, not the station -- had been reported in the Post-Gazette last month, but it wasn't official until he ended speculation Tuesday with an announcement on his show. Cigna, who rejects the term "retirement," will vacate the morning show at the end of the year but will continue as a fill-in at the station and on KDKA promotions. The radio veteran has been scaling back his on-air time for several months, with the station using frequent guest hosts.

John Cigna: I'm really not going to miss getting up at 2 o'clock in the morning -- not at all." (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

His replacement is KDKA-TV weatherman Larry Richert. His formal introduction was to come live this morning on Cigna's show, broadcast outdoors at Gateway Center, with Richert expected to arrive by motorcycle in salute of Cigna's penchant for two-wheelers.

Morning personality radio on KDKA has a 50-year history that dates to "Uncle" Ed Schaughency, followed by the late Rege Cordic and the legendary "Cordic & Co." (1954-1965); Art Pallan and the late Bob Trow (1965-1968); Jack Bogut, now the morning host on WJAS-AM (1968-1983); and Cigna, starting in 1983. There hasn't been a lot of turnover in morning shows on KDKA -- only five personalities or teams since the '50s -- but Cigna holds the longevity record. Three decades in one market, most of them at one station and 18 of them in competitive morning drive, is nothing short of amazing.

And to what does Cigna, 65, attribute his staying power?

"Oral diarrhea," he quips, before turning serious. "I don't know. Maybe we created a bond between me and the people. Some people said I was down to earth. That's the way I am."

The bond extends to KDKA, which accorded him stability in an industry that's anything but.

"Anybody in that chair would acknowledge it's the person but also the station," says KDKA-TV's Jon Burnett. "It's the tradition of KDKA. They're not a fly-by-night operation. They don't run through their personnel willy-nilly. It's a solid, stable place. They tend to pick those kinds of people."

From Brooklyn to the 'Burgh

Cigna was born in Brooklyn, attended Brooklyn College and then the Cambridge School of Broadcasting. He started his radio career hosting a morning show in West Virginia, then moved to stations in Ohio and Indiana. He came to Pittsburgh in 1970 to work at WJAS, where he was morning news director and sports anchor. In 1973, he signed on at KDKA as its 9 p.m.-to-midnight talk host.

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The Brooklyn native saw a lot of his hometown in Pittsburgh and decided to put down roots. He and his wife, Pat, have four sons who grew up here -- Tony, John, Mike and Chris.

Cigna's 10-year run as the station's night talk host generated high ratings. He was opinionated and, some would say, long-winded about issues that piqued his interest. While some listeners found his personality brash and abrasive, others liked to hear him egg on his callers.

When popular KDKA morning host Jack Bogut left to go to WTAE-AM in 1983, the station moved its equally popular nighttime host to mornings and launched "John Cigna and the K-Team." The original K-Team included news anchors Dave James and Fred Honsberger and sportscaster Nellie King.

There was a period of adjustment. Listeners who liked Cigna at night missed him. The station's post-Bogut ratings went down slightly, while its post-Cigna nighttime ratings dropped precipitously.

Along with the morning change came a change in image.

"You had to be more of a cuddly teddy bear in the morning [instead of] this really aggressive guy at night," Cigna says. "I knew I could do that. The interviews [on the morning show] could still be aggressive, but in between those interviews, you've got to be a friendly guy."

He says he's looking forward to a return to talk radio during his fill-in spots.

"I'm going to try to do what I did in the past -- get some good guests on, talk about local topics and national topics. I'll just be me."

With the morning show, he launched what would become an annual tradition -- a free spaghetti breakfast in Market Square, open to the public. The idea came from colleague Trish Beatty, KDKA's then-afternoon host. She suggested spaghetti because of Cigna's Italian heritage. He contributed a tomato sauce recipe for that first outing, copies of which will be distributed at the next spaghetti breakfast Sept. 21 in Market Square.

The ratings game

Cigna's morning stint hasn't been free of bumps.

In January 1996, the station decided to team Cigna with afternoon host Fred Honsberger. It didn't last long. Many listeners, put off by the pairing, sensed an on-air chemistry that was more about volatility than valentines. Six months later, Honsberger moved back to his former afternoon drive talk show.

Cigna now admits it was "a bad move."

"We were both soloists. You can't put two soloists together on anything. It never worked out."

Cigna's role on "The Morning News with John Cigna," as the show was rechristened in the late '90s, was more that of conductor than soloist. His personality could occasionally be lost in the swirl of news, weather and traffic reports that constitute the station's signature programming. And in recent months, there were indications some listeners had tired of playing "Where's Waldo," with Cigna's on-air absences growing more frequent.

While it isn't easy to get detractors on record, at least one who tuned Cigna out said he did so because he tired of the show's musical chairs.

"It sounds like he's phoning it in," said the listener, who asked not to be identified.

But even given the expected fallout from what for some listeners has become an 18-year morning habit, Cigna's positives outweigh his negatives.

Of course, KDKA benefits from its heritage, too. As the nation's first radio station, its audience is traditional and constant. As former WJAS morning host Jack Wheeler says, "If you heard that World War III had broken out, you'd turn on KDKA."

Which means Cigna benefits vicariously from the fact his show airs on the one station in town that wrote the history book.

"The success of KDKA's morning show has always been imbued in the minds of people in Pittsburgh," Wheeler says.

And a mind is a difficult thing to change.

More competition

The landscape of morning talk radio has changed dramatically since Cigna signed on 18 years ago. Now there's hip and irreverent comedy on WDVE-FM, Howard Stern interviewing strippers on WXDX-FM, Jim Quinn's political proselytizing on WRRK-FM, and several flavors of music designed to appeal to adult listeners. KDKA's audience is older, and its younger components tend to zap in for news and out again for music elsewhere.

Says Cigna, "Everybody's different. When Jack [Bogut] was on KDKA, there was no competition, really. When I took over for Jack, everybody said they were going to get a piece of the market, and everybody developed morning shows.

"Now ... if they want music they'll go to WDVE, B94 or Y108 or whatever. It's all out there. If they want information, they come to us. But you have to be able to entertain them with that information. And hopefully I did that. "

KDKA's ratings are almost unheard of in other markets: The morning show has a history of double-digit shares, with plenty of points in between them and their competitors.

Then, in 1992, there was an upset: The "WDVE Morning Show," with then-host Scott Paulsen and present-day host Jim Krenn, briefly knocked KDKA out of its No. 1 perch among total listeners -- the first such occurrence in ratings history.

Rather than slip into panic mode, the station considered that ratings book a "blip" and chose to ride out the storm. Indeed, Cigna's show regained the No. 1 ranking in the next Arbitron ratings report. But there's no denying his hold on the market is less secure than it once was. In the most recent ratings, true to form, Cigna was No. 1 among total listeners with a comfy 15.5 share, followed by WDVE at 8.3. KDKA's morning drive numbers, however, are significantly lower among 25- to 54-year-olds, ranking sixth with a 6.7 share, behind WDVE's Krenn and Randy Baumann, WBZZ-FM's JohnDaveBubbaShelley team, WRRK's Quinn, WDSY-FM's Welch and Woody and the syndicated Stern on WXDX.

But the Richert-for-Cigna move isn't ratings-based, says KDKA general manager Michael Young. "We're making this decision because of a plan we put together with John," who wanted to cut back his time on the air.

"Our format is designed to transcend ages and reach as many people as possible," Young says, noting that people tune in to KDKA for different things -- news, traffic, weather -- as well as personalities.

As for the key 25- to 54-year-olds, Young acknowledges that "we would like to have them spend a little more time with the radio station. Certainly, we want to increase our ratings presence."

But, he adds, that would be the case no matter who is at the helm of the morning show.

Winding down

There are polar opposites at work inside Cigna.

KDKA-TV's Burnett, a close friend, says the radio veteran is "like the older brother I never had ... and never wanted.

"He rides me constantly. He rarely gives me a straight answer. But there's always a twinkle in his eye. We both like to kid, play jokes on people. But in the end, he's as loyal a friend as I've got. In spite of his bluster and cynical edge, everybody knows there's a little kid in there who wants to see if he can get your goat."

KDKA morning news anchor Bob Kopler has worked with Cigna on the morning show for the past 10 years.

"Working with John is like going to Kennywood Park every day. It's full of fun, excitement and energy." And, Kopler says, the on-air camaraderie listeners hear is real. "Sometimes people have to work on it. Here, it clicked from day one."

"He's such a legend here in Pittsburgh," says WDVE morning host Jim Krenn. "I'm happy to hear he's staying on the air in some capacity."

Cigna's most memorable experiences in radio revolve around controversy or humor. During his night talk show days, he criticized striking coal miners. A group of about 600 angry protesters assembled outside the studio. "I had to have police protection coming in and going out," he recalls.

Several of his April Fools' pranks are the stuff of radio lore. Once, he reported that a flying saucer had landed in North Park. Many believed it. "My general manager didn't even know it was a joke."

On another April 1, he claimed there was an alligator roaming the sewer system and urged listeners to collectively flush their toilets to get the critter out. People bought that one, too. "People were calling up at 11 o'clock in the morning, saying, 'Should we continue to flush?' It was crazy."

He's had some memorable guests, too, including three out of the past five presidents -- Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Two years ago, he had a life-altering experience off-mike. The avid motorcyclist was nearly killed in an accident. He had often used his show as a platform to push for repeal of the helmet laws, but the March 1999 accident changed him.

"I still have the helmet I crashed in. Had I not had the helmet on, I'd be dead now."

Now that the passing of the baton is in motion, with Richert the anointed successor, Cigna is entering a winding-down phase. While he won't officially sign off as KDKA-AM morning host until December, he's preparing for a new role and a new life.

Will he miss his 5 to 9 morning grind?

"Right now it hasn't hit me. It will probably hit me when I start settling down in October. But I'm really not going to miss getting up at 2 o'clock in the morning -- not at all."

But he's convinced the time is right for a change.

"I'm healthy. I still have a lot of life left. I can still do a lot of things -- ride the bike, take trips, work in the mornings or afternoons. This is the perfect time for me."

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