Obituary: John Cigna / Beloved longtime morning drive host on KDKA-AM
Dec. 11, 1935 - May 20, 2011
May 21, 2011 8:00 AM
Jimmy Sapienza, left, of the band Five Guys Named Moe sings with John Cigna during Mr. Cigna's last show on KDKA Radio on Dec. 21, 2001.
By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John Cigna was the same man on the air as he was off.
Sarcastic. Opinionated. Quick with a one-liner. The funniest man in the room.
He spent nearly 30 years at KDKA-AM (1020), and was the beloved host of the morning drive show from 1983 until his retirement in December 2001.
Mr. Cigna, who had been in declining health over the last few months and recently had a stroke, died Friday in Vincentian Home in McCandless. He was 75.
His wife of 53 years, Pat, died in January, and those who knew Mr. Cigna well believed that her death precipitated his.
"Pittsburgh lost an icon," said Michael Young, the senior vice president and Pittsburgh market manager for CBS Radio. "He was just full of life."
Most radio personalities are lucky to last five or six years in a market, Mr. Young said.
"Legends are the ones who can sustain past that," he said. "John took great joy in being on the air."
Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Cigna worked at radio stations in West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana before coming to Pittsburgh in 1969 to work at WJAS.
He moved to KDKA in 1973.
Mr. Cigna hosted a popular 9 p.m. to midnight talk show for 10 years before moving to the morning slot.
In that position, he helped create the K-Team -- making his show about more than just himself, said Bob Kmetz, a morning news anchor and reporter who worked for years with Mr. Cigna.
"It created a lot of diversity -- that it wasn't just one guy doing a show," he said. "He was always willing to listen to your ideas."
Mr. Cigna had great success there over many years. But in an effort to give him a full-time partner on the morning show, the station decided in 1996 to pair Mr. Cigna with then-afternoon host Fred Honsberger, who was equally known for his strong personality.
The pair was so volatile, said KDKA's Mike Pintek, that at one point, "They, literally, had a piece of tape to demarcate the space on the floor."
After six months, Mr. Honsberger moved back to his afternoon show, and Mr. Cigna remained in the mornings until he chose Larry Richert to be his successor upon retirement in December 2001.
Throughout his career, Mr. Cigna was known for having strong opinions and expressing them on air. Mr. Young called it "deep belief and vigor."
"John could get people all wound up and get them angry, but they still loved him," Mr. Pintek said. "He created personal relationships with the listeners."
He was well-liked by his audience, and people would often stop to speak with him when they saw him around town.
"He always had time," said Mr. Cigna's oldest son, Tony. "He was a great guy.
"Dad really appreciated Pittsburgh. He loved this town."
At one point during his career here, Mr. Cigna was offered a job with a huge salary in St. Louis.
He turned it down.
In addition to the strong relationships he built with his listeners, Mr. Cigna did the same with his colleagues.
Mr. Pintek called him generous with his time and advice.
When Mr. Pintek first came to KDKA, he received a note from Mr. Cigna following his first Saturday night talk show.
" 'This is a part of Mike Pintek I didn't know about. Great job, John Cigna.'
"This is the God's truth: That was a major inspiration for me," said Mr. Pintek, who still has the note.
Always one for fun and new ideas, Mr. Cigna hosted an annual spaghetti breakfast Downtown, and in the mid-1980s started what was called the "Red Ribbon Campaign," in which he would mail strips of red ribbons to anyone who wanted them to protest tax increases and politicians in general, Mr. Pintek said.
In the 1980s, Mr. Cigna starred in a series of commercials promoting the K-Team, in which he took all manner of beatings.
In one, he was struck by lightning. In another, he was picked up by a snow plow. Yet another showed him fleeing from a fire.
At the end of each one, Mr. Cigna would appear battered and bruised, and say, "Piece of cake."
"He loved making people laugh," Mr. Young said.
"I enjoyed getting up every day of the week and going in there," Mr. Kmetz said.
P.J. Kumanchik, assistant program director and executive producer at News Radio 1020, said Mr. Cigna did things his own way at the station.
"If you told John what you wanted him to say, he'd do the complete opposite."
One of his favorite memories of Mr. Cigna dates back to when the station was about to announce a new agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Though he was instructed to talk about only how great the news was for the station, Mr. Cigna's first question on the air to Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy was "'Before we get to that, tell me about [former Pirates manager] Gene Lamont.' "
"It's classic John," Mr. Kumanchik said.
Mr. Kmetz agreed.
"He'd go to meetings and then come out and do what he wanted. His ratings were so good, how could you argue?"
Mr. Pintek echoed that, saying that Mr. Cigna often said, "The greatest accomplishments are done in defiance of management."
Mr. Cigna, who would often solicit food from restaurants while on the air -- he loved Eat'n Park's strawberry pie -- regularly left a mess for Mr. Pintek to clean up when he went in for his 9 a.m. show.
He fondly remembered more of Mr. Cigna's quirks -- the man disliked walking so much so that he was known to hail a cab to travel just one block, and requested special permission to drive his golf cart up to the tee at area courses.
An avid motorcycle rider, Mr. Cigna spent much of his retirement taking trips on his Harley Davidson. He so loved his motorcycle, Tony Cigna said, that he requested that it be displayed at the funeral home next to his casket.
His family is working on that.
In addition to his son, Tony, Mr. Cigna is survived by three other sons, John of Shaler, Mike of Ben Avon and Chris of Nashville, Tenn., as well as six grandchildren.
Bock Funeral Home on Mount Royal Boulevard in Shaler is handling arrangements.