For departing KDKA morning/noon newscaster Sonni Abatta, the opportunity to anchor evening newscasts coupled with the location -- Orlando, Fla., home to her sister's family, including a baby niece, and her boyfriend -- proved too good to pass up.
Today marks Abatta's last day on the air at KDKA-TV; she starts July 20 at Fox affiliate WOFL, where she'll anchor newscasts at 5, 6, 10 and 11 p.m. weeknights.
"Of course I love Pittsburgh and had a wonderful experience at KDKA but I just wanted to try something new," said Abatta, a Pittsburgh native and 2003 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who's never lived outside Southwestern Pennsylvania. "It's backwards, I know. My friends all moved away after college and now they're coming back to town. I knew I'd be out of sync with everything. I guess you have to go with your own pace."
(And let's not forget that Pittsburgh is unusual in the amount of hand-wringing generated when a young person leaves town; in more transient cities, it's the norm for talented young people like Abatta to spread their wings and leave the nest.)
Abatta joined KDKA as a "reporter trainee" in June 2003 after graduating from CMU. She first appeared on-air in December 2003 and assumed a regular role as a reporter. She started doing fill-in anchor work in late 2004 and was named to anchor a 7 a.m. newscast on KDKA sister-station WNPA, now WPCW, in August 2005. By December 2005, Kelli Olexia had left KDKA and Abatta took her chair at the morning anchor desk.
Abatta said she never entertained the notion of attempting to leave KDKA before her contract was up in June. She only signed on with an agent late last year.
"I had an exceptionally long contract and KDKA was so good to me to give me a chance to let me start my career here, I didn't consider not fulfilling that," she said. Abatta interviewed in other markets but Orlando offered the perfect intersection of the personal and professional.
KDKA made overtures to keep her, Abatta said, noting "they handled it very well and there's no ill will or anything. I just came to the decision I wanted to try something new."
In addition to a new station, Abatta will also get a new schedule.
"I'm in my 20s and I haven't seen my friends on a weeknight in four-and-a-half years," Abatta said, laughing. "On weekends I talk about it with my friends. I'm like a recluse. The night shift is not a normal shift either but I'm more of a night person [by nature]."
Abatta said she always wants to "leave the option open" of returning to Pittsburgh, but for now, she's trying to find little bits of Pittsburgh in Orlando.
"I'm sad to leave my hometown in a lot of respects but I've seen a fair amount of Steelers gear down there," Abatta said. "I've already seen Steelers decals on dozens of cars and I'm always pointing it out to my boyfriend. It's cheesy, but it makes me feel a little more at home when I see that stuff."
Abatta's departure also represents the almost complete dismantling of the station's perpetually third-place morning newscast on a station that otherwise wins the viewer popularity contest in all other news time periods. Traffic reporter Jim Lokay is the last remaining member of a team that was put together in late 2005. Last summer meteorologist Valerie Abati was let go after less than a year at the station and Abatta's co-anchor, Keith Jones, jumped ship earlier this year to join WTSP in Tampa, Fla.
A new news director, Coleen Marren, was recently hired and will likely be tasked with assembling a new morning team when she reports for work at KDKA on Wednesday. In-house candidates to replace either Abatta or Jones include Lokay; weekend anchor Stephanie Watson, who has been filling in many mornings; and David Highfield, who's been filling in on weekends.
In the interim, KDKA general manager Chris Pike said Watson and occasionally Kristine Sorensen will fill in on morning newscasts. Pike said he expects to have a new morning team in place by the end of summer.
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