Obituary: Fred Honsberger / A Pittsburgh voice, silenced
December 17, 2009 10:00 AM
Fred Honsberger in the KDKA studio.
Fred Honsberger poses with the Rockettes.
Fred Honsberger started out as a street reporter for KDKA Radio in 1979 and later worked as news director.
Radio talk show host Fred Honsberger at the Heinz Hall celebration of KDKA Radio's 85th anniversary in 2005.
By Adrian McCoy and Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The calls poured in during KDKA-AM talk host Fred Honsberger's air shift yesterday. One after another, listeners paid their respects to a silenced Pittsburgh voice during a program that became a three-hour tribute -- to its host.
Mr. Honsberger died yesterday morning at his home in Monroeville, following a long battle with various health issues. He was 58.
One of the city's longest-running talk show hosts, he could be combative and opinionated, but colleagues, guests and callers recall qualities that set him apart from the typical image of the talk host who shouts down listeners when they disagree.
Mr. Honsberger hosted a popular afternoon drive talk show on KDKA since the George H.W. Bush administration. In January, he moved to the noon-to-3 p.m. shift -- opposite syndicated conservative talker Rush Limbaugh, but continued to hold court and engage listeners on both local and national issues.
The Philadelphia native began his radio career at stations in Harrisburg and State College before joining Group W Radio, where he was a news anchor at KDKA's Philadelphia sister station KYW-AM.
Mr. Honsberger celebrated 30 years at KDKA this year. He joined the station in 1979 as a news reporter and later worked as news director. In 1989, he began hosting a talk show.
Mr. Honsberger's career in talk radio rode a giant wave in the '90s, as the medium of talk radio exploded in popularity, and syndicated, politically opinionated talk hosts like Rush Limbaugh became national stars.
Mr. Honsberger's mostly conservative stance and opinionated approach often sparked controversy among listeners. His show's topics revolved around local, regional and national issues -- things that evoked a strong reaction from callers and listeners.
Off- the air, Mr. Honsberger was waging another kind of battle.
In 2004, he underwent gastric bypass surgery in order to lose weight. Two years later, he was sidelined by a broken leg. Following that, he was diagnosed with a degenerative muscular condition that left him fatigued and weak. He didn't go public with it or discuss it on the air, and continued to broadcast his show from a studio in his house.
"He gave so much of his life to this radio station," KDKA news and program director Marshall Adams said. "It just made sense for us to give him any accommodation we could."
In recent weeks, many observed that he sounded weak and tired while on the air. But he continued to work until his last broadcast on Dec. 8.
During what would have been his air shift yesterday, the station aired a three-hour tribute, hosted by KDKA colleagues Mike Pintek and Larry Richert. Listeners called and sent e-mails expressing sorrow and shock at the news.
"Fred Honsberger was an extremely dedicated, talented and passionate man who will be greatly missed by the thousands of Pittsburghers who tuned in to his daily talk show," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a statement yesterday. "The iconic role that Fred played in engaging the public on political issues will be extremely hard to replace."
"I had the pleasure and honor of working with Fred my entire political career, and whether you agreed or disagreed with him, he was always fair and a consummate professional," said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato.
"As a repeated guest on Fred's show, he treated me with respect and courtesy," said State Sen. Sean Logan. "While we may have disagreed at times about an issue or my position, we were never disagreeable."
"Fred Honsberger was a hard-hitter who was never afraid to speak his mind and fight for his beliefs," said U.S. Rep Jason Altmire. "His wit, his love for Pittsburgh, and his unyielding passion will be sorely missed."
His KDKA colleagues were shaken by the news of his passing they had to report yesterday.
"Fred truly loved Pittsburgh. He loved the KDKA listeners -- even the folks that disagreed with him. He was doing up until last Tuesday what he loved and totally enjoyed, and that was preparing and producing his shows," said Michael Young, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio/Pittsburgh.
Mr. Adams recalled listening to Mr. Honsberger while growing up. "Fred gave me some my earliest memories of radio. He was one of the reasons I got into radio."
"He engendered a love-hate relationship," said Mr. Pintek. "Any good talk host will engender that kind of relationship. People say, 'I don't agree with that guy, but I have to listen to that guy.' That's what Fred did."
"The key to Fred having never worn out his welcome on the airwaves is that it was never about him," said Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey. "He had a well-defined personality and strong views, but not an overwhelming ego. He could focus on the callers and on the issues and keep it light because he didn't take himself too seriously.
Even those who disagreed with him saw this other side. In 2004, blogger David DeAngelo of the 2 Political Junkies blog, launched a blog called "Honsberger is a Liar," in which he took issue with what Mr. Honsberger said on the air and served as a self described fact-checker.
"I disagreed with his politics, but Fred was a great guy," Mr. DeAngelo said. "I considered him a friend."
Although he was best known for his radio work, Mr. Honsberger also appeared on local television. In 1999, PCNC station manager Mark Barash hired him to host "Honsberger Live!"
Mr. Barash said he was impressed that Mr. Honsberger never ran away from a debate. "He was a wonderful debater and had a great command of debate situations and knew exactly how to injure his opponents, figuratively speaking, no matter who it was."
Mr. Honsberger stopped appearing on "Honsberger Live!" after he became ill, but Mr. Barash retained the title of the show for several years while using fill-in hosts.
Mr. Honsberger was also tapped for WQED's "On Q" when it premiered in 2000, appearing in a Friday segment that morphed into the stand-alone show "Off Q."
"People know Fred is conservative, but what's cool about him is he doesn't always stay on the party line when giving his opinion," said Jocelyn Hough, former WQED executive producer for local programming. "And he wasn't confrontational."
He won numerous awards. He was part of the KDKA news team that covered the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979, which earned a duPont Award for news coverage. In recent years, he was named among Talkers Magazine's Heavy Hundred -- a list of the most influential syndicated and local talk radio hosts in the country, and won several Achievement in Radio Awards.
Mr. Honsberger was also deeply committed to charitable work and causes through the Salvation Army.
He is survived by wife Christine, sons Kyle and Kevin, and mother Janet, all of Monroeville.
There will be a public memorial service Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Salvation Army, 427 Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Salvation Army, either through the Virtual Red Kettle on the KDKA radio Web site, or by mail to Salvation Army, 700 N. Bell Ave., P.O. Box 742, Carnegie, PA 15106, with a memo designating it to the memory of Mr. Honsberger.