After 36 years, KDKA-TV’s Jon Burnett set for final broadcast
The year was 1982, and a KDKA-TV producer named Jayne Adair was walking through the Nashville, Tenn., airport. Had she stopped to get something to eat or buy a magazine, she might have missed the moment when a young southern gentleman on a TV monitor caught her eye.
The man on the screen was Jon Burnett and he was hosting a local show in Nashville called “PM Magazine.” There was a version of the show, produced by Adair, airing in Pittsburgh called “Evening Magazine.” The original host, Dave Durian, had announced he was departing.
When she got back to Pittsburgh, Adair tracked Burnett down and gave him a call. Burnett, who never lived anywhere outside of the South, flew in and auditioned for the show. So began a 36-year stint as a host, news reporter and weatherman at KDKA-TV that comes to an end this weekend.
At 65, Burnett has decided to sign off and retire. His final broadcast will be on the KDKA morning news with Brenda Waters from 6-10 a.m. Saturday. Pittsburgh City Council has designated June 1, as “Jon Burnett Day.”
“It’s time. Financially we’re OK, and my wife Debbie, she’s an elementary school teacher, is retiring in mid June so we’re going to go out within two weeks of each other which is what I wanted,” Burnett told the Tribune-Review this week. “I planned this around her. The timing for me is right.”
In a city where local television news viewership is extraordinarily high compared with other markets, KDKA watchers may go through some degree of withdrawal when Burnett departs. Omnipresent on the Pittsburgh television airwaves for the last 36 years, Burnett, with his folksy, conversational style, has managed to connect with viewers.
For his part, Burnett says he loves being on TV.
“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get a kick, a huge charge out of being on television,” said Burnett. “I still enjoy when the camera light comes on every day. It’s like something inside me turns on.”
There certainly was a George Plimpton-like quality to Burnett’s work as “Evening Magazine” host which included stunts like jumping out of an airplane and jumping into the boxing ring with former world lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.
Burnett was an athlete growing up in his native Knoxville, Tenn., where he attended the University of Tennessee on a football scholarship. He played defensive end for the Volunteers from 1972 to 1974.
After a knee injury ended his football career, Burnett focused on the performing arts his senior year. He had starring roles in stage plays like “Cabaret,” “No No Nanette” and “Two for the Seesaw” and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theater.
The skills he developed as an entertainer served him well on television where he was a versatile performer who began in 1977 by doing the weather on a Knoxville station. Three years later, he moved on to Louisville and another weather gig. He returned to his weatherman role at KDKA and in 1996 earned an Emmy for Individual Achievement in Weathercasting.
“I loved every show I did, I loved every time I was on the air,” said Burnett. “If you were to ask me, ‘What did I love the most?’ I’d have to say it’s what I’m doing right now. Weather is how I started in the business.”
But Burnett, who suffered multiple concussions including two on the football field, said he has memory lapses and is concerned about losing his edge and how it will eventually impact his on-air work.
“It’s slight but I notice it, and I don’t want to get to the point where it’s obvious on the air,” Burnett said. “I don’t want to put people through that. I’m in my mid-60s and if I can spare people the agony of watching me decline I certainly intend to do that. I don’t want anybody to be sitting out there saying, ‘Oh man, that Burnett, he should have retired five years ago.’”
Burnett admits that years of heavy drinking may have contributed to the challenges he’s facing. He’s made no secret of the fact that he is an alcoholic who has been sober for three years.
“It’s not a sacrifice for me because I know my life is better without it,” he said. “You realize that not only is it affecting your own health but the lives of your family and friends.”
He choked back tears, adding: “What I gave up was sitting up every night with a glass of whiskey in my hand, and now I’m going to bed at the same time as my wife. It’s changed my life and maybe one of the reasons I’m retiring is that I want to be with her all the time.”
He will probably shed a few more tears when he signs off for the final time on Saturday. Burnett says what he will miss the most are the people he has worked with over his many years in Pittsburgh television.
“I can’t tell you how sad it is,” Burnett said. “I can’t even bear to think about not seeing folks like Stacy (Smith) and Ralph (Iannotti) and Paul Martino and Kristine Sorensen, who was my partner on ‘Pittsburgh Today Live’ for all those years. I still miss Patrice King Brown, who was my partner back in the ‘80s on ‘Pittsburgh2day,’ and Liz Miles (his co-host on “Evening Magazine”). I will miss the crowd that I’m with now, just as much.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].