Through three decades of changing, often turbulent times, this steel magnolia has kept Pittsburgh anchored.
The young woman who arrived at Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV in 1980 wasn’t planning to stay. She took her seat behind the anchor desk with other things in mind: raising a family, traveling the world and maybe using her background in Asian studies to become a professor of Chinese history.
Sally Wiggin never expected to become a household name in Pittsburgh.
But today, she is the familiar face and reassuring voice whom a generation of Pittsburghers call their own. She isn’t from here in the traditional sense—the Michigan native wasn’t born or raised in southwestern Pennsylvania. And yet, after seeing this city through three decades of startling evolution, Wiggin has become an integral part of its fabric.
Pittsburgh was a drastically different place when she arrived—mills were closing and the unemployment rate was at a peak of 18.2 percent. The high-tech economy and eco-friendly progress that has brought the G-20 Summit and World Environment Day to our doorstep had not begun to emerge.
"When I got here, Pittsburgh was just embarking on a wrenching transition," she says. "The competition from foreign steelmakers … I watched it happen. The mills closing, the layoffs. We covered it nonstop. A region known for how important the nuclear family was saw the children of those families have to move to other cities and other states to find jobs."
Nightly newscast after nightly newscast, the years unfolded. Pittsburgh, she says, became her family. And Pittsburghers routinely return the love: Walk into a restaurant with Wiggin, and you’ll find half the room smiling at her.
When asked about that, she seems just a little surprised by it even after all these years. "Lately, I’ve been realizing how fortunate I have been and how deeply grateful I am for these 30 years," she says.
Asking Wiggin to look back on the past three decades is a bit like asking a relative to describe 30 years of family history in one sitting. Even for a born communicator, there are too many meaningful moments and too many crucial turning points to summarize.
And so, rather than a summation, here are a few pointed questions:
Career opportunities for women have increased considerably since Wiggin arrived here in 1980. But we live in a culture that often judges women as much for their youth and beauty as for their intellect and accomplishments. Has it been tough to sustain a 30-year television career as a woman?
Wiggin points out that women now make up a large portion of those working in television news in Pittsburgh. That’s progress. But she agrees that America’s love affair with youth and beauty can still be a challenge for women.
"In some ways, reality TV has made it worse. Everyone wants to be on TV now," she explains. "We have this incessant bombardment of the culture of celebrity … so everyone in their own way now wants to have some kind of celebrity. And when you have that many people clamoring for it, the idea is that you have to be one of the beautiful people to have it."
As Wiggin goes on to explain, "In a culture in which things are changing hourly, the desire for something new" is constant.
And yet, despite that, her popularity hasn’t waned over the years. Young Pittsburghers keep surprising her: In 2008, listeners of the morning show on 96.1 KISS FM, a radio station geared toward teens and 20-somethings, voted her "Best TV Personality."
She also has developed a following among younger Pittsburghers who know her from regular appearances on the WDVE radio morning show, where she would comment on current issues in Pittsburgh and banter with the hosts.
One secret to her ongoing popularity might be an unorthodox career move she made years ago: News anchors don’t normally get involved in sports coverage, but Wiggin began doing Steelers specials, starting with "Black and Gold Primetime" in 1993.
An athlete and avid sports fan, she was perfectly in her element. Those appearances added a new dimension to the way many local TV viewers saw her.
While covering the U.S Women’s Open Championship in July, Wiggin was approached by a fan. As she remembers, he smiled, offered an enthusiastic fist bump and said, "Sally Wiggin, I watch you every day at noon on my computer."
That illustrates how, during Wiggin’s tenure in Pittsburgh, few things have changed as much as technology. She has embraced blogging, Facebook and Twitter. But after so many decades of carefully reporting the news, she admits it can be difficult to turn off her perfectionism and to just quickly type out a Tweet.
"I always want to make it so complicated," she says. "I’ll admit it; I actually find Facebook fascinating and fun … but I get home, and I’m exhausted. And I’d just like to veg and watch something silly and go to dinner with friends."
Reflecting on a downside of our high-tech wonders, Wiggin asks and then answers her own question: "Do you know why everybody is slow to go through a green light now? They’re texting at the light."
Her energy, as always, seems boundless. She has no interest in stopping at a milestone like 30 years.
"Pittsburgh has turned a corner," she says. "We’re on the cutting edge of a lot of technology … and a lot of those children who left as young adults—they’re coming back here to raise their own children here."