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Interview with Gene Burns

Below is an interview that was conducted on May 28, 2003 with the late Gene Burns when he was on KGO Radio out of San Francisco. From food and wine to politics and prose, Gene was a master of his medium, and C. Crane feels privileged to share with you the following interview.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with legendary KGO talk show host Gene Burns. KGO has been the #1 station in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last 20 years. From food and wine to politics and prose, Gene is a master of his medium, and C. Crane feels privileged to share with you the following interview.

JCP: One of the things that I would like to begin with is food and wine and how you got so interested in wining and dining?

GB: I come from a family of very good cooks. My mother's mother was a very, very good cook, as was she, and she had one sister who was also a good cook. On my father's side they couldn't cook worth a damn. Many is the Saturday night it was beans and franks, with the beans right out of the can and the franks right out of the boiling water. My grandmother on my father's side used to think that spaghetti was macaroni covered in tomato soup. It was god-awful.

Book-ended by the two parents, on the one side I knew what very good food was, and on the other side, I certainly knew what horrible food was. As a kid growing up (the eldest of six) I helped out in the kitchen when I could. We were a family of very modest means. In fact, I suppose by contemporary standards, in my childhood, we might have been considered poor, although we never considered ourselves poor. We always had a garden. My grandfather helped us plant a very large garden and we lived on properties that had fruit trees. As a matter of necessity, we did a lot of canning. Freezing wasn't as popular when I was a kid as it is now of course. Instead, we did a lot of canning: jams, jelly, and chili sauce. We made our own ketchup and that sort of thing.

When you're a kid, you sort of vacillate between resenting coming inside and doing the work but taking a certain pride in the end product. I guess all my life I've had a casual association with food, so when I got older it was just natural that I would dine out, and when I started doing that of course, I started ordering wine, and so I started learning about wine. And that lead to an actual dining program by accident. I was working for CBS in Philadelphia. I did a program on Saturday mornings in addition to the weekday program. I stayed an extra hour and my task was to be sort of the button pusher on one other program that was hosted by a retired food broker and his wife, Frank and Mary Jelinek. They did a one-hour dining program, but didn't really know how to run the equipment or read the commercials, so I ran the program for them.

I would sit there week in and week out, watching them close up, and already having an interest in food; thinking this is one sweet gig they have here. That was in 1981. So I left there and went back to Florida, where I had worked previously, to the same place, and I said to people there "I've looked into this thing called a dining program, it's really rather intriguing, isn't it something we could do here?" And they said "Sure, we aren't going to pay you any more money, but if you want to give it a go, we'll give it a go." So we started "Dining on Saturday" for a couple of hours. 1981 was about the time, if you now look back on it, when dining and food really began to be serious. At that time, "Bon Appetit" was sort of a throwaway supermarket magazine, but people were beginning to get serious about food and wine. So inadvertently, and without any planning whatsoever, we caught that wave with dining. I probably started Dining in September of 1981, and I've been doing it wherever I have worked ever since . I've done it in Boston and New York, and I do it San Francisco and I've done it other places as well. And I've actually done a national syndicated dining program.

JCP: Having lived in Boston and in New York, how would you rate the restaurant life in those cities compared to San Francisco?

GB: I think in the matter of dining and in the matter of food and wine, San Francisco is absolutely the epicenter of American gastronomy. San Francisco is very much like Boston in terms of its location. Both Boston and San Francisco are largely surround by water, both are about the same size, both are at the very core of huge urban sprawl. Boston's tends to go west from the ocean and San Francisco's goes east from the ocean.

In terms of restaurants, this is an on-going battle with my good friend Arthur Schwartz and I. Arthur does a dining program on WOR in New York and is the former food editor of the NY Daily News. Arthur and I worked together at WOR, and after I moved out here, I delighted in telling Arthur that San Francisco is the capital of American gastronomy. And he goes berserk because he thinks New York is the capital. He's wrong, incidentally, as you'd expect me to say. But you understand what he's saying.

In terms of restaurants, New York clearly has far more than San Francisco because it is bigger when you include all the boroughs, and it may have a little more diversity. I know there's a very good Turkish restaurant in Manhattan that Arthur and I have eaten at, I'm not sure there's a Turkish restaurant in Northern California. New York might edge out San Francisco on one or two ethnic restaurants that we don't have here. But when you add the wine country, which we have all around us in great depth, and when you add the produce of the valleys - Salinas, and the Central Valley and the San Joaquin Valley - and you add phenomena like Asian immigrants who have fled here and obviously come to the West Coast because that's the logical port of entry for them, and who now have managed to pull together some money and are buying plots of land in the valley and are now growing vegetables which we could only get, here-to-for, by importing them, and we can now get, and chefs can get first hand, because they're growing the fruits and vegetables they knew in their native countries, and you add the bounty of the ocean - which we have right next to us, well, we blow New York right out of the water. New York has Long Island wines, there are maybe a handful that are reasonably decent, and a couple that are competitive. There are a couple wines up in the Hudson Valley that are decent, but that's it. Where do you stop when you start calculating the wines that we have available? That's important because there's this whole subset of American cuisine called wine country that really sets the standard. Thirty years ago it was Alice Waters at Chez Panisse who set the standard for a revolution in American cooking. Even James Beard was born in Portland, Oregon, that's where his mother had a boarding house - even though he ended up living in New York City.

JCP: Do you have a favorite type of food?

GB: I don't have any Italian to the best of my knowledge. I'm Scotch-Irish-English-French and Polish as near as I'm able to deduce from my grandparents. But a couple of my aunts, my father's sisters, married Italians, and they were very good cooks, and they learned to cook Italian, and we learned from them, and for whatever reason, just because my pallet likes Italian food, that is my favorite.

JCP: When I think of food and wine, I usually think of music. Is there a type of music that you prefer?

GB: My musical tastes are eclectic. I have hundreds of CDs and if you could see that collection, it would drive you crazy, trying to figure it out. You would probably say this is a collection that belongs to six or eight people. I like opera, I like country, and I don't much care for rap, but probably because it's not my contemporary music. I like symphonic music of course; I grew up in the fifties so I like classic rock and roll. The music you like is very much a function of what you are doing. If I have a party on the Feast of St. Joseph, which is a big Italian feast day, I'll play Italian music, and so on.

Probably the largest single collection I have is Christmas music. I'm a huge, huge fan of Christmas music, though I'm not religious, I just love Christmas, so I have a huge collection of Christmas music. Everything from the classic hymns, carols, to music done by contemporary artists like Neil Diamond, and people like that.

JCP: So is there a favorite Christmas song?

GB: I prefer to avoid this category of "favorite" anything, just as I avoid the word best like the plague. I mean, people say to me, "That is the best hotdog in the world." Well, I mean that's ridiculous, have you tasted all the others? How could you say that? You could say it's the best you've ever had, or the best you've had in San Francisco or New York, or wherever you live, but you can't say it's the best in the world, you haven't tried them all. The same thing is true about favorite. People invariably say, "what's your favorite restaurant in San Francisco?" Well, you've got to give me more parameters; when I want to put on a tie? When I don't care how much it costs? Or is it when I feel like relaxing? When I'm entertaining? I mean it's always a function of what you're trying to do. So I guess the same is true in any other category.

JCP: These days, it seems a lot of people want their public figures to come down either for or against their particular point of view. However, you seem like you're very, very cautious in terms of thinking about what's going on, and trying to respect difference perspectives?

GB: Predictability is boring. And since I am a performer, if I become completely predictable, I'll become boring. And I don't think that's healthy in my line of work. I also tend to be iconoclastic. In fact, back in the late 60s, I got into a huge political battle when I worked in Baltimore, and somebody who was on the other side of the issue called me an iconoclast, meaning it as a disparaging remark, and I thought it was a great compliment. There's nothing wrong with deciding every issue on its merits. And libertarians, of course, tend to be very conservative fiscally, economically, and fairly liberal socially, which makes us very difficult to pin down. Which is okay by me. I can't, I would never want to live my life, let alone prosecute my profession in a situation in which a set of predetermined criteria automatically decided what I thought about something. That's mindless. What I think about something is what I think about it. If it fits somebody's idea of what they thought I might say, that's okay, but if it doesn't that's also okay.

JCP: Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated with debates about patriotism and what is or is not patriotic?

GB: I lived through the Vietnam war, and was a talk show host during the Vietnam war, and so I've heard these arguments all before, and I've seen them all before, and what I do try to do is warn people not to make the same mistakes as we made then. Like hating the troops because the war went badly, because of bad public policy or that sort of thing. That's a big danger, but I can hear the arguments echoing down the corridors of time, because I heard the same arguments back in the late 60s, early 70s.

I said to my general manager at the Metro Media station I worked at in Baltimore, one day at lunch, I was sort of joking and I said "You ought to brace yourself because I'm going to change my opinion on the war. "I had sort of been a begrudging supporter of the war, not because I knew much about it, but because the government said we had to be there. So I guess we had to be there? But then the more I looked at it the more I decided the war was a disaster, so I told him, "I'm going to change my opinion and come out against the war, and you're likely to get a huge backlash from the audience." And he said "That's okay" and I said "Are you sure? Yeah, the only thing I haven't done that I could do is go to Vietnam and see it for myself." And he said "Well/ why don't you do that?" and I said "Because it's pretty expensive and I don't want to take all that time off from work." and he said "Well we'll send you. You can do reports." So the news director, who was a supporter of the war, and I (after I'd decided my change, but before I announced it) went off on special assignment to Vietnam, and then a year later, I did the same thing in the Middle East. We were in Vietnam for about a month and a half, and we decided to broaden the trip to take a look at American troop involvement abroad. We were in Korea, Japan and Thailand, and we went right on around the world to Frankfurt. We went first to Lebanon, and then to Germany and the NATO headquarters in Brussels and then back to New York.

JCP: Has traveling to Vietnam and the Middle East, and experiencing these places first hand, influenced the type of news formats you rely on for information?

GB: One of the big realizations of the Vietnam War days was that the American media had been reporting an American war that happened to be taking place in Vietnam, and the only way to understand a conflict like that is to report the Vietnamese war, because it's their war, even though we were involved in it. Once we started to do that, that's when American public opinion began to change. That, coupled with the fact that too many body bags came home to too many front porches of homes in America. When it became obvious that the government had lied significantly about the circumstances of the war in Southeast Asia, it was inevitable that the country would change its opinion. When I was in Saigon, there was a briefing every day at the Military Command Headquarters, MACV, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, in Saigon at 4:45 in the afternoon, and it was laughingly referred to, even by the correspondents there, as the "4:45 follies." Nobody believed anything they were told, in fact at one point a journalist added up the enemy's body count that the military had given us, and we had killed everybody in North Vietnam three times. It had no connection to reality. And then you'd go out in the field and talk to our troops. I don't think we'd been there more than five hours before we just looked at each other and said this is hopeless, this is a nightmare, how did we get stuck in this?

You come away from an experience like that thinking the first thing you loose is your naïveté about your own government, you realize that if they're not lying, they're nuancing what they tell you to fit their policy. In those days there was I.F. "Izzie" Stone who used to write a newsletter saying the war was wrong from day one, and he was called everything a man could be called - a traitor, etc. It turned out that Izzie Stone had it figured out long before traditional media had it figured out. You quickly learn that just because someone is a communist doesn't mean they're lying, just as the corollary is true, just because someone is a tried and true American doesn't mean they're telling you the truth. You have to apply a bit more vigorous standard of study to an issue as important as war to come out with either the right answer - whatever that can be defined as, and usually after the war ends, we decide what the right answer was - or the answer with which you're most comfortable.

JCP: How do you feel about the recent work of embedded journalists?

GB: Embedded journalism is very good, and to some degree, bad. Very good because it's astonishing that you could literally watch the war. Vietnam was called the "living room war" because American families would sit down to dinner just about the time Walter Cronkite would come on, and the first fifteen minutes of every newscast was about what was happening in the war. A lot of that was battlefield footage, and so we said that was the "living room war." This is really the living room war. With this war, you have correspondents with video phones talking to you as troops are moving down the highway. I think that's good, it gives people a sense of what war is all about, more than they've ever had. Although you'll never get the smell of war, one of the dimensions that is most compelling.

On the other hand, the one thing wrong with embedded correspondents is that they're operating under rules set by the Pentagon. In a sense, the Pentagon is controlling them by embracing them. I don't think that's big problem, but it's a factor I think you have to take into account when you think about how good or bad imbedded correspondents are.

JCP: And where do you usually find the information that you rely on?

GB: I've been at this for forty years, and the brain is a marvelous instrument, and if you keep it working halfway decently it stores a lot of information. I get my information by reading. You have to read. I read several newspapers each day, and magazines and books, and you store that information. Some of it seems quite silly and irrelevant, but you never know when a single piece of information stored in that computer of the brain will suddenly become relevant or important or help you make a point. You just have to read and study. I discuss these issues three hours a day, five days a week, and the dining issues three hours a week, so if every American discussed contemporary affairs three hours a day five days a week, we'd be a much different people. But most people don't have time to do that, but that's what I do for a living.

JCP: Do you leave yourself time for other diversion?

GB: I get lots of vacation and take every day. My entire career I have heard people say, "Oh I never take every day." Well, I take every minute because the body needs to recharge, and you have to enjoy yourself. And working a schedule in which you have a day and half off a week. That half day you get essentially write off - Sunday is my only day off, when I just relax.

JCP: What are you reading now?

GB: I'm a huge detective fiction reader. I think I'm a closet cop, I think I would have liked to have been a cop or a defense lawyer. I love to read detective fiction and I read a fair amount of it.

I have so many books that are in various stages of reading. The book I'm currently concentrating on is actually an interesting book called The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander. It's about a young kid who worked for the Romanovs, the Russian Tsars, just before they were assassinated. It's written by a fellow who lived in St. Petersburg, Russia. I'm a Russophile. I have a fascination, particularly with Imperial Russia. I'm also reading a book about Rasputin, by a leading Russian scholar, who discovered a huge file in the Russian archives. The Russians, bless them, for all their shortcomings in various other ways, were compulsive record keepers. Even the communists, perhaps more so the communists. All of this material has been kept in the archives, and since communism has gone away is now available.

JCP: You're very eloquent. Do you trace your gift with words back to someone or something in particular?

GB: My father was a seventh grade drop out, who was intuitively intelligent and extraordinarily glib. My mother was a college graduate who brought the intellectual horsepower to the gene pool I think. Not that my father was stupid, but book learning was not his thing. When I was a kid growing up, my father had various jobs, and he was an early riser. He used to get up at 5 o'clock, even if he didn't have to leave for work until seven. He'd get up at 5 o'clock and he'd go downstairs and make a pot of coffee and drink the entire pot, and make another pot, and drink half that, and all the while he was sitting downstairs he'd have a chat with himself. And I remember the first time I woke up and heard the noise and heard this conversation going on in the kitchen, I thought who the hell is here? It's still dark. And it was him. He was very astute politically. He would turn on the news on the radio or TV, and he'd have a conversation with the news.

He always had this silver tongue capability. With my father, nothing was simple at the dinner table. If a glass was spilled, my father could not just say stop that or be careful or whatever. My father would have to pull back from the table, and using his hands he would say, this is one of his favorites, "if you would address the table in an orderly fashion, look, like this, if you would sit like this facing the table and not fooling around, and paying attention to what you are doing, which is eating your supper, these things would not happen." And I grew up with that kind of conversation with my father, hearing him yell at the governor.

My mother was a college graduate who was a great reader. When I was growing up we had no TV, it was very new and we couldn't afford one. Her parents had a cottage at a small lake in Western New York, and she had encouraged me to read. I read Theodore Dreisser's American Tragedy before I had any clue as to what it was about because it was there on a bookshelf. And I remember very vividly going to the lake cottage, because we would spend several weeks there each summer, and finding a pile of "Life" magazines from the second World War, which my grandparents had saved, and reading them, absolutely fascinated with what I was reading. The genes benefited from my mother's reading passion and my father's articulation skills and then again, at this point in my career I can't take a lot of credit. I practice eighteen hours a week. I don't care what you're doing, playing the piano, playing the clarinet or growing roses, if you practice it eighteen hours a week, you're going to be very good at it, or you're going to be doing something else.

JCP: Would you mind sharing telling us the story of how you found yourself working in radio?

GB: I first got into radio in Western New York. I was home for a summer in Hornell, which is where I was raised. Some college friends of mine, and some people who'd just graduated high school, were having a beer and a pizza at a local pizza parlor. The local chamber of commerce had just announced that they wanted to build a new parking lot. They wanted to float a $100,000 bond referendum to build a new parking lot. So, on about the fourth beer we were talking about the new parking lot, and we said, Hornell needs a new parking lot like we need a hole in the head. There are parking places open, empty in this town every damn day. This is just a total waste of money. For whatever reason, I guess because rebellion takes many forms, and when you're that age you like to rebel, so we formed the Young Citizens Committee, and I was elected chairman, to fight the new parking lot referendum. We had no money, but one of our colleagues got her father, who was a doctor, to give us 100 bucks. The Democrats were out at city hall and the Republicans were in, so the Democrats gave us 100 bucks. With our war chest of $200 we were on our way to fighting the parking lot. We took a shoe-leather survey of all the parking spaces open, when they were open, what time of day and so on. And we wrote this up as a press release, saying that the chamber asked for a new parking lot at a time when all these spaces are available in Hornell. It's a waste of taxpayer's money and we oppose it.

A local editor smelled a good story, so he published it and the battle was on. Well, in those days, there were two local radio stations, and Hornell was a town of about 15,000 people. Its main enterprise had been to be a major stop on the old Eire Railroad. It was an industrial kind of town, although not a lot of heavy industry. In those days for $40 you could buy one hour of radio time, in the evening on one of these two radio stations. So we took $80 and bought two hours in two successive weeks, in the evening, to have an hour-long program to tell you why you should vote no on the parking lot referendum. We had some guests come in; we went into our survey in some greater detail. And as the chairman of the Young Citizens Committee, I was the moderator of the programs. To make a long story blessedly shorter, the vote was held, and we kicked the crap out of them. It wasn't close by a country mile. And they were furious. And you know the chamber of commerce in a town of 15,000 people is the organization that pretty much runs things. If you want to run for public office, if you don't have the chamber with you in a town of that size you aren't going to win. They were just furious.

About four or five days later, I got a telephone call from the general manager of that radio station. A guy by the name of Jerry Wacks - I've long since lost track of him. I wasn't first going to call him back, because I figured he's a big mover in the chamber and he's just going to tell me what a jerk I was and so on. But I did call him back and he did tell me what a jerk I was, and he thought we kids didn't know what the hell we were doing, and this was a major setback. But he said, you know what, you have a good voice on the radio. And he said, "we'd like to offer you a job." And I said, "doing what?" "Why we'd like to have you be the news director." And I said, "I've never been a news director." And he said, "we've never had one" so it was a perfect match. So I accepted, and that was it. My life changed - out the window went the possibility of being a lawyer.

I took this job thinking it would last a couple of months and that would be that. I had nobody to direct. I was the only person in the news department and I had to learn what you did. He told me to go to the city council meetings and write a story about them, and call the police department and get the stuff from the blotter, and so I began to learn the radio business. They encouraged me to do commentaries from day one. And I used to do the news three times a day, immediately before a well-known broadcaster in that day by the name of Paul Harvey. I was Paul Harvey's lead in at WWHG, which you probably can't even say fast, WWHG in Hornell, New York.

JCP: Had you even considered going into radio before working at WWHG?

GB: Radio wasn't a respectable career when I was a kid. I graduated in 1958. We used to listen to these rock and roll radio stations, driving our parents crazy with this horrible music, and a guidance counselor wouldn't even consider radio - that noise, that's not respectable, you have to be a doctor or a lawyer. My father wanted me to be a doctor because I think he wanted free medical care in his old age, and I had decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I had never thought about radio. And I worked in news and radio for about six years and I was news director of large radio station in central Pennsylvania, which was owned by the Susquehanna Broadcasting Co. I had been hired to rebuild their news department. They were a rock and roll station and had never spent any time or money on news, and I went down to do that. I had been at that for about a year and three quarters when a friend of mine, George Burns, not the famous George Burns, and no relation of mine, had gone out to the West Coast and had taken a job as assistant program director for a Metro Media FM in LA. When he came back from the final session in which he sealed the deal, he came into my office at the radio station and said, "You know what, Metro Media is looking for a talk guy in Baltimore, do you know anybody who could do that." And I said, "George, what is a talk guy? I don't what you're talking about; I never heard a talk show." So he went away and came aback in about an hour, all agitated, saying, "you've got to go to Baltimore." He leaned over me, he was behind me, and actually pushed me down face-first on my desk, grabbed the telephone and called a woman named Shirley Barish in New York City who was a very famous agent, and was Metro Media's talent scout. He jabbers at her and then hands me the phone. And I said what is this? Is this maniac George out of his mind? She said he probably is out of his mind, but he thinks you ought to do a show in Baltimore and he's a pretty good judge of talent. I said, "you do understand I've neve done a talk show, I've never heard a talk show", and she said, "don't worry George will tell you how."

I used to do a daily feature called Page from a News Man's Notebook. George said take the very best, about a dozen or so, and record them, and after you've finished recording the dozen tell the engineer to let the tape keep running and you just talk extemporaneously about some issue about which you have strong opinions. Well this was June 1967, the June War was raging in the Middle East, and I was irritated at the Security Council of the United Nations for not taking a more activist role. So I did about a five and a half minute extemporaneous piece on the Security Council and he sent it to Shirley and about four days later I got a call from Metro Media: "come to Baltimore, only 58 miles away."
I get in my car on a Saturday, drive to Baltimore, meet with the program director, and he offers me a job pending the background check. And they offered me $500 more than I was making as a news director, just as a starting salary. I decided to accept this offer. Packed my belongings into a car, drove to Baltimore and for two weeks I rode around with a guy who was the legendary newsman at WCBM, and then I went on the radio in August 1967. Doing talk radio, my first guest was the attorney general of Maryland, Francis Bill Birch, and we talked about race relations, they called me in and tripled my salary, and gave me a year's contract, and I was in the radio business.

Both of those things were totally serendipitous. I've always encouraged people to be active in civic affairs, and years after I got into radio I was talking to a friend over a drink one time, and he said, you know you urge people to be active civically, and if you had not been active civically you wouldn't be in radio. Getting involved in the Young Citizens Committee to fight the chamber was a civic act, and I'd never looked at it that way. I just looked at it as a bunch of us on the fourth beer being a pain in the ass with a local establishment. But it's true, of course. Getting involved in community efforts got me started on my career. Your part of the deal is that you have to be ready to take the opportunity when it bangs on your door. A lot of opportunity goes unfulfilled because people aren't listening. My contribution to my career has been a willingness to do different and new things, take a flyer on something just because I was intrigued by it or thought I could do it.

Well, that's the end of the interview with Gene Burns. Also, if food and wine are what you crave, there's plenty of gourmand-geared information at the Dining Around blog Gene started. The show is still being broadcast on KKSF and is now hosted by Gene's cohost and longtime friend, Joel Riddell. The site is complete with wine recommendations, recipes and Gene and Joel's restaurant picks.

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