I had a chance to chat with legendary KGO talk show host
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
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
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
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
naÃ¯vetÃ© 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
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
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
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 never
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.