Longtime Bay Area broadcaster Gene Burns passed away on Saturday. He was 72.
I began to truly appreciate Bay Area talk radio, strangely, during the brief interval of my life in which I didn't live in the Bay Area. When I resided on the North Coast during college, talk radio, and particularly KGO, the longtime powerhouse of the local airwaves until its untimely demise in 2011, became the soundtrack for countless thousands of miles of nighttime driving between Humboldt and the Bay. From 2005 to 2008, KGO Newstalk 810, with its 50,000 watt signal that at night can be heard clearly from Canada to Mexico, was one of a small handful of options to choose from in my pre-iPod days of navigating the 101. The station's engaging discourse from a variety of viewpoints ignited my ongoing interest in politics, and provided as much of an education as any professor I ever took a civics course from.
its disastrous format change in December 2011, was unique. Unlike its right-leaning syndication-heavy sister in KSFO, KGO's lineup in the mid-2000s comprised almost exclusively local talk talent. Burns, John Rothmann, Bernie Ward, Bill Wattenburg, Karel, Pat Thurston, and even the overnight angry verbal meanderings of Ray Taliaferro, among others, contributed to an outlet unconstrained by any single format, and a true sounding board for the Bay Area community. KGO, despite criticism of its tendency to hire predominantly male, Jewish on-air talent, reflected well the broad concerns and priorities of the diverse region it served. Even amid the continuing decline of terrestrial broadcast radio, KGO and its personalities remained relevant to and beloved up and down the West Coast, and represented a forum for all who could hear them and pick up a phone—it formed a community of perhaps millions that was revered across generations.
Throughout his four-decade career, Burns epitomized what was great about the old KGO—fair, eloquent and thoughtful. Serious but not without humor. A principled yet open mind. A voice who encouraged civic participation and criticized those who would abuse or neglect their power and responsibilities. A former Libertarian Party presidential candidate who after an illness in Europe came to accept and even advocate publicly for the merits of single-payer health care. A foodie who managed to never exude elitism (Burns also hosted the popular weekend Dining Around program on KGO—the program still runs on Talk 910, hosted by Burns' protege, Joel Ridell). And a masterful orator with perfect diction and an enormous vocabulary. Amid the morass of superficial, hyperpartisan, and gimmicky talk programming, Burns and KGO stood out as an island of reasoned, thoughtful discussion and analysis. He would give callers time to finish their points and to contest his, and would respond with tough but respectful criticism, only resorting to name-calling or the dump button when it became clear that a caller was unwilling to engage in that level of discourse. Even as Burns' health began to fail in his final years at KGO, it was obvious that he loved his job and the role it allowed him to play. A series of strokes and other health setbacks would take him away from the mic for weeks at a time, but as long as his tenure at KGO lasted, he clawed his way back each time, a persistence and professionalism that rightly instilled great admiration from listeners and colleagues alike.
The old KGO's regular listeners know the rest of the story well. Shortly after acquiring the station, Atlanta-based Cumulus Media unceremoniously fired all but one of the station's weekday talk hosts, shifting to a certainly cheaper but hollowed-out all-news format, rebranding the station to drop "Newstalk" from its name and setting in motion a much-deserved collapse in ratings. Burns and several other ex-KGO hosts were soon picked up by Clear Channel's AM 910 with much-reduced airtime, though several of them have since been dismissed from that station. Burns was slated to take over the afternoon drive-time slot but another stroke shortly thereafter prevented him from ever taking the mic at 910. After an awkward—but apprecated to former KGO listeners—period of rotating through the transplanted ex-KGO staffers, Burns' spot was permanently awarded to former KGO colleage Gil Gross, who still occupies it today.
When news broke of Burns' death over the weekend, his former colleagues gathered on-air, both on KGO and Talk 910 to reminisce, and invite listeners to do the same. It was a bittersweet moment to hear those voices, and Gene's via a series of highlights from his career, back on KGO's airwaves, after the station had done so much to betray their and their longtime audience's loyalty. To their credit, the recently replaced management at KGO apparently endorsed the idea and maybe at some level understand the probably irreparable damage their predecessors at Cumulus had done to a local institution. The optimist in me hopes it will be the beginning of an effort to correct that mistake. The realist in me understands the practical lack of viability for that in the current economic climate for "old" media.
Even as traditional broadcast media struggles to remain relevant in an age where the barriers to entry for publishing content have all but disappeared, I would argue that large legacy media still have a role to play as agenda setters and community forums. As more content becomes more niche, it becomes the civic responsibility of entities with the reach and name recognition of a KGO to bridge between the increasingly fragmented voices that make up our society and facilitate the important discussions. Burns' passing marks the loss of someone uniquely adept and eager to serve in that role. He will be missed.