By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Gene Burns, 1940-2013

I was sad to learn over the weekend that radio talk-show host Gene Burns had died at the age of 72 (via Universal Hub). Burns, who brought intelligence and grace to the airwaves, held down the midday slot at WRKO (AM 680) from 1985 to 1993. Lesley University professor and radio consultant Donna Halper writes:

I will miss him because of what he represented — a more courteous style of conversation. Today’s talk hosts (on BOTH sides) often shout and name-call and insult the other side. Gene Burns was all about exchanging IDEAS; he was a libertarian, but he always respected callers who had other ideologies. In today’s polarized culture, it would be nice if more of us could get beyond the rhetoric and get to know each other better. Talk shows like his used to provide a forum for that to occur. I wish they still did.

The talk-radio world of the 1980s was radically different from today’s. There was a time on WRKO when, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., you could listen to Ted O’Brien and Janet Jeghelian, then Burns and finally the legendary Jerry Williams during afternoon drive. Then you could switch over to WBZ (AM 1030) and hear another legend, David Brudnoy, from 7 p.m. to midnight — 17 hours of intelligent, (mostly) civil talk.

These days Dan Rea, Brudnoy’s successor at WBZ once removed, is the only host on the commercial dial following that tradition. If you want a smart discussion of news and public affairs, public radio is pretty much the only choice.

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  1. Judith G. Doherty

    I want to put in a good word for WBZ’s Jordan Rich. While Jordan doesn’t do politics most of the time, unless something occurs during his overnight show or in times of crisis, he is always respectful and thoughtful and in the tradition of the Talk Radio I have loved since a pre-teen. I am certain Jordan is far more conservative than I am, but his ability to accept others’ opinions with grace and to turn the conversation around when it starts to get ugly is much appreciated.

  2. Brendan P. Myers

    Wow. He has “transited the meridian.” Very sorry to hear that.

    I remember him saying once he loved doing talkradio in Boston, because he could touch on, I don’t know, the unique marine biology found in the Seychelles, and due to the bounty of Boston’s colleges and universities, he was bound to get a call with an expert on the subject. The way I remember it, the next caller was . . . a marine biologist.

    Of course, that’s just the way I remember it.

    He will be missed.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Brendan: I had forgotten all about “transited the meridian.” Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Thought-provoking yet courteous talk is something the younger generation of listeners (and yes, there are some) seldom hears. Even NPR has canceled what I thought was a wonderful program, “Talk of the Nation.” Much of what is available on radio is of the “he said-she said” variety, with plenty of irate callers seeking someone they can blame for the outrage du jour. Talk radio at its best should inspire passion and debate. Gene Burns, like the late great David Brudnoy, was very good at doing that. But one small point: I’m heartened that a few of the talkers today are female, but back then, and for the most part even today, talk radio remains a mostly all-male preserve, which means talk shows of Gene’s era (and David’s too) were slow to discuss issues like sexism or workplace discrimination.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Donna: Thank you for checking in. Given that the talk radio you and I and others are celebrating always had a strong personality hosting it, I’m surprised that you would lament the passing of “Talk of the Nation.” Bland on bland.

      • Lou Gawab

        “Talk of the Nation” (or TOTN as it is known to some), is great! A talk show where the issues and the discussion are the star, not a “strong personality”. TOTN was live, engaging, political…without being combative with name calling and shouting. Very sorry to see it go! I would think you would feel the same way too Dan!

        • Dan Kennedy

          @Lou: I’ve always thought “Talk of the Nation” was boring. I’m not a big fan of call-in shows — it seems to me that the best talk shows always kept the callers to a minimum. To me, “open lines” is a synonym for “change the station.”

      • lou gawab

        I always thought that having calls meant the host (and guests) were not afraid to be called on the carpet and “mix it up” with anyone who might make it to the air. It wasn’t “open lines”, as there was always a topics and a guest. The callers didn’t dictate the topic/subject, but could be part of shedding some light on the topic. TOTN always had informed guests and intelligent people. It’s easy for someone to pontificate. The best part of Brudnoy, Burns, Williams was when they would “mix it up” with a caller.

        • Dan Kennedy

          @Lou: Brudnoy once told me that the most challenging part of his job was accommodating the callers without alienating the listeners. The reason? The callers tend to be considerably dumber than the listeners. Brudnoy’s take, not mine, though I agree.

  4. Michael Goldman

    I appeared on Gene’s show many times and while our ideologies couldn’t have been more different, the discussions always worked on the premise that people of good will could differ without rancour…A truely nice man…

  5. Tai Irwin

    Thanks for posting this Dan – I asked Kevin Cullen to make sure that Gene received a proper obit in the Globe. Gene Burns was a wonderful community man, believing that radio played a role in the daily discussion, and that people of good will could disagree, yet still use the airwaves toward more understanding, not less. Gene loved Boston, and left to go national, which was a mistake, but did ultimately bring him to his final radio home, San Fran.

  6. Sad news indeed. Gene Burns was my favorite talker in the 80s. he was intellectually fearless – he would often have guests with whom he disagreed without being disagreeable. Those are two things – the willingness to present different ideas than your own, and the ability to argue with reason and not ridicule – you just don’t get in today’s breed of talkers. He demonstrated that the mind functions best when open.

  7. DK – I agree with your assessment of the state of talk radio, but would only say that public radio ensures polite talk by presenting only one POV – Progressives talking to Progressives.

    • Rich Kenney

      I agree. Dan’s post about Gene Burns was fine up until the last sentence. Not too many conservative ideas being discussed over there on NPR.

  8. Sally Kroeker

    When I came to the Boston area in the 80s I found Gene Burns on the dial. I really enjoyed his restaurant show. We enjoyed several wonderful restaurants on his recommendation. He will be missed.

  9. Matt Kelly

    Sad news– Gene Burns was one of the first AM-radio personalities I listened to regularly, and made me realize there was more to Boston radio than WCOZ or KISS-108. He will be missed.

  10. Laurence Glavin

    “Talk shows on BOTH SIDES?”. Could someone please direct me to a terrestrial radio show that offers points of view OPPOSED to the right-wing or far right-wing side of most issues? Right now, I can access the Stephanie Miller Show on Current TV that counters said right-wing comments with humor and satire. But no Ed Schultz or Thom Hartmann on any signal receivable in this part of New England. The station that ONCE offered these shows switched to all-sports in a market with three other outlets with the same format. That’s AM 1510: no listeners, no callers. (If anyone claims that left-wing talk can’t get ratings, check out the 6,000-watt FM in a suburb of Madison, WI. If it were full-powered in Madison itself, it would do even better).

  11. Tom Keating

    Dan Rea? He doesn’t hold a candle to David Brudnoy’s ability to have respect for an opposing view, nor his wit . Dan Rea panders to the Tea Party and Libertarian views and he is a dinosaur. There hasn’t been a good talk show host since David B. and Chris Lydon. I am saddened by Gene Burns transit, he was good, and he had a great Sunday restaurant show.

  12. Sean Griffin

    And unlike Andrea Tantaros of Fox News, Gene Burns would never ask his listeners to punch Obama suppoerters in the face:

    And Cynthia, really? I hear people like Michael Medved, David Brooks, Jeff Jacoby and others on public radio all the time. I think Public Radio succeeds because it doesn’t exist in a bubble. I remember trying to listen to Air America and the host, Randy Rhodes just sounded like a lef-wing Rush Limbaugh. Just because I agreed with most of what she was saying didn’t make her entertaining or edifying. When Tom Ashbrook takes a call, no one says “Megadittos!”

  13. Lawrence – I listen to shows like ‘Counterspin’ ( and ‘Democracy Now!’ on WOMR/WFMR while driving to work – craziness gets the adreneline flowing! If you are actually interested in left wing radio, there’s a lot of it around.

  14. Laurence Glavin

    I wrote “terrestrial radio”; because in my car it’s the only radio I get. and listening to the “radio” on a computer is ok, but with a radio, I can take it from room to room.

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