• Mon. Nov 28th, 2022

Robert Ferrante, News-Driven Producer at CBS and NPR, Dies at 87

Robert Ferrante, a news producer who left his mark in both commercial and public broadcasting, retooling NPR’s “Morning Edition,” bringing journalistic rigor to “The World,” a syndicated public radio show, and creating CBS News’s ambitious “Nightwatch” overnight program, died on Sept. 15 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 87.

His daughter, Donna Ferrante-Nuttall, said his death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of a stroke.

Mr. Ferrante brought an abiding dedication to news to each of his many postings. When he arrived at NPR in 1989 to be executive producer of “Morning Edition,” the program was a decade-old stepchild to the network’s older and more popular afternoon show, “All Things Considered.”

Over nine years he beefed up its news content, pushing it to be quicker in its coverage, and raised the profile of star reporters like Nina TotenbergCokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer.

“He recognized the power of morning drive-time in a way that a lot of people hadn’t,” Ellen McDonnell, who succeeded Mr. Ferrante at “Morning Edition,” said in a phone interview. “He was very tuned in to ‘get it on the air today, not tomorrow.’”

Ms. Wertheimer said Mr. Ferrante was unlike some executives who had come to NPR from commercial networks and “who let us know that we were pretty small fry and not anything like the fabulous people they had worked with.”

Mr. Ferrante also strengthened “Morning Edition’s” feature programming, adding commentaries by David Sedaris, then a little known humorist, in 1992 and hiring Ira Glass in the early 1990s to host and create what would become the storytelling and essay program “This American Life.”

In early 1998, Mr. Ferrante, a Boston native, left NPR for WGBH, the Boston public radio station, to be the executive producer of “The World,” a two-year-old daily international news program jointly produced by that station, the BBC and Public Radio International. When he arrived, it was carried by 70 public stations nationally; in 2010, when he retired, the figure was up to 300.

“He brought to it a mix of hard-core journalistic values and a genuine human touch,” said Lisa Mullins, a longtime former anchor of “The World.”

Ms. Mullins, now the host of “All Things Considered” on WBUR Radio in Boston, added, “Bob had old school values but progressive ideas about what an audience wanted to hear.”

Mr. Ferrante in 2010. “He was very tuned in to ‘get it on the air today, not tomorrow,’” an NPR producer said.
Mr. Ferrante in 2010. “He was very tuned in to ‘get it on the air today, not tomorrow,’” an NPR producer said.Credit…Stephen Snyder for WGBH

Robert Edward Ferrante was born on Oct. 6, 1934, in Boston to Pasquale and Anna (Castellucci) Ferrante. His mother owned and operated a beauty salon. His father was a bank clerk.

(From boyhood Mr. Ferrante carried with him a thick Boston accent that was impenetrable to some during his broadcast career. “I was his translator,” Ms. O’Donnell said, adding, “I don’t speak Boston, but I understood him.”)

After briefly attending pharmacy school, Mr. Ferrante earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 1957. He soon joined WNAC-TV, a Boston station and eventually became its news director. On Nov. 22, 1963, he rushed to Dallas after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and reported live in the immediate aftermath of Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s presumed assassin, in the basement of the Dallas police station.

He was later the news director at stations in Pittsburgh and Chicago — where he oversaw coverage of the riots outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 — before moving back to Boston to work for WGBH, a public TV station.

While there, he oversaw public affairs programming and was executive producer of its award-winning “Ten O’Clock News.” In 1980, WGBH won the local Emmy as the best news station in Boston.

After 11 years at WGBH, Mr. Ferrante was hired by CBS News in 1982 to create and serve as executive producer of “Nightwatch,” broadcast from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Eastern time. “It’s everything I ever wanted to do,” he told The Globe before “Nightwatch” started. He added, “We’ll chase the sun, or meet it coming the other way, depending on where we’ll be coming from ourselves.”

He spent less than a year overseeing the program before CBS News shifted him to the “CBS Morning News” (now “CBS Mornings”), the perennially ratings-challenged competitor of NBC’s “Today” show and ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Soon afterward CBS cut “Nightwatch” to two hours; it later existed in other formats as “Up to the Minute” and “CBS Overnight News.”

Bill Kurtis, who was then hosting “CBS Mornings News” with Diane Sawyer, recalled in an interview that Mr. Ferrante “pulled us together and said that we had a mission — not first to get ratings but to do a good job representing CBS News, and then the ratings would come.”

Ratings did rise, but then fell, forcing Mr. Ferrante off the show and into a senior producer’s job in the news division’s special events unit. Jon Katz replaced him.

“No one’s mission succeeded there,” Mr. Kurtis said. “Not mine, not his, not Jon Katz’s.”

Mr. Ferrante left CBS News amid layoffs in 1985 and soon joined the Democratic National Committee as its director of communications. But he was dismissed before the 1988 Democratic National Convention amid journalists’ complaints about security arrangements, credentials and work space.

When NPR hired him a year later for “Morning Edition,” he returned to producing news, which he did for the rest of his career.

In addition to his wife, Pamela Post-Ferrante, and daughter, Mr. Ferrante is survived by his stepdaughter, Whitney Otto; his stepson, Tyler Post; and eight grandchildren. A previous marriage, to Anne Basti, ended in divorce.

Ms. Post-Ferrante said that she and her husband, who was ill for most of the past year, had the news on, on MSNBC, in their Cambridge home every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“He loved the news and he loved working with journalists — he just loved it,” she said. “And that’s why we had the news on from the day before Thanksgiving until the 15th of September.”


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