Robert Ferrante, exec who energized NPR’s ‘Morning Edition,’ dies at 87

Robert Ferrante, a broadcast executive who oversaw the overhaul and growth of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” during the 1990s, bolstering its news operation and enlisting producer Ira Glass and humorist David Sedaris for commentary and features, died Sept. 15 at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He was 87.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his daughter, Donna Ferrante-Nuttall.

In a journalism career that spanned more than five decades, Mr. Ferrante reported live from Dallas when nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed presumed presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963; directed TV coverage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and helped create innovative public affairs programs in the 1970s for Boston’s public television station, WGBH.

He achieved even greater prominence in the media in the 1980s — revamping the “CBS Morning News,” a ratings success, and creating the network’s overnight news program “Nightwatch.” When he jumped to NPR in 1989, he was tasked with performing the same magic.

“Morning Edition” had labored in the shadow of the network’s signature afternoon news program, “All Things Considered.” Mr. Ferrante is credited with transforming it over the next nine years into the most popular morning news magazine in public and commercial broadcasting.

At NPR, Mr. Ferrante made the aggressive pursuit of the news part of a program that, by many accounts, had spent a decade searching for an identity. Public radio had a reputation for being “late and long,” according to Ellen McDonnell, a senior producer who served as Mr. Ferrante’s second-in-command and succeeded him as executive producer when he left.

It was assumed that listeners got their hard news elsewhere and turned to NPR later for lengthy analysis. The network was widely perceived as stuffy and effete. Mr. Ferrante, with his commercial broadcast news background, brought a new sensibility, cultivating a blend of hard news and creative features. Among his staff, he was known for his booming Boston accent and his ability to connect effectively with the show’s reporters.

“He was an all-around smart news executive,” legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg said. “I hold him responsible for making ‘Morning Edition’ succeed and for becoming the program it ultimately remains today.”

The show, hosted by Bob Edwards, had producers coming and going while it struggled to get a foothold. The newsroom was chaotic, and morale was low.

“It’s hard for listeners to understand where we were then,” said Adam Clayton Powell III, the former vice president of news at NPR, who hired Mr. Ferrante. “When Bob arrived, it was considered an ancillary news service — something you’d go to if you already knew what had happened. We did features, but obviously we did not have the resources the major networks had.”

Under Mr. Ferrante, the “Morning Edition” audience jumped by 25 percent, and financial support from corporate underwriting soared. He increased airtime for emerging star reporters such as Totenberg, Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer.

He also was open to new feature segments. In 1992, Mr. Ferrante was approached by Ira Glass, then a relatively unknown independent producer, who had seen David Sedaris, a professional house cleaner and struggling writer, perform in a Chicago club. Glass suggested airing offbeat commentary by Sedaris, which Mr. Ferrante enthusiastically approved.

Sedaris’s quirky take on his experiences as Crumpet, the department store Christmas elf, in a spot called “The Santaland Diaries” was an immediate hit. Sedaris became a monthly contributor to “Morning Edition,” which launched his career as a popular speaker and best-selling author.

Mr. Ferrante’s encouragement also caused an abrupt change in Glass’s career. “He let me get my little radio experiments on their feet and in front of millions of people,” Glass said. “In fact, he egged me on to do more. He called them ‘ornaments,’ which he pronounced ‘ahnaments,’ and he told me more than once: ‘Ira, I’ve got great news coverage. But I need more than that. I need ahnaments! Give me more of those ahnaments!’ ”

The ornaments formed the foundation of “This American Life,” a weekly story-driven show that Glass created in 1995. The show went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Peabody Awards and became one of the most popular offerings on public radio.

In 1999, “Morning Edition” had nearly 9 million daily listeners, while two commercial network TV stalwarts — NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” — each had fewer than 5 million viewers, the Christian Science Monitor reported, citing Arbitron and Nielsen Media data.

Mr. Ferrante had left NPR a year earlier to become executive producer in Boston of the nascent global news show “The World,” produced by Public Radio International, Britain’s BBC and Boston public radio affiliate WGBH.

When he arrived, “The World” was carried by 70 stations nationwide. By the time he retired in 2010, the program aired on 300 stations with a daily audience of 3.2 million listeners.

“He brought the highest journalistic standards,” said Lisa Mullins, who anchored “The World” during Mr. Ferrante’s tenure, “but he also had a common touch that attracted American listeners who didn’t have the international news exposure that a BBC audience had. He let us loosen up and take more chances. He urged us to bring a conversational touch to a kind of news that could be remote and obscure and difficult.”

Robert Edward Ferrante was born in Boston on Oct. 6, 1934, and he grew up in Arlington, Mass. His father was a bank clerk, and his mother owned and operated a beauty salon. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 1957 before joining WNAC-TV, then the CBS affiliate in Boston.

He was the station’s news director in November 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He flew to Dallas to cover the aftermath and was among a throng of reporters in the nearby press room when, two days after the assassination, Ruby lunged forward and fatally shot Oswald in front of a stunned nation watching on live television. Mr. Ferrante immediately went on the air to report on the chaotic scene.

After later stops — at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh and WBBM-TV in Chicago — Mr. Ferrante oversaw the creation of public affairs programs at WGBH, including the Emmy Award-winning “Ten O’Clock News.” He subsequently went to CBS News.

Mr. Ferrante’s first marriage, to Anne Basti, ended in divorce. In 1998, he married Pamela Post. In addition to his wife, of Cambridge, and daughter Donna, from his first marriage, of Taunton, Mass., survivors include two stepchildren, Tyler Post of Hingham, Mass., and Whitney Otto of Cambridge; and eight grandchildren.

In the cutthroat media business, Mr. Ferrante earned a reputation for leading a collegial news operation without pretension, where his booming laugh was a sign of ultimate approval. According to Mullins, after a successful show, the news team welcomed his signature Boston-inflected declaration, “That’s a KEEPAH!”

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