Bob Ferrante: “A Profession of Great Honor”

Reading Time: 18 minutes

Adapted from an interview with on November 9, 1998. We have edited for clarity. Please send corrections to .

Getting started

ferrante-1970s-fortierBefore I came to ‘GBH, I had been news director of a -owned operation, WBBM-TV in Chicago. I spent five years on the ground managing that news operation during the late ’60s when domestic strife was underway and, in fact, I think it was as close as we ever came to anarchy in this country. We were outfitting camera crews with helmets and gas masks and bullet proof vests. It was not a happy time.

But I had always known ‘GBH because I was born and raised in Boston. It was a very small organization then in the sense that ran everything. He got in touch with and they gave him my name. He was coming to Chicago and we chatted. He was really impressive and the organization was more impressive than anything I had ever heard about. I flew out and met Bob Larson, David lves, Michael Rice, Mark Stevens, and a few other managers. I flew back very excited about the challenge.

“The Reporters”

They wanted to create a news department. They already had a half-hour nightly show called “The Reporters.” The theme was “It doesn’t take a fire to get us in your neighborhood,” which was a real whack at local news. It was wonderful.

The thing that was most impressive about “The Reporters” was there was a sensitivity about what journalism should be. The mayor — I think might have Kevin White then — would make a pronouncement, and we would go to the neighborhoods to talk with the people who were affected and report from their point of view. We had a still photographer — we did not have motion photography at that time — who would go with and they would put together the whole story and that’s how “The Reporters” continued to grow.

“It doesn’t take a fire to get us in your neighborhood.”

I inherited wonderful people and I gave it more of a sense of direction. There was Joe Day who was here when I came, a hard working journalist who made a name for himself in Boston television after he left. I hired Jay Feldman and Charlie Stewart as my two senior producers and directors, and then a small very discreet staff, a damn good staff. It had Alan Lupo who was a columnist, a wonderful character. I brought in Joe Klein who is now with Newsweek Magazine. There was Ed Baumeister who I brought in from the Worcester Telegram. Maureen Banion, who became a star in Washington on the station, and a few others, including Diane Dumanoski who had been at the Boston Globe. And then I brought in Pamela Bullet who was a great Herald education reporter.  Each one of those people really contributed to one heck of a broadcast.

Beacon Hill was having a great crisis. In those days the dogs were allowed to run wild and to leave behind droppings. Well, Diane Dumanoski did a story with such intensity. She started at the beginning and told it all. And there were still pictures popping up on the screen and nobody on the set could control themselves. If you paid attention, you noticed there were strange sounds coming from around her, but she treated the story like any other story.

Our budget was in the hundreds of thousands. We didn’t have video, we didn’t have film. Working with the available film production unit wasn’t possible, because we wanted them to shoot in the morning and be on the air at night and they couldn’t complete the film in time, so that gave me the opportunity to investigate videotape, three-quarter-inch videotape. We were the first television station, I think, one of the first in the country, to have a daily news program that had videotape, with portable cameras.

Louis Lyons

In 1972, “The Reporters” went on just after “Louis Lyons News and Comment.” Louis Lyons was the curator of the Neiman Foundation, and a remarkable journalist. He was well-known, well-respected, and he knew how to interview people. If we had published a newspaper Louie Lyons would have been happy, but even in television, he was the voice of great journalism.

There’s a wonderful Louie Lyons story about the early days of his show when invariably would run right up to the clock, right up to the end of the broadcast, and expect to continue to go on. Time was not of interest to him, so I had to finally make a statement that we would cut when that happened, fade down, do it as gently as we can. But one day when he was in that studio and the floor manager gave the signals, Louie Lyons said, Don’t you wag your finger at me young man. That’s the way Louie Lyons was. He just would continue playing on. What a fine journalist.

“Don’t you wag your finger at me, young man.”

Management

We reported to management headed by Michael Rice, Bob Larson, and David Ives. The three of them together gave this place an attitude that was tough to pass by.

I look around at producers today (1998) and the truth is, it is still one of the only places I know of in the world where you can practice your craft. We may have had differences of opinion as to who is good at the craft and who isn’t, but for the most part, that was the guiding light.

Someone told me this story once. Someone asked what he did to make this station as great as it is. And he said, I had to figure out how to draw top talent. We couldn’t pay them top wages, but if you have the very best equipment, the very best producers will follow. So he invested in the equipment and from that, he drew the very best producers and directors and craftsmen of all types. And I think that’s probably the most brilliant decision that was made during the initial stages of putting WGBH television together. It was remarkable.

“I had found a place I could never leave.”

was a visionary. I would go to him with an idea that I’d sketched out on paper, and he would read it. He would talk with me, and the more he talked, the more I began to get the wisdom of what I had been trying to say, but had not put down on paper.

He knew what would work and what I should do and he turned it around this way and tipped it over that way, and before you knew it, you went out of there knowing that it was going to work if you did it the way you had worked out together. He worked it out with you and sent you on your way. He was absolutely brilliant in so many different ways. I can’t think of anything that I could say about that wasn’t full of admiration for his mind, and his vision, and his caring about what we did. He was really remarkable.

Through those early years in the television news department, you begin to realize the real sense of WGBH: the importance of the craft, that the things we do as television producers mattered more to WGBH, that whole management team, than anything else I could ever imagine.

I felt like I had really found a place I could never leave because I was a television producer. I had been news director at a couple of commercial stations, but when I came here, I felt there was an interest in what I did for a living and the interest was throughout the whole building.

Evening Compass

But we were getting to the point where you could only go so long with the neighborhood shtick of “The Reporters,” as I called it. We were spending time in all the neighborhoods, but their kids were moving out to the suburbs.

So in 1975, we made “The Reporters” into the “Evening Compass.” We were going to go all around the world and incorporate Louie Lyons and all his guests with “The Reporters.” Unfortunately, the “Evening Compass” was the creation of a committee and you know what you get with a committee. It was a pretty strange show. The show was going nowhere. Everybody that had a press pass wound up on the broadcast and it wasn’t so hot. It was terribly disappointing to me.

I remember meeting with and he said, You’re not making it work. I said, I can’t make it work. What you have done is given me dining room furniture and living room furniture and we’re supposed to move into the kitchen and make it seem like a kitchen. It isn’t. It’s a dining room and a living room. And he said, Well go ahead, try something else.

“Well go ahead, try something else.”

At that time Peter McGhee was here and he had been with the “Advocates” for quite awhile. The “Advocates” was an hour-long weekly broadcast with Michael Dukakis as a moderator. It was a pro and con debate over a great issue, with a studio audience. It started locally and became national.

picked Peter McGhee to be program manager for news and public affairs. Again, it was another shrewd choice by Michael Rice because Peter McGhee turned out to be every bit as smart and as good as Michael Rice was.

He had what I considered to be the great wisdom of programmers: their ability to take your idea and help you refìne it and give it a direction and understand what you’re trying to get out of it because sometimes you don’t quite get it all. You can tell people what it is you have in mind, but what’s clear to me is not always clear to anybody else, so that required another person like and, now, Peter McGhee. He decided, before anybody else, that a 10:00 news would be ideal.

In 1978, Peter McGhee said, we’ll do a 10:00 broadcast. Well in those days, we didn’t think that was possible. Who’s going to watch the news at 10:00? Of course today everybody’s got 10:00 news and they out rank the 11:00 in many markets including here. But it wasn’t common then.

And so we gave it a try and it was working, but I wanted to do more public affairs programming and Peter McGhee was willing to give me something else to do. So for a couple of years, I did a lot of other things.

The PBS “instant” news specials

We were the only news department in that could call from Washington and say, for instance, Can you do a show tomorrow on “The Saturday Night Massacre?” That was the night President Nixon told his Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox to protect himself from inevitable impeachment. Richardson refused and resigned, and so did the Deputy Attorney General. That was the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

That night we had a wonderful staff party going on at Charlie Stewart’s house — you know there was always an excuse for a staff party. Somehow a guy named Jim Lehrer, the public affairs director, found us and said, we need a program tomorrow at 8 pm. Can you do it?

Well I had everyone there, so I said, Yeah, with pride, Sure we can, Jim. Don’t you worry about it, we’ll be there. So I dragged Charlie Stewart and Jay Feldman and most of the staff out of there at about one o’clock in the morning and we came into the station and started working. We worked right through til eight o’clock that night. We went live with a special on about the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the only network to have a full program on it the next night. The commercial networks never did it.

“The commercial networks never did it.”

And it was live. I’ve never have been happy with recorded programs. I always feel there’s a sense of caution that appears all of a sudden when you’re on tape. It’s live or it doesn’t go, as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, this was a terrific broadcast, and we were available for those sorts of specials. We did one with Bill Moyers when Nixon came back from China. We had cameras when Nixon landed and Bill Moyers interviewed him from here, and it was one of the 15 or so times and WGBH cooperated on news. Moyers was a remarkable talent. Anything you said into his ear he made seem flawless. And those were the sort of shows we did.

We went live again when Three Mile Island, the atomic plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was threatening to melt down. We thought this big thing might go up, and fortunately it never did.

When Princess Diana was marrying Prince Charles, everybody wanted to have the big ceremony on their air. Ed Baumeister who was my editor, and I talked to Peter McGhee and said, Why would we bother to do it when all the commercial networks will have it? We’ll continue our regular programming. Peter agreed. Well, called and they said we’ve got to have a special. The stations are demanding a show.

So Peter McGhee said, Okay we’ll produce a show for you. Here’s the budget, this is what we’ll need but, by the way, ’GBH won’t be carrying it. We produced the show and it was seen on public stations around the country, but it wasn’t seen here in Boston because we made a good conscious decision.

But it almost never happened.We had to come into the station at something like 2:30 in the morning to take the incoming tape from the BBC in London because of the five-hour time difference. But we couldn’t get into the station. The guard desk was empty, there was no one there. We went around the back to the loading platform and shook the door. No one. We called in and all we got was no answer. We were going crazy.

I was getting really angry now. Finally, we managed to break in through the loading platform in back, and by the time we got in, there was finally someone out at the front desk. I was really angry because we almost lost the whole show and that would have been humiliating for GBH. It almost never happened.

There were times when we were doing some of those news specials and when we got the order, we needed the studio and I had to go down to the studio where Julia Child and Russ Morash, who created The French Chef, were taping segments. I’d say, Russ, I’ve got to have the studio. How soon can you give it up? He said, Well why don’t you talk with Julia?

“I had to go down and talk with Julia.”

And I’d go out and say, Excuse me, Julia, and, and in her wonderful way, she’d say, Girls, just a minute. We have the news department here. What is it Bob? And I would explain that we had to do a news special and she would say, All right, all right ladies we’ve got to do something about this. The news needs this studio, so we’ll just have to pack up for today and come back tomorrow.

Never did she say anything beyond, Okay. She just wanted to know why. It wasn’t a question, it was just her curiosity. It was a wonderful thing to see her do that and all her assistants were just as happy to help her out and do it. That’s the sort of thing, that was the collegiality that went on in the place. And that showed the wonderful personality of Julia Child.

Everybody was grateful for the opportunity to do it because we were all doing what our craft called for and we made good programs in those days.

The

ferrante3-croppedIn ’78 I came back to the “Ten O’clock News.” was the anchor at the time. The on-air editors started with Alan Lupo and then Joe Day and then Ed Baumeister.

Lydon was from the New York Times with a wonderful mind. He would open the broadcast with the only thing in news that was totally democratic: the weather. It rains on the rich, the poor, the men, the women, the disadvantaged, the advantaged, dogs, cats … everybody is involved with the weather, no matter what your status in this society. That was the first thing you heard. And my rule was: That’s the first thing that runs. Unless there’s a bunch of Russian bombers on the coast heading in for a bombing run, we’d lead with the weather and that was never to change.

It was a good broadcast. It had a character and caring, and people who were interested in the news didn’t have the variety of news they have at their fingertips today.

“The broadcast had character and caring.”

When I started out in the commercial news business the news was only 15 minutes long at night on the local stations. By the time of the “Ten O’clock News,” they were all 30-minute programs and they integrated the weather, the sports, and the quality was very good.

But many viewers just wanted to know what happened that day and then go to bed at 10:30. Hour-long television programs weren’t very good for them. So, we got sizable ratings with a half-hour show. I don’t recall beating the competition, but it was such a respectable broadcast that people couldn’t knock it because they couldn’t ignore it was good journalism, done at its very best, and that was the real hallmark of Peter McGhee. He pushed you along in a way that you could do that sort of journalism, and this organization never failed to support the news producers.

I remember very strongly David Ives having a meeting — our offìces were on one side of the building and his was on the other — and there were some sponsors from a sports equipment company who were very angry with a story that we were going do. They hadn’t even seen the story, but they knew the thrust of it and David Ives had them in his office and listened to them ignite.

About a week later, I discovered that David Ives listened to them and their complaints because they were big underwriters here. He’d said he appreciated them and understood their thoughts. But then he told them that the broadcast had already run and there wasn’t much he could do about it. That was the way this place operated, total support for any endeavor. I get that today (1998) producing for “The World.” Let the news have its own set of rules and regulations.

I think the “Ten O’clock News” budget came close to $850 thousand and eventually one million dollars. It was always sufficient. We didn’t spend wildly. We were always running as close to budget as we could, knowing full well that, with a daily broadcast, the day you end the fiscal year, if you’ve got 50 cents in the till they’ll come and take it and they’ll reduce your budget by 50 cents for the next year So, you never gave back a penny.

“We had to figure out ways of skinning the cat.”

The budgets in those days were carefully thought out. We just simply had to stay within the budget. We had to figure out ways of skinning the cat, and that wasn’t easy. Color three-quarter inch videotape helped us.

Sony had the equipment, the edit suites, but never could keep the equipment going. For every piece of editing equipment, we had to buy two or three others to cannibalize to keep the one going. So Ed Baumeister and I went to a technical conference and said to them, Hey, you’re killing us. Will you explain to us why we can’t keep the videotape equipment going? They said, We’ll tell you. We thought the market would be for the home, but not for commercial use. They were stunned that television stations were jumping into it. So, they started to make better equipment for the edit suites.

In our heyday we had three camera crews with two on a crew: a camera man and a lighting man who also did sound. They worked together pretty well and they were portable. There were three or four editors and that’s where your budget started to go bigger than you had anticipated. In the good old days, it had just been a newspaper reporter. You showed up, wrote a few things down, left, and typed it out.

Now, you add the reporter, the equipment to gather the material, the person who had to edit it, and that reporter who then went on the air. So you’d have three steps as opposed to that one step, but now people were used to seeing the pictures on television that really told the story. So you added to the budget and the budget grew dramatically because we were getting good presence in the city.

At the peak we had about 18 or 20 in the news department for a nightly show, five nights a week, 260 shows a year. That seems to be that’s all I ever do in my life is 260 shows a year. Somebody always has the idea that we’ve got to use this stuff again. You can’t let a story go on air only once, so then show was rebroadcast on the weekends.

Sometimes a real news junkie might want to see a story again, and that was terrific for us because if somebody wanted a copy, they would pay. But it wasn’t money we really wanted, we wanted more tape stock. We never had enough money for video stock so if someone wanted to give us a bunch of blank cassettes instead, they could get a copy of that story and that would build up our supply. It let us stay on the air.

“It wasn’t money we wanted, we wanted more tape stock.”

In 1980, two two years after I returned, the show won the Emmy for the best daily news program in New England.That meant we beat 35 commercial television stations with their daily news programs and their big budgets, all because we danced to our own tune. We went in the direction we thought we should go in. We did the story that we thought was the lead story, not what was traditionally the lead. So for at least a year we rode high and mighty.

Funding was mostly from the station, but the underwriters were also supporting us. I recall total support in this station. It was really remarkable.

News

In 1982 I had a terrific opportunity to create programs for television news in New York, and you can never turn down that kind of opportunity.

It was really disappointing to have to leave ‘GBH, but they recruited me and it was flattering to have the president of News call and say, Bob we’d like you to come down to New York and talk.

I know it was because I was a producer at WGBH, and they respected our craft. That’s probably the best thing you can say about it, is that professionals knew the quality of the programs that WGBH produced. So within the business, that was the inside buzz.

“The professionals knew the quality of the programs WGBH produced.”

So I got into News, what with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather and all those people around, and what was everybody asking me about? What’s Julia Child really like? What about Alistair Cooke, what a gentleman. “Frontline” was underway at that time, David Fanning did lovely work and they loved it. It just went on and on. GBH was known.

Charlie Stewart and I were doing a show in Canada on draft resistors that had fled from the U.S. We got in an elevator and we squeezed in with a bunch of people and somebody saw WGBH on the equipment that we were carrying. WGBH, they said, they’re with WGBH, that’s a wonderful place. I mean the call letters really got anybody’s attention. It was the of the broadcasting business. So it always had that cache, no matter where I went.

One similarity between WGBH and was that we always had a budget crunch. We always had the feeling that we were going to have to support ourselves and continue to work rather than getting a paycheck. The first time I had the big meeting outlining my plan for this four-hour live broadcast at CBS Television News, the bookkeepers said, Well we’ve got a budget crunch. I thought, Oh that follows me wherever I go, it’s me. But it was a good chance to do television at CBS. All evening broadcasts, all live television.

For most of us in the television and radio news business, you’re a gypsy, you’re never settling down — certainly not as much as the military where they move everybody every six months — but you move along for the challenges in the business. To get the personal satisfaction you have to go where the show is. The show isn’t going to come to you.

“You’re a gypsy, you move along for the challenges in the business.”

I stayed at for six years, and then was executive producer of at National Public Radio.

The World

“The World” was going into Phase II of the show and some of the staff recommended consulting with me based on my success with Morning Edition. In 1998, I was recruited for “The World” by the president of Public Radio International, Steve Salyer. It was the perfect circle of WGBH encouraging someone to come back in a very succinct way. They could have gone for anybody, but I’m sure that, having been here before, I had the sort of sensitivity about what WGBH is really about that everybody would recognize.

The “World” is a three-part operation. It’s a production of the BBC, Public Radio International, and WGBH Radio. We have the BBC resources, we have the wonderful strength of Public Radio International to finance it. It’s their show really, but the BBC and WGBH both contribute their thirds equally to make this international broadcast. Together, the mission is to bring international news to American listeners.

I hear all the time that people don’t want international news. Well, they don’t want you to label it that way, but I think there is an intelligent awareness in this country. When people heard about the Japanese bank crisis, there wasn’t much interest until someone said, Your pension plan is tied up in what happens in Japan. All of a sudden, there’s interest in international news, but the word “international” isn’t so good.

“The mission was to bring international news to Americans.”

Remember there was a time when we were in what was called “educational television,” and we had to do away with that term. There were the same kinds of television programs afterwards, but we didn’t call them educational, we just called them television programs. That broke the barrier of educational television, but in truth, it’s the same about international.

It was in the mandate to bring international news to Americans, to show the interconnection between what happens in Honduras, what happens in Iraq, what happens in Ireland, and how it affects our everyday lives. The Iraq situation was an international news story, but it was also a domestic news story because there were American troops on the ground.

Doing that is much more exciting than anybody would ever give it credit for. My staff is international, but everything we do has to relate to how does it relate to your life as an American. Five days a week, 260 shows a year.

The heart of WGBH

ferrante 2010When I left ‘GBH in ’82 there were about 250 people at the station and today (1998) there are more than 1,000. I told my assistant at “The World” that I’m just amazed: every time I walk out of the office I see somebody from all those years ago, 16 years ago. It’s a remarkable institution and it has a place in the history of broadcasting and broadcast journalism as well.

When I first was in this business, when I first came here in ’71, you only had a few outlets for daily news. Today you can walk down the street and see everybody’s political position by the t-shirt they wear that says support this, or support that. Today people are getting their information from different avenues and that’s the secret: to be a step ahead. And if anybody will be a step ahead of what is the best way to disseminate information nationally it will be ‘GBH. I know that because I know that executive strip up there that had David lves, Henry Becton, Peter McGhee, David Liroff, Bridget Sullivan, and before them, the real old veterans.

That’s an amazing thing, to make an organization that has continued to grow and move forward, serve more of the local community and serve more of the national community. Today everything is national — every sex, every race, every color — so someone’s got to be thinking about the real values of communication and the real values of broadcast journalism. Whatever is done with the Internet, journalism will still be there and if we keep applying the rules of journalism we’ll be okay as a democracy. I’m convinced of that.

“There isn’t a big trick about broadcast journalism.”

If a young person came to me and said, I’ve always wanted to go into broadcast news, I would like to see them get a job where they learn to write first. That’s the toughest thing we have in the news business: few people can write today. I would wish they would have an opportunity to get a liberal education and bring it with them.

I think for the most part, I would say get into a small newspaper and get on the Internet, get in all the places where you can be trained as a journalist. Then, come to ‘GBH with your experience.

There isn’t a big trick about broadcast journalism. It’s like riding a bike. If you can write, if you can learn how to use the equipment, and if you have a particular talent you can create good television or radio news by using that equipment to enhance it, to support it. But if you can write in this world today you are worth a hell of a lot more money than anything else. I think it’s a profession of great honor and a great service to the community.

3 Comments

  1. Michael Ambrosino on September 24, 2022 at 8:23 am

    Thank you for posting this. It is a lucid history of a fine journalist and a fine fellow.
    Michael Ambrosino

  2. Marcus E Jones on September 23, 2022 at 10:27 pm

    This was a great read. Thanks for the post. I believe Bob listed himself as the Executive Producer of the “Ten O’clock News” when I started as a Boston University work-study intern on the TOCN in 1981 But I could be wrong, maybe his title was news director and Steve Atlas was listed as the EP. Either way, I found Bob to be a fascinating and unique news department leader. I certainly learned from him and the stellar team of staff and reporters (such as Janet Wu, Callie Crossley, Sharon Stevens, Mark Mills, Charlie Bennett, Art Cohen, Howard Husock, Glenda Manzi, Jack Cole, and Paul Solman, to name a few) who he assembled to feed the beast which was solo-anchored by Christopher Lydon. I liked that this interview brings out that Bob encouraged good writing above all else. It’s a standard I always strove to uphold when, after graduating from BU, I returned to the TOCN as a full-fledged on-air reporter from 1986 until the TOCN’s final program in 1991. MARCUS JONES

    • Jay Collier on September 24, 2022 at 8:36 am

      Thanks, Marcus! Ferrante referred to his role as news director in the interview (which I didn’t capitalize), and I believe you are right, his official title was Executive Producer.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.