On April 28, family, friends, and colleagues gathered in the Fraser Performance Studio at WGBH to celebrate the life and work of Bob Ferrante, news director, executive producer, and all-around inspiration.
From the invitation:
Bob never sought praise or accolades. It made him uncomfortable. If he worked hard and succeeded, that was his job, he would say. The tributes in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times would have surprised him.
From the program:
We gather to share the many things Bob was. To some, he was husband, father, grandfather; And to others, executive producer, journalist, and guide. We gather to be with each other and to remember, as both family and co-worker, the kindness and humor of him. The love of him.
Click on any image for a slideshow from the event.
Welcome: Pamela Post-Ferrante
Welcome. I am Pamela, Bob’s wife.
I am so grateful to be here to give Ferrante, as I call him, this celebration. It’s an opportunity to gather and remember all the things he was to us. He himself was a celebration. He meant everything to me.
And to honor Ferrante, we have talent galore in the next seven stories about him. Ed Baumeister has sent a beautiful video of Ferrante’s career. Following that, there will be words from Charlie Stewart, Seth Rolbein, Donna Ferrante-Nuttall, Ellen McDonald, Marita Rivero, and Brian Jarman.
I really want to thank Carol Hills and Lisa Mullins. Carol, journalist and board member, and Lisa, then the host of The World when Ferrante was there. I thank them for all their work to create this celebration, which started as an idea in my head. They turned it into something real and full of love. As I look out, I feel the energy in this room. I have been walking beside them, helping here and there, writing this and that as they built this whole celebration. I am in awe of their work to give Ferrante this tribute.
I thank every one of you for coming to Celebrate Ferrante.
This video celebrating Ferrante’s career was produced by Ed Baumeister.
FERRANTE. That’s what we called him. That’s what he called himself.
I was in the newsroom in 1971 when he walked in to introduce himself to a bunch of scraggly reporters. We were all in our 20s except Alan Lupo who was 31. Bob was dressed in a nice fitting blue suit with a red tie looking very natty, straight from commercial television. He swapped that out for jeans two days later and he still always looked better than the rest of us.
In the video you just saw, Ferrante referred to the fact that WGBH had the only newsroom in the PBS system at the time and that we provided an instant special to the network about the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. But I would like to point out that there was no mandate from PBS for us to do public affairs specials. Ferrante just pushed us to do that.
It was through his leadership that we provided special programming to PBS and the Eastern Educational Network and, when they weren’t interested, specials for WGBH solo. All this on top of daily news.
Let me give you an example.
We were producing 260 daily broadcasts a year, and those of you who worked with Bob on daily broadcasts know what a grind that is. In addition, we were producing a one-hour weekly program.
“We can do more,” says Bob. “So let’s take the idea of Vietnam.” We’re sitting around and discussing ideas. What can we do about Vietnam? I raised my hand and I’d say, “Well, I’d like to make a documentary.” He says, “Well, I’m not sending you over there. Find a local angle. And by the way, don’t spend any money.”
And I found a way. I figured that Vietnam veterans were returning from war and they probably had a lot of slides and pictures that they took with Nikons and Canons and Pentaxes that they purchased in that part of the world. I brought some of the veterans I found who had pictures into the WGBH FM radio studio, one-by-one, on a weekend when it was dead quiet, and turned on a tape recorder and said simply, “Show me your pictures.”
I put together a transcript, showed it to Bob, and he marched into Michael Rice’s office and said, “I need money. I need to turn this into a television broadcast and I need an hour in primetime.” And we did. We called it Vietnam Diary.
It still wasn’t enough for Bob, and that’s when he came up with the idea of Amnesty Between Us which used live broadcast television, his favorite, to interconnect draft dodgers and deserters in Canada with Vietnam veterans and a Gold Star mother here in Studio A at WGBH for a 90-minute special. It was simply a brilliant idea. He made that all happen.
And take another example: forced bussing in Boston. This was one of the biggest stories to hit Boston and part of the city was in revolt.
We had our hands full with daily coverage. But when Ferrante heard the City Council was going to hold a hearing on the subject and to handle the overflow crowd they were using Faneuil Hall as a venue, he said to Michael Rice “I know I don’t have money in my budget to pay for the mobile unit, but I need it. I want to cover this event live.” (It had driven him crazy when we returned from lunch in Harvard Square most days and saw the mobile unit sitting for weeks in the parking lot, unused, waiting for the next Boston Symphony.) Michael Rice OK’d the idea.
Ferrante was a strong, passionate, opinionated, stubborn, wonderful leader.
Since I’m back here at WGBH for the first time in 45 years, I want those of you who are fairly new to WGBH to understand that under Michael Rice, Henry Becton, and David Ives, WGBH was the strongest incubator for creativity in the entire country. WNET was doing wonderful things, but they didn’t hold a candle to us.
Led by Michael Rice, WGBH was known for the arts. Freddy Barzyk and Rick Hauser were doing amazing things on film. Masterpiece Theater was in its first iteration. Bill Cosel and David Atwood were doing the Boston Symphony and Pops. Zoom, the kids program, was started. Topper Carew was doing extraordinarily ambitious things for Say Brother, and there was a limited documentary series called Arabs and Israelis, which was way ahead of its time. Bob Ferrante was leading the charge in news and public affairs.
He also knew how to have a good time. Bob fit an expression we have in my family, “He’s a man who likes to mix his pleasure with pleasure.”
One June, he discovered that we were coming in way under budget and the fiscal year was up in September. So he went into Michael Rice and said, “Hey, do I have to spend this money? I’d like to roll it over into the next fiscal year.” “Nope,” said Michael, “It’s just going to go into the general fund if you do that.” So Bob took the entire newsroom — along with the entire crew and a 40-foot-long mobile unit — down to Cape Cod in August for a week of programming and, of course, a one-hour special, for The Reporters — all stories about Cape Cod and the islands.
We worked hard, we partied hard, and that leads me to want to explore ever-so-briefly, and very carefully, the social side of Ferrante. Now it’s a different culture, but 45 years ago, the only way to describe the social scene at WGBH in the 1970s is a free for all. I met my wife here and she describes it more like a circus with men and women juggling multiple relationships. She told me that the first guy who asked her out on date was cheating on his mistress.
It was into this scene through the blue doors of 125 Western Avenue walks the man who would become known as the Italian Stallion. Let’s just say that Bob developed a keen eye for the landscape at WGBH.
Sarah Payne and I married in 1976. Bob was an usher in the wedding. We spent an awful lot of time together. She said it was always fun to try to figure out who was going to fill the fourth seat at the dinner table as Bob’s date.
She turned to him at one point and said, “Do you think you’ll ever settle down? I mean like get remarried?” And Ferrante, with that supreme confidence that we know said, “Oh, quite frankly…” — Bob was very frank in those days — “Quite frankly, I’m going to find a thoroughbred and I’m going to marry her.”
And he did. He found Pamela and as anybody who was at that wedding knows, yes, Pamela made our friend so happy he was giddy. It’s the happiest anyone has ever seen Bob Ferrante.
Ferrante, the intrepid leader, Ferrante, the Italian Stallion, what matters most to me is Bob Ferrante, the friend. There is no truer friend you could have. It’s as simple as that.
After I’d been here for 10 years, I said to him, “Whew, time to for me to get out of here.” He said, “Let me make a couple of phone calls for you,” and within a month I was down in New York working at ABC News with Peter Jennings.
Bob would do that for anybody in the newsroom. We were all pretty young. He said, “Look, you’re not necessarily going to spend your whole career here. If you need help, come to me. Let me help you move on.” That was really a very generous thing for a boss to do.
There are a million stories we could all tell about Bob Ferrante. I picked one that I’ll leave you with and I picked it because it’s just totally off the wall. This story is representative, idiosyncratic really, of the fact that any time any two people get together and Ferrante’s name comes up, one of them will inevitably say, “Ferrante … what a character.” It goes like this.
On any given weekday evening, 7:45, 8:00 at night, we’d wrap another broadcast of The Reporters. People are out the door, down the ramp of the loading dock out into the parking lot. Above the scenic department, there’s a balcony with a series of offices and the newsroom is up there. I have an office off the newsroom with Jay Feldman, and behind that is Bob’s office.
Ferrante’s in there. I’m in there. Feldman is in there, Lou Wiley, Ed Baumeister, Jeanne Irwin always, Judy Ryerson. And Ferrante is opening a couple of bottles of his favorite Valpolicella Bolla. The phone rings and the thought bubble over everybody’s head is the same. “It’s the end of a long day. Do we really have to answer the phone?” And the answer is, of course, you do. It’s a newsroom.
Well, it’s Bob’s office and he’s nearest the phone so he picks it up. And I saw him do this many times — always dead serious — and it was never a joke. In a very high-pitched voice, he warbles, “Hello, newsroom. Who may I say is calling, please?” Then, after an appropriate wait, in his baritone, he switches to all-business, “Yeah, hello. Ferrante .”
Seth started as a copy writer for anchorman Chris Lydon, and then began reporting and producing both for the Ten O’Clock News and for the National News that was broadcast out of Boston. After that, he began producing long-form documentaries after Bob had moved to NYC and DC, before his return for The World. He writes: “Of course we remained close friends throughout.”
That gravelly Boston baritone beckoned me into his office where I found: feet on desk, grey slacks with a razor crease, purple shirt with oversized collar open at the neck, the Italian stallion mane framing a handsome mug.
“So they want you to be the new guy. You have print experience?”
“Three years on a small weekly new paper.”
“What did you cuhvah? What was your beat?”
“Town politics, health care.”
“I don’t hiyah anyone who doesn’t have three yeeahs in print,” Ferrante growled. “People think television is glahmahrous, but it’s gee-yournalism. It’s not pahfahmance ahhht.” He said the words with full disparagement — “pahfahmance ahhht.” “But you, being a good small-town reporta is even hahdah than being a good big city reportah.”
“Nowhere to hide,” I agreed.
“Oongatz!” he exclaimed. “Leave me your resume.”
“Ahhh, I don’t have a resume with me.”
“Holy mother of Jesus, cocky bastard coming into a job interview without a resume?” (This was farthest from truth, I just didn’t know better.) “Bring it tomorrow.”
I had a job.
Winter gave way to a cold spring. I was sitting at my cubbyhole sorting wire service stories when a news bell rang, the UPI machine.
No big deal, single bell. Maybe the Red Sox pulled off a deal.
Then came a second UPI bell, and also AP. Then came a third bell, Reuters chiming too.
Then all three rang five bells, the highest possible news alert. Even when the Iranians overran the US embassy, it was four bells.
My job was to straddle the machines.
“Nuclear power plant,” I shouted. “Possible meltdown. A place called Three Mile Island.”
“Call the Casablanca,” yelled Tom the producer. At the restaurant in Harvard Square, Sari, the owner, would run an extension cord to a phone and plunk it at a table where Ferrante held court.
“What’s up?” growled the baritone.
“Five bells. A nuclear power plant, maybe a meltdown.”
“Muthah of Jesus,” muttered Ferrante. “Alright. Start by finding me a few nuclear physicists who can speak English, you understand? Call MIT, call Hahvahd, call the fuckin’ Union of Concerned Scientists, I don’t care, but credentials, no jahhgon. I’ll be there in 6 minutes.”
On arrival, Ferrante pulled everyone together.
“The nats will have more coverage, more tape, more everything. So when people turn to us tonight they’ll want to know they’re getting what matters, in context, not speculative harshshit. Depth, balance, solid information. Oongatz!”
“What’s with the ‘oongatz’?” I whispered to anchorman Chris Lydon.
“No idea,” he whispered back, “but I love it every time he says it.”
By 9:57 pm, there were four produced packages, animation of how a core is controlled, what a meltdown truly means, live guests with deep understanding of nuclear power and good sources on what might have happened.
In a darkened control room Janet the director had video cued, teleprompter ready to roll. Ferrante stood behind her, reporters and editors clustered beside him.
Everything played out. In the final minute, a phone in front of Ferrante lit up.
“Yeah.” He listened for a few seconds.
“The source.” A few more seconds.
He hung up, punched the button that made the mic in Chris’s ear live.
“Chris, nod if you hear me.”
Chris nodded slightly.
“Scrap your last short. The President of the United States used to serve on a nuclear submarine, right? Say it, and then that the President will go to Harrisburg tomorrow. But not yet confirmed. You have to say that.”
“Coming out of tape,” called Janet, “three, two, one, cue Chris.”
“Finally, President Jimmy Carter once served as commander on a US Navy nuclear submarine called Seawolf, so perhaps it’s not surprising that, while we do not have confirmation, there are reports he will come to Harrisburg tomorrow, presumably to reassure a concerned nation.”
“Good,” muttered Ferrante, “very good.”
To black, we were out. High fives all around. Then Tom’s phone lit up.
“We scooped the nats on the President,” he announced. “ABC is on the White House lawn confirming.”
High-fives again, though not by Ferrante.
“Does anyone think that long run, being one freakin’ minute ahead truly helps our vey-oowahs? OK, yeah, it’s a scoop, I love it too. But what really helps is that you did a helluva heads-up job, and you know why? Because you, all ah you, you’re good, you’re smahht, and you cayah.”
“You cayah! You care! Anyone want a glass of wine at the Casablanca, on me.”
“Oongatz!” I yelled, before I could catch myself.
“Hey,” cautioned Ferrante, “the only one gets to say that around heeyah is me.”
He went by many names Bob, Bobby, Ferrante, the cardinal, creative genius, the prince, Grampy, but to me, he was my Dad.
I know you all knew him for the amazing newsman that he was, but family was the closest to his heart. How many dads call their daughter every single day? Even when I was on my honeymoon in Europe, I needed to find a phone booth to call him. (And don’t get me started phone booths, or the the lack of them now.) Anytime I or the kids saw one, we would take a picture and text it to him. Yes, he was that cool: we could text him.
Food, food, where to begin about food? He loved it and had an enormous appetite for life. On Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s, my dad and I would fight over the last veal cutlet. We always ended up cutting it in half. The day I perfected his mother’s recipe was a great day. In fact, on my weekly visit, I’d be in big trouble if I didn’t bring any cutlets with me. Because he was a prince, he never learned to cook. (I stand corrected. He made a great banana soup. I have the recipe to prove it.)
At the Casablanca in the Square, on his table was a land line and a glass of wine at lunch. I am sure Charlie and Seth remember. After he went back to work, my friend Lori and I would sneak in and have a feast on his tab.
Eating and drinking and talking with friends was a great joy to him. He was a beloved regular at his favorite restaurant haunts. He used to say “I make the best dinnah guest.”
He really knew how to live life to the fullest every single day. When work was done, he left it at the door. We’d go to dinner and talk about anything else. We would crash weddings at the Charles Hotel on our way home, just to dance.
That was just a sample from when we lived in Cambridge. Nantucket, St Barths, with the old goats, and New York City were a whole other “work hard, play hard.”
Family was everything, from Sunday dinner to pre-school graduations. He was a regular at dance recitals, school plays, baseball, hockey, you name it he was there. He even took the T to Olivia’s and Carter’s dorm rooms on their first day of college, just to check it out.
He loved that Spencer’s middle name was his, and that Olivia was his birthday twin. On the day Carter was born he was bragged, “I was his first babysittah!” Little did he know he sounded off the alarm in the hospital for taking him for a stroll off the maternity floor.
When I was maybe 15, I had a giant crush on a guy. We were going to the movies and having pizza first. I told my dad, “I don’t want to eat in front of him.” He asked what place and what time and I told him.
Long story short, the pizza comes, and then the pizza owner came over to the boy and said, “You have a phone call.” That was my chance to have a slice of pizza. He came back so confused. I said, “Who was it?” He said, “I don’t know, he just kept talking to me” I don’t know how he found the number — was 411 even a thing in the 70s?
Needless to say, my dad was always my hero.
He had and amazing appetite for food and life. He was a cut to the chase kinda of guy — you know, “no haw-shit.” Every one here today was touched by his brilliance, kindness, charisma and giant heart.
I didn’t just lose my dad, I lost my best friend and partner in crime.
Keep partying dad, we all need to celebrate life because that’s how my dad lived his.
Ellen was Senior Managing Producer when she worked with Ferrante.
I’d like to talk about Bob’s time at NPR. Specifically, his adventures in Washington. I was Bob’s deputy for many many years. Some say I was his translator since he only spoke “Boston.”
You know what a great journalist and boss he was, so I won’t elaborate on that. He was also Washington’s leading bachelor. A constant presence at premier Washington events. There wasn’t a maitre d’ at a restaurant in Washington that didn’t know Mr. Ferrante. There were many women he escorted to these events.
And then there was his Washington condo. His daughter Donna was coming to visit with her new baby, Spencer. I was tasked with finding a babysitter and the suitable baby equipment for the apartment. My husband said, “We can give him that portable high chair that slides under a kitchen table.” I replied, “What makes you think he has a kitchen table?” I was right. And then he proceeded to pay the babysitter three times the rate babysitters get, and that did not endear him to the parents that usually used that sitter.
And then something happened to Bob. He was smitten. He comes into my office to say he met “someone” and she was in the hospital and he needed someone to talk to because he was very worried about her. I did my best to comfort him.
Not long after that, the “friend” had a name. Then he told me he was taking a job in Boston. A few weeks later we meet up in Washington and he was like a nervous schoolboy telling me that he was possibly going to be moving in with that “someone” and he wanted me to know. I should have known something was up when I was at his apartment and opened the refrigerator and there was almond milk, but no vodka.
Pamela was his muse. I’d never seen Bob so taken with a woman as he was with Pamela.
We stayed in touch over the years. We traveled together, we visited. He just lit up when Pamela walked into the room. As he got sicker and sicker — and God knows he had nine lives — he would always talk about Pamela and how she took such good care of him. And how he couldn’t live without her. Quite a switch from the beginning when she was the one fighting cancer.
Theirs was a truly a love story. I’ve been so blessed to watch it grow and grow through the years. We miss him terribly.
“Mutha of Jesus!”
Marita Rivero was Vice President and General Manager for Radio and Television.
In this moment of attention to equitable workplaces, I thought I’d open another side of what I knew about Ferrante.
Bob wasn’t afraid of difference. Instead of thinking of difference as something that could be off-putting, he thought of it as something that could contribute to good decision-making. I was fortunate to be able to see him hired on here as Executive Producer of The World, which itself is all about difference.
Looking back to the fall of 1970, WGBH was dealing with racial tension — outside the station and inside the station as well because TV’s Say Brother had been summarily taken off the air. (They broadcast the forbidden F word while covering a rebellion of Black people in New Bedford). The cancellation itself set off long and contentious public criticism and controversy.
Bob arrived during this period to head Channel 2’s daily program The Reporters. Hopes for his presence were high. Everyone was watching him and the new executive team.
I loved it that one of Bob’s first public acts was to put a second Black woman on his staff. Limited to her traffic department job, she found herself an internal poster child when told kindly the station wasn’t ready for Blacks in production outside the Black show.
Bob focused on her resume and on the work, she said. If you could do the work, Bob didn’t care who you were: gender, color, race, religion. She felt him as someone who would take the time to help employees learn and build confidence. (Since that launch, she has had an amazing career.)
Later, in the 1970s, he headed a smart overnight show on CBS hosted by a young Charlie Rose who talked about the news, a rare event for overnight commercial television at the time. (I had a baby and was keeping odd hours.)
I enjoyed Bob’s work more directly when he took over NPR’s Morning Edition. It was thrilling to see little Morning Edition grow and eventually outdistance All Things Considered’s reach.
Then came the opportunity to produce PRI’s The World. Following a good launch, our first executive producer was leaving. Like my counterparts I was anxiously looking at who was available.
What turned the trick was a conversation with the national television programming head, Peter McGhee.
“Well, you know Bob Ferrante has never given up his place in Cambridge,” McGhee said. “Kept it wherever else he’s lived.”
“No kidding,” I said.
“Also I understand he has been courting a Boston woman. It’s possible he could be interested in a coming back.”
I was on the phone to him that afternoon.
Our partner, the BBC, was responsible for hiring the executive producer for The World then. Jerry Timmins who is here today made the hire. He, Bob, and I were in sync about many key things, which made the working relationship with PRI a productive one.
As example, we had people in war zones in Iraq. Bob worried about their safety. All agreed The World was to pay attention to the key story and tell it well. We didn’t have to break news or drive journalists to put themselves in harm’s way. We also worked together to bring journalists of color forward from the BBC’s many language strands.
It is a pleasure today to celebrate Bob and his tremendous contributions to media.
Let me end with one of Bob’s charges to us as we considered ideas to pursue with limited funds. It holds over time and certainly in our moment of media self-correction regarding what building a truly solid foundation requires. Said slowly and with liberal use of hand gestures:
“First, you have to PUT UP the tree.”
“THEN you hang the ornaments!” (The Ahn-ah-ments!)
[Brian was Managing Editor of The World during the years he worked with Ferrante.
The first time I met Bob Ferrante, I have to say, was a rather strange experience.
I was Managing Editor of The World in Boston. We heard that a legend from Morning Edition was coming to take over as executive producer. I was back at the BBC in London temporarily when I met him.
Bob came into my office and we exchanged pleasantries, and then the conversation seemed to grind to a halt. It was only much later that I worked out that he thought I was interviewing him for his job and I thought he was interviewing me for my job. So we were both waiting for the other to ask questions.
After that somewhat inauspicious start, we hit it off back in Boston immediately, both professionally and socially, to the extent that he said, “You’re the nice cop and I’m the nasty cop.” Well, you never wanted to meet a nicer nasty cop.
He had this knack of immediately spotting not only a person’s strength but also their potential. Whenever a new person came onto the team, he know how to develop them and build the team around them. He could see a person’s worth and value.
To that end he appointed me his interpreter. I asked, “What, a Brit, translating an American to Americans? A Brit who’s Welsh to boot? Why?” He said, “You’ll see, you’ll see.”
I found out at the next meeting of the partners. The program was still finding its feet and they all had a view on how to develop it. “We need to go this direction,” said PRI. “We need to do is this way,” said Marita. Then, it came round to Bob, and he said, “It’s all a load of haw-shit.” They all looked at me, so I said, “No, we’re not going to be doing any of that.”
We kept in touch and hooked up with Bob and Pamela in Tuscany, with the Baumeisters in Paris, and many times in London. He used to stay at the Montague Hotel in Bloomsbury near the BBC. Of course everyone knew him by name: the doorman, receptionists, servers, and the maitre d’. We used to joke that he stayed in the “Ferrante Memorial Suite.”
One day, he and Pamela came to dinner at our flat. After the meal my wife, Julia, said, “Shall we go next door” — she meant “our living room” — “for coffee?”
“Why?” said Ferrante. “We’ve never even met ‘em.”
He told me about the time he was at NPR and flew to a city in the U.S. for a conference or news story. They’d ordered him a huge car from the airport, a tank as he described it, not Bob’s style at all. “It was like driving a friggin’ living room!” he said. (He might not have used the word friggin’). That image will stay with me forever.
Of course, I used to dine out telling his sayings and stories to friends and family. Still do. One of my nephews, when he was fifteen or sixteen, declared it was his ambition to meet “this Ferrante.” Alas, he never did. But we all did. We knew him, we worked with him, we loved him.
After I left and came back to London, we kept up our correspondence by email. Once, he asked me how you would sign off in Welsh to a dear old friend. There’s a word that the Welsh like to think has no equivalent in English: “hwyl.” It can mean cheers, and in friendship, warmth. It can also mean goodbye. Forever after, he always signed off: “Hwyl, Ferrante.”
So, Bob – hwyl!
I’d like to thank everyone who came today, from California, from London, from Washington, from New York. It’s a real sign of how Bob, over his long life and career, collected colleagues and friends all along the way, and stayed in touch.
I’d like to raise a glass to Bob. He was a really special person. We all miss him terribly. There’s an awful lot to savor and celebrate. Thank you all.
Listen to Carol’s tribute to Ferrante at The World
Special thanks to: Donna Ferrante-Nuttall, Jon Abbott, GBH Archives, Sally Jackson, Hannah Eckert, Ed Baumeister, and Charlie Stewart.