In a journalistic career that spanned more than five decades, Ferrante reported live from Dallas when nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed suspected presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963; he directed television coverage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and helped create groundbreaking public affairs programs in the 1970s for Boston’s public television station, WGBH.
He rose to even greater media prominence in the 1980s, revamping the ratings hit “CBS Morning News” and creating the network’s late-night news show “Nightwatch.” When he jumped to NPR in 1989, he was tasked with performing the same magic.
“Morning Edition” had worked in the shadow of the network’s evening news show, “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, Ferrante made the aggressive pursuit of the news part of a show 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 Ferrante’s second-in-command and succeeded him as executive producer when he left.
Listeners were supposed to get the hard news elsewhere and later turn to NPR for extensive analysis. The network was widely perceived as suffocating and decadent. Mr. Ferrante, with his background in commercial broadcast news, brought a new sensibility, cultivating a combination of hard news and creative features. Amongst his staff, he was known for his booming Bostonian accent and his ability to connect effectively with the show’s reporters.
“He was a very smart news executive,” said legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. “I hold him accountable for making ‘Morning Edition’ successful and becoming the show that it ultimately remains today.”
The show, hosted by Bob Edwards, had producers come and go as it struggled to gain a foothold. The newsroom was chaotic and morale was low.
“It’s hard for listeners to understand where we were back then,” said Adam Clayton Powell III, a former vice president of news for NPR, who hired Ferrante. “When Bob came along, it was considered an auxiliary news service, something you would go to if you already knew what had happened. We did shows, but obviously we didn’t have the resources that the major networks had.”
Under Mr. Ferrante, viewership for the “Morning Edition” increased by 25 percent and financial support from corporate subscription skyrocketed. Increased airtime for emerging reporters like Totenberg, Cokie Roberts, and Linda Wertheimer.
It was also open to new feature segments. In 1992, Ferrante was approached by Ira Glass, then a relatively unknown independent producer, who had seen David Sedaris, a struggling professional house cleaner and writer, perform at a Chicago club. Glass suggested airing offbeat comments from Sedaris, which Ferrante enthusiastically approved.
Sedaris’ quirky version of his experiences as Crumpet, the department store Christmas elf, in an ad 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 brought about an abrupt change in Glass’s career. “He allowed me to put my little radio experiments on my feet and in front of millions of people,” Glass said. “In fact, he encouraged me to do more. He called them ‘adornments’, which he pronounced ‘ahnaments’, and he told me more than once: ‘Ira, I have great news coverage. But I need more than that. I need clues! Give me more of those hunches! ”
The trappings formed the basis for “This American Life,” a weekly story-based show that Glass created in 1995. The show won 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 television stalwarts, NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” each had fewer than 5 million viewers. the Christian Science Monitor reported, citing data from Arbitron and Nielsen Media.
Mr. Ferrante had left NPR a year earlier to become an executive producer in Boston for the fledgling global news program “The World,” produced by Public Radio International, the British BBC and Boston public radio affiliate WGBH.
When it arrived, “El Mundo” was broadcast by 70 stations nationwide. When it was pulled in 2010, the show was airing on 300 stations with a daily audience of 3.2 million listeners.
“He brought the highest journalistic standards,” said Lisa Mullins, host of “The World” during Ferrante’s tenure, “but he also had a common touch that appealed to American listeners who didn’t have the international exposure to news that a audience the BBC had. It left us to lose and take more chances. It urged us to put a conversational spin on a kind of news that could be remote, dark and difficult.”
Robert Edward Ferrante was born in Boston on October 1. 6, 1934, and 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 in a crowd of reporters in the nearby newsroom when, two days after the murder, Ruby swooped in and fatally shot Oswald in front of a stunned nation watching live on television. Mr. Ferrante immediately went on air to report on the chaotic scene.
After subsequent 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 his 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, Ferrante earned a reputation for running an unassuming collegiate news operation, where his raucous laugh was a sign of final approval. According to Mullins, after a successful show, the news crew welcomed his trademark Boston-inflected statement: “That’s a KEEPAH!”