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Robert Ferrante, innovative news producer at WGBH, NPR, and ‘The World,’ dies at 87

Late in his career, Mr. Ferrante was executive producer of WGBH's "The World."Stephen Snyder/WGBH/Handout

Globe Staff and Wire Services

Forty years ago, as the news business bustled toward becoming a 24/7 operation, Robert Ferrante prepared to trade his executive producer duties at WGBH-TV for the same title at CBS News, as the network launched its “Nightwatch” overnight program.

“I’ve been given a free hand again and I’m going to throw out any old ideas about news,” he told the Globe in April 1982.

Van Gordon Sauter, who was then the head of CBS News, “told me when he gave me the job, ‘Let’s not live with something in the past,’ " Mr. Ferrante said, “and I agree.”

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In a decades-long career fostering innovative approaches to broadcast news programs, Mr. Ferrante also 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.

Mr. Ferrante was 87 when he died Sept. 15 in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, according to information his family provided. His daughter, Donna Ferrante-Nuttall of Taunton, told The Washington Post that the cause was complications from a stroke.

Beginning with an internship in the late-1950s at what was then WNAC-TV (Channel 7), he went on to report live from Dallas in 1963, when nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the gunman the Warren Commission concluded had acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

During his career, Mr. Ferrante also directed TV coverage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, helped create innovative public affairs programs at WGBH, and ended his career back in Boston as executive producer of the radio program “The World.”

After joining CBS as executive producer of “Nightwatch,” Mr. Ferrante moved on to revamping the “CBS Morning News.”

In 1989, he joined NPR at a time when “Morning Edition” labored largely in the shadow of the afternoon news program, “All Things Considered.” Mr. Ferrante was credited with transforming it over the next nine years into the most popular morning newsmagazine in public and commercial broadcasting.

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He 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. With his commercial broadcast news background, Mr. Ferrante brought a new sensibility, cultivating a blend of hard news and creative features.

“He was an all-around smart news executive,” NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg told the Post. “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.

“It’s hard for listeners to understand where we were then,” Adam Clayton Powell III, a former vice president of news at NPR who hired Mr. Ferrante, told the Post. “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.”

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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 abruptly changed Glass’s career.

“He let me get my little radio experiments on their feet and in front of millions of people,” Glass told the Post. “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 has since been honored with a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Peabody Awards.

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.

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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, the 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, but he also had a common touch that attracted American listeners who didn’t have the international news exposure that a BBC audience had,” Lisa Mullins, who anchored “The World” during Mr. Ferrante’s tenure, told the Post. “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 grew up in Arlington. His father was a bank clerk, and his mother owned and operated a beauty salon. He graduated in 1957 from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and then joined WNAC-TV.

After TV news director gigs in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Mr. Ferrante returned to Boston and WGBH-TV, where he helped create the station’s “Ten O’Clock News,” a news program that was awarded the top New England Emmy during his tenure.

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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 from his first marriage, Donna Ferrante-Nuttall, Mr. Ferrante leaves two stepchildren, Tyler Post of Hingham and Whitney Otto of Cambridge; and eight grandchildren.

Along with his many broadcast media accomplishments, Mr. Ferrante had a sense of what was ahead for the industry at a time of rapid change.

“I think we are on the threshold of Television Two, the second big phase of the communications revolution. Everything is changing, and in the blink of an eye,” he told the Globe in 1982.

“TV will carry so much more than just entertainment and news that it boggles the mind,” he said. “There is no stopping television.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.