Barry Farber, Perennial Radio Talk Show Host, Dies at 90
Barry Farber, Perennial Radio Talk Show Host, Dies at 90
Barry Farber, a popular talk radio host whose winsome Southern burr, insatiable curiosity and barbed wit sustained a nearly continuous six-decade career in broadcasting, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Celia Farber. He had moved to a new apartment last month from the West Side landmark the Apthorp, where he had lived for 56 years.
Mr. Farber inaugurated his first solo radio program in 1960 after arriving in New York from North Carolina with journalistic ambitions and remarkable multilingual talents. He went on to interview guests longer than any other living, continually broadcasting radio host, according to Todd Nebel, a radio archivist for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Mr. Farber’s only major contemporary competitor for longevity on the air, according to the National Radio Hall of Fame, was Art Laboe, a disc jockey who started broadcasting in the 1940s and, at 94, still has a weekly radio program in the Southwest.
Mr. Farber spoke into a live microphone for the last time on Tuesday, from home, during an on-air 90th-birthday tribute by his family on his CRN digital talk radio program, which had been broadcasting reruns while he was ailing.
Over the decades Mr. Farber interviewed celebrities, political figures and flying saucer buffs. He staged debates between adversaries on issues ranging from the rights of Palestinians to abortion. And he welcomed skeptics like Mark Lane, the lawyer who challenged official accounts of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
He contrasted his style with that of many latter-day radio hosts, whose talk shows, he said, “are just extensions of the ego of the host.” He said his only goal was to stimulate revealing conversation.
His Southern gentlemanly demeanor on the air stood in contrast as well to the bellicosity he later demonstrated when Mr. Farber, a fervent anti-Communist, twice campaigned for office.
Running for Congress in 1970 as a Republican with Liberal Party endorsement (despite the label, he explained at the time, the party’s leaders were “among the best anti-Communists”), he held the Democratic candidate, Bella Abzug, to 52 percent in a solidly Democratic district.
In 1977, he ran for mayor of New York, writing in The New York Times that the city had “declined in some sort of hideous direct proportion to the amount of money wasted on liberal illusions.”
“Let’s take our town back from terror, trash, taxation,” he declared.
Mr. Farber lost the Republican mayoral primary to State Sen. Roy M. Goodman of Manhattan. But running as the Conservative Party candidate that November, he trailed Mr. Goodman by barely 1,200 votes. (The Democrat Edward I. Koch won the mayoralty convincingly.)
The two campaigns were the only major diversions from Mr. Farber’s radio career, except for brief stints as a television interviewer and as a restaurateur. (His Times Square barbecue joint flopped, in part, because the ribs were anomalously served on toasted bagels).
Mr. Farber’s first talk show, “Barry Farber’s Open Mike,” aired on WINS in New York when he was 30. He was later heard on WMCA and WOR in New York and on the ABC Radio Network in various time slots over the years, including after midnight. At one point his program — live, taped and repeated — occupied 25 percent of the weekly airtime of WOR, a channel heard well beyond the metropolitan area.
Since 2008, he had been broadcasting on CRN Digital Talk Radio and Talk Radio Network from his Upper West Side apartment and contributing weekly to the World Net Daily website. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2014.
In his 2012 memoir, “Cocktails With Molotov: An Odyssey of Unlikely Detours,” he described achieving his biggest journalistic coup during a pre-dawn program in the 1970s, when two “pro-Stalinist professors” insisted that Josef Stalin had never threatened an invasion of Yugoslavia.
“Oh, yes, he did,” volunteered another guest on the program, a former Hungarian general, “because I was supposed to lead it!”
Recalling the provocative guests who peppered his post-midnight program, Mr. Farber wrote: “I was told I kept more people up nights than Mexican food.”
Barry Morton Farber, a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, was born on May 5, 1930, in Baltimore to Raymond and Sophie (Marcus) Farber. His father traveled the South representing the Jay-Ray Sportswear line, which he manufactured with his brother-in-law. His mother helped with the business from home.
The family moved to a racially segregated Greensboro, N.C., when Barry was 5. “My parents were politically on the left,” he wrote. “I’m on the right. But we agreed totally that racial injustice had to end.”
He became an enthusiastic linguist when he was about 14, learning Mandarin Chinese in school and, on his own, Italian, Spanish and French before the 10th grade. In high school he took French and Spanish classes and, again on his own, learned Norwegian. He eventually “adventured,” as he put it, into more than 20 foreign languages, including Finnish and Korean.
He studied journalism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. While there, he attended what was billed as a peace conference organized by Marshal Tito, the Yugoslavian Communist dictator, as a delegate to the National Student Association, an American organization that was later revealed to have been supported by the C.I.A.
In 1952, Mr. Farber volunteered for the draft, as he put it, and was assigned to the National Security Agency as a Russian translator.
He had arrived in New York in 1957 looking for work in journalism when by chance he struck up a conversation with William Safire — the future presidential speechwriter, author and New York Times columnist — at the scene of a bus crash in Midtown Manhattan. At the time, Mr. Safire was working for a radio show in town hosted by the husband-wife team of Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg.
If Mr. Farber lacked experience in broadcasting, he was brimming with self-confidence. Here was a former campus newspaper editor, college wrestling champ and Army translator who had done some world traveling and, perhaps most impressively, could speak nearly two dozen languages.
“Do you speak Korean too?” a dazzled Mr. Safire asked him.
“Sorry,” Mr. Farber replied. “I was absent the day we had Korean.”
Mr. Safire hired him, introducing him to radio as a producer for the Tex and Jinx show, as it was called, broadcast from Peacock Alley at the Waldorf Astoria on WRCA.
Mr. Farber’s big break as a booker for came when he lured a reluctant Bob Hope onto the show one January by claiming that Hope would be doing him a giant favor because it was Mr. Farber’s birthday. His first on-air interview, filling in for Tex McCrary, was with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1959.
Mr. Farber went on to broadcast his own show for a while from Mama Leone’s restaurant in Midtown. He published an earlier memoir, “Making People Talk: You Can Turn Every Conversation into a Magic Moment,” in 1987.
His first marriage, to Ulla Fahre in 1960, ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Celia, a journalist, he is survived another daughter, Bibi Farber, a singer and songwriter — both from his first marriage; his wife, Sara Pentz, a journalist who hosted the CRN show with him; a brother, Jerry, a comedian and musician; and a grandson.
Mr. Farber was not always a winning host. Among those who walked off his show was the actress Shelley Winters, who left after he asked her if she had personally vetted some of the left-wing groups he said she supported. Another who stormed off was the conservative author Ayn Rand.
“Ayn Rand walked out on me because I opened the interview by saying, ‘Ms. Rand, let’s pretend I’m a student of your philosophy of Objectivism and you be the teacher and give me a grade when I describe Objectivism,’” Mr. Farber recalled in an email in 2018. “‘No,’ snapped Rand. ‘Nobody else describes Objectivism when I am around.’ And away she went!”
But like any deft interviewer, he was never at a loss for questions that might evoke an unforgettable rejoinder. As he told The Times in 1963: “I was once interviewing Alfred Hitchcock and I asked him to figure out a way in which a radio interviewer might murder a famous film director of mysteries with only the two of them in a studio. Hitchcock looked about the studio and said, meaningfully, ‘He might be bored to death.’”